WASHINGTON — When Congress passed landmark gun violence prevention legislation known as the Brady Bill back in 1993, eight Florida Republicans were among the 54 GOP lawmakers in the U.S. House who voted to send the bill to President Bill Clinton’s desk.
They were: ex-Reps. Tillie Fowler, Cliff Stearns, Michael Bilirakis, Bill Young, Porter Goss, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Clay Shaw. Two Florida Democrats voted against it: ex-Reps. Pete Peterson and Karen Thurman.
Gun control politics have shifted dramatically in Florida and across the country over the past 26 years. Democratic lawmakers have become increasingly willing to support tougher federal gun control laws, while congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked efforts to restrict access to firearms after recent mass shootings.
“The tribalism has just gotten more and more deeply ingrained across the board and I think the [National Rifle Association] has been brilliant in solidifying their base and intimidating them,” said Patrick Griffin, who worked on the Brady Bill as the White House congressional liaison during Clinton’s first term.
In February of this year, when the U.S. House approved an even tougher background check bill for firearm sales, only three of Florida’s 14 House GOP lawmakers — Reps. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota, Brian Mast of the Treasure Coast area and Mario Diaz-Balart of South Florida— voted for the bill.
The bill, H.R. 8, would require federal background checks on all gun purchases, including private transactions. That’s an expansion of current law, which only requires background checks when federally licensed gun dealers sell firearms. About one in five U.S. gun sales take place without any background check, according to the advocacy group Brady Campaign.
‘More than our sympathy’
Florida lawmakers are poised to take center stage in the next round of the gun control debate that’s expected to dominate Capitol Hill next week when the U.S. Congress returns from its month-long recess.
Many constituents implored Congress to do something to reign in gun violence after the June 2016 mass shooting that killed 49 and injured 53 at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, and again after the Feb. 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland, which killed 17 and wounded 17.
And once again, mass shootings are putting pressure on Congress to act. House and Senate leaders vowed to make gun violence a top priority following the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton in early August. Calls for reform continued following another mass shooting in West Texas on Saturday.
“My heart breaks for the victims and their families for such senseless violence,” South Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch wrote on Twitter the day after the West Texas shooting.
“But we have to be able to offer these grieving Americans more than our sympathy,” he said. “What more must happen for [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)] to consider commonsense measures to make Americans safer from gun violence?”
Deutch is one of five Floridians who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, which is slated to vote on several gun control measures when Congress reconvenes next week. The other Florida members are Democratic Reps. Val Demings of Orlando and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of South Florida, along with Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz, who represents the Pensacola area, and Greg Steube from Southwest Florida.
The committee will consider a bill authored by Deutch that would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines.
His bill has the support of 136 co-sponsors, including every Florida Democrat except Orlando-area Rep. Stephanie Murphy, whose spokesman said he has asked to join as a cosponsor.
The Judiciary panel is also expected to soon vote on “red flag” legislation to allow courts to seize firearms from people deemed threats to themselves or others; a bill to prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from possessing firearms; and a ban on assault weapons.
“We are not powerless against gun violence,” Rep. Val Demings said in a statement. “When I return, gun violence will be one of the first items on the agenda. It’s not too late for my Republican colleagues to do the right thing, or for Senator McConnell to allow a vote” on House-passed background check legislation.
While major gun control reforms will likely clear the committee and could pass the Democratic-controlled House largely along party lines, they face a much steeper climb in the GOP-controlled Senate.
There, Republican senators have suggested they aren’t willing to support the types of sweeping changes Democrats and gun safety advocates argue are necessary to curb gun violence.
Florida’s Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have said they’re willing to support “red flag” laws, but have indicated that they aren’t likely to support universal background check legislation.
Scott said Sunday that he’ll review the various proposals being floated, but he stressed that he’s focused on red flag laws. As governor, Scott helped Florida pass a red flag law last year after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Rubio has authored his own legislation that would use federal funds to incentivize states red flag laws.
“It’s the best route forward because it can pass, the president will sign it, and it can actually stop the next attack,” Rubio told the Phoenix in a statement. “If you look at all the studies that have been done, you see that invariably, with perhaps the exception of Las Vegas, they all exhibited signs and warnings to people around them that they could do something.”
Rubio voted against bipartisan Senate legislation in 2013 that aimed to expand background checks. He also voted against an assault weapons ban in 2013. Both of those measures failed to pass the Senate.
At least one Florida Republican has said he’d support an assault weapons ban: U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, who served as a bomb technician in the U.S. Army before running for Congress. Mast also voted for the universal background check bill that passed the House.
“The Second Amendment is unimpeachable. It guarantees the right of citizens to defend themselves,” Mast wrote last year in an op-ed,“I accept, however, that it does not guarantee that every civilian can bear any and all arms.”
Christian Heyne, the Brady Campaign’s vice president of policy, called Mast an “important new voice” among gun control advocates. He also welcomed the activism of Parkland students who have kept up calls for sweeping national gun law reforms.
“Florida has got a long way to go and the Florida delegation has a long way to go, but the students of Parkland have changed the national narrative on guns and that’s no small thing,” Heyne said.
“I think over time we’ll see Florida slowly move over into the right direction.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart voted for the House universal background check bill, H.R. 8, in February.