Democrats – and a few Republicans- are talking about gun control on the campaign trail this year

Protest against gun violence at Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa in February
Protest against gun violence at Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa in February 2018

With the possible exception of Texas, no state has a reputation for being more pro-gun than Florida. But after the shocking February school shooting which killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland,  state lawmakers felt compelled to address the issue. Florida saw change when it comes to guns: the Legislature passed some limits on weapon sales and ownership – the first in twenty years.

On the campaign trail, both Republican and Democratic candidates are talking about gun control in a way they haven’t for many years.

In the current governor’s race,  Democrat Andrew Gillum is running on one of the toughest gun-control platforms seen from a major Florida candidate in generations. The Tallahassee mayor is calling for a ban on assault-style weapons, strengthening and requiring universal background checks for all gun sales and a host of other measures.

In the race for Florida Attorney General, Democrat Sean Shaw pledges to spend his first day in office creating a task force to explore ways cut statewide gun violence.

The public sentiment seems to support these efforts. A poll taken by Florida Atlantic University immediately after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy showed that 69 percent of those polled supported a ban on assault weapons and 23 percent opposed it. Fast forward to a  similar study – this one published last month. It  found support for an assault weapon ban had whittled down to 51 percent for a ban, with 30 percent opposed.

That drop in support doesn’t surprise Kevin Wagner, a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University, who says that it’s difficult for one issue to remain at the center of the political discourse over an extended period of time.

“While I do think the polling continues to show that gun safety measures are widely supported in Florida, it is not surprising that the focus on this issue has declined some as we move further away from the tragic events in Parkland,” he says. “It is human nature to be thinking more about issues that are more prominent in the news.”

The bill that the state Legislature passed in the immediate aftermath of Parkland was supported by an unusual coalition of Republicans and Democrats.

It banned bump stocks – devices which make a regular guns shoot much faster, raised the age for someone to purchase a gun from 18 to 21, and imposed a three-day waiting period for anyone who wants to buy rifles and other long guns. The legislation also allows law-enforcement officials to seek court orders to seize guns from people who show that they could be a danger to themselves or others. A controversial provision allows school districts to deploy armed school personnel called “guardians” on school campuses.

Miramar resident Cindy Polo was a stay-at-home mom who says the Parkland shooting was the spark that got her “off the couch” and up to Tallahassee to testify before the Legislature when lawmakers debated the school safety bill.

Shortly afterwards, Polo was recruited to run for a North Miami-South Broward seat in the state Legislature (one long held by Republicans,) and she’s calling for more gun reforms as part of her platform. She says the Legislature’s school safety bill was “the bare minimum,” and believes that the state needs to go a lot further in passing gun regulations.

In several races for the Legislature around Florida, something unusual is happening: Republicans are attacking incumbent Democrats who voted against the Legislature’s gun bill. The Democrats invariably say that the Republican-backed school safety bill was too weak, given the dire consequences of the state’s gun violence.

In Tampa, Republican incumbent (and strong NRA supporter) state Sen. Dana Young is being challenged by Democrat state Rep. Janet Cruz.

At their debate last month, Republican Young called the Florida gun bill “one of the most important pieces of legislation that the Legislature has passed in the past probably 10-15 years, and I want to tell you that I was an absolute, staunch supporter of that bill. My opponent was not. She voted no. I don’t know why she would vote no.”

Democrat Cruz countered that the bill didn’t go far enough – she and her colleagues wanted Florida to ban assault weapons.

In a Florida House race in Southwest Miami-Dade County, Democrat Florida Rep. Robert Asencio is a former police officer who led the Democratic caucus’s opposition to the Legislature’s school safety bill for a variety of reasons last year. Now, he’s in a heated race for reelection and his Republican challenger, Anthony Rodriguez, is criticizing him on the campaign trail for opposing the gun bill.

In Orlando, Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith also opposed the bill, in part because he says many of the constituents he spoke with were concerned by the notion of arming teachers. (The final law allows some trained school personnel to be armed, but not full-time classroom teachers.)

The Legislature ultimately included $67 million in the budget for armed guards at schools. According to the Dept. of Education, however, only 25 school districts have opted into the program, so Governor Rick Scott has called for redistributing the majority of those funds (approximately $58 million) to other school security costs.

Guillermo Smith says that if he wins in November, he will introduce a bill in next year’s session to ban assault weapons. There’s also an organized campaign led by two separate groups to put a proposed Florida Constitutional Amendment to ban assault weapons on the 2020 ballot. In the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, 49 people lost their lives to a gunman who used a rapid-fire assault weapon.

Last month,  Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the gun-control group funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a Democrat), made a $200,000 contribution to a political action committee chaired by incoming Florida Senate President Bill Galvano (a Republican). Galvano helped craft the gun bill in the Republican-led Legislature.

“Senator Galvano demonstrated bipartisan leadership after the mass shooting in Parkland. We are proud to support him and those in his party who followed his lead.” Everytown spokesperson Phoebe Kilgour told the Phoenix last week (the Miami Herald reported Monday that Everytown plans to spend at least $2 million over the next month helping the Democratic candidates running for cabinet positions in Florida).

House Democratic candidate Polo, the mom who is making her first run for public office, says the NRA did get what it wanted with the school safety bill – more guns in the classrooms.

Bill Bunting, who serves as the Second Amendment chair of the Florida Republican Party, doesn’t disagree. He says the bill has stopped schools from being designated as “gun-free zones.”

“These kids are cowards,” he says, referring to the young men who have committed violence in schools. “They want to get in the history books, but if they think they’re going to get killed, they’ll back off. So now that they know more and more schools are going to be armed, that’s it.”

Florida House Rep. Javier Fernandez, a Democrat running for reelection in Miami-Dade, criticizes the GOP-led Legislature for not allowing local communities to enact their own laws to regulate guns, and says one of the practices that has shocked him is how pervasive it is across the state to allow youth fairgrounds to host gun shows.

Whatever happens in November, Florida will remain “The Gunshine State” – more than 1.9 million people have permits to carry concealed weapons here, nearly 10 percent of the population.




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