1. Opinion

Editorial: Public safety sacrificed on altar of NRA

It's been a banner session in Tallahassee for gun zealots and the National Rifle Association and a terrible one for common sense and public safety. In the past weeks, the Senate passed a bill allowing gun owners to carry their weapons in public during a declared state of emergency. It also moved closer to allowing guns on college campuses. The House, meanwhile, killed a bill that would have barred backyard shooting ranges. With the state and the Tampa Bay area awash in gun violence, it was a stunning display of this Legislature's blatant disregard for public safety.

None of these decisions make any practical sense, and their only result will be to stoke more violence. Senate Bill 290, which allows gun owners to carry a weapon during a riot, hurricane or other declared state or local emergency, will have the effect of putting more weapons into the hands of nervous people at the very time they are reeling from a crisis. Florida law already allows gun owners to transport their weapons in vehicles even if they don't possess a state-issued concealed weapons permit; this bill is not about helping people who don't want to leave a weapon behind but about allowing them to pack heat on the streets in the most volatile situations. Do hurricane shelters really need a higher level of anxiety?

The Senate Higher Education Committee pushed aside the vehement opposition by college presidents, campus police chiefs and students and passed SB 176, the campus gun bill — ignoring the concerns of the very people the measure is alleged to protect. It was a contrived performance made more ridiculous only by the outlandish claims by NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer that the state's college campuses are little more than hunting grounds for "murderers and rapists."

Given the chance to correct a real safety threat that already exists, a House committee chose instead to vote down a proposal outlawing backyard gun ranges in residential neighborhoods. Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, filed HB 623 in response to a St. Petersburg man who angered neighbors with his plan to build a backyard gun range. It also followed a January incident in Hillsborough County where a group peppered a residence after firing AK-47 and AR-15 rifles and handguns from behind a nearby home.

This Legislature continues to put the NRA and weapons before sanity and public safety, without any bounds for what constitutes responsible gun ownership. And lawmakers are all too content to dispense with the views of law enforcement when police raise valid concerns about balancing gun rights with law and order. The answer to more violence and disaster is not more guns, and gun rights are not absolute. This Legislature needs to recognize what a torrent of guns is doing to society, to the neighborhoods and to the state's image, and start putting the interests of everyday Floridians ahead of politics and the gun lobby.