Florida reacted to school shootings. The US can, too. | Editorial
Republicans didn’t always turns guns into a partisan issue.
A visitor writes on the sidewalk next to a memorial as he and others pay their respects Tuesday to the victims killed in last week's elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
A visitor writes on the sidewalk next to a memorial as he and others pay their respects Tuesday to the victims killed in last week's elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) [ ERIC GAY | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published June 1, 2022

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators met Tuesday on Zoom to continue exploring a compromise on gun safety legislation, just as more families in Uvalde, Texas, held funerals for some of 19 children and two teachers slaughtered there at an elementary school last week. We’re not naive enough to think that Congress will finally break from the gun lobby and embrace landmark reforms, like banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But even more modest steps can help, as Florida showed in the aftermath of its own tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland four years ago.

Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty in October to murdering 17 and wounding 17 others at Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. While a jury is being selected to decide whether Cruz, now 23, is sentenced to death or life in prison, Florida lawmakers didn’t wait to adopt wide-ranging reforms that Republicans supported and that then-Gov. Rick Scott signed into law.

The legislation banned weapons sales to those younger than 21, imposed a three-day waiting period on most long-gun purchases and created a “red flag” law allowing authorities to temporarily confiscate weapons from people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. Lawmakers dedicated $400 million for mental health and school security programs, and set aside $97.5 million in recurring funding for more school resource officers.

The bill mandated more frequent active shooter drills, and school districts hardened their campuses to improve security. Another controversial provision allowed some school professionals to volunteer as armed campus “guardians.” Signed into law only weeks after the Parkland shooting, the legislation shows what can be accomplished when lawmakers on both sides focus on solutions instead of scoring political points.

“Red flag” laws are critical tools for buying time for those in a crisis. Florida is among 18 states that have risk protection orders, and states like Florida and California — which have used them thousands of times — have treated them as essential methods for protecting public safety. In Hillsborough County, law enforcement agencies have asked to seize people’s guns more than 900 times since the law went into effect, according to records from the Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court. In the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit, cops have sought risk protection orders more than 450 times since the fall of 2020. The law could be improved by giving regular citizens the power to bring forward petitions. Family members and friends, after all, are often the first to spot a loved one in trouble. But this is a simple strategy to apply nationwide.

Aside from incentivizing states to adopt red flag laws, the bipartisan senate group is examining ways to expand background checks for firearms sales. Those checks should be expanded to include firearms bought through private and online transactions. States should also toughen penalties against owners who leave their firearms unsecured in unlocked vehicles, a key pipeline for gun theft and violence across America.

In addition, states need to expand ready access to mental health counseling. Last month, major health care providers in the Tampa Bay area, including BayCare and Tampa General Hospital, announced a new partnership to help stabilize individuals suffering an immediate mental health crisis. The program includes telecounseling for those who face long waits for help from local crisis care providers. Again, timing is key. And states and the federal government can build on what works instead of holding out for the impossible.

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Americans are rightly frustrated with Congress over gun safety laws, but resignation is not a strategy. Majorities in both parties favor expanded background checks and preventing those with mental illnesses from purchasing guns. Congress and the states need to strike where common ground exists. That’s the first step in keeping more schools and groceries from becoming killing fields.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.