Florida Lawmakers Divided On How To Combat Gun Violence In Latest Debate
In a state with a painful history of gun violence, Florida lawmakers swiftly condemned shootings that claimed 31 lives earlier this summer in Texas and Ohio.
Florida's state Senate leader said he wanted to get to the root of the problem and assigned a legislative committee to draft new measures that might prevent other mass killings like the ones that killed 17 people in Parkland last year and 49 at a gay nightclub in Orlando two years earlier.
But when that committee met Monday, it was clear that Republican lawmakers had no appetite to consider a flood of new gun laws — especially any that would ban assault rifles or establish a gun-ownership registry, as some Democrats have sought.
For all the urgency that might have existed just weeks ago, none seemed apparent when the panel's chairman posed a simple question.
"Does anyone here think we have too many gun laws in Florida?" asked Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who chairs the Senate's committee on infrastructure and security.
No one responded.
But Lee afterward said he was open to expanding background checks on gun buyers and looking into tweaking the state's so-called "red flag" laws to allow relatives, not just law enforcement, to seek a court order when they think a family member might pose a risk.
"There's no silver bullet," he said. "We need to take a comprehensive approach."
The panel convened a panel of criminologists, law enforcement and mental health experts to help frame a discussion that will stretch into next year.
Amid a deepening national debate over guns ahead of next year's elections, any action in Florida — among the country's gun-friendliest — could help influence that discussion.
Since the Parkland shootings, Florida raised the gun-buying age to 21, banned so-called bump stocks and enacted a red flag law. While the state budgeted more for school security, a state grand jury criticized school districts and law enforcement agencies for being slow in implementing some of those measures because of bickering.
With Republicans in charge of both legislative chambers, the governor's mansion and the attorney general's office, gun control advocates may face a steep challenge to enact additional measures.
"I'm trying to be realistic. We only have an opportunity to get a few small steps done," said Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat.
Following the Aug. 3 shooting in El Paso, Texas, Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, directed the committee to review what can be done to address white nationalism.
He called on his colleagues to "better understand the various factors involved in mass shootings." He specifically directed the Legislature's attention to white nationalism, which he said "appears to be a factor not only with regard to these recent mass shootings, but also with other acts of violence we have seen across the country in recent years."
While Republicans seem focused on mental health and condemning white nationalism, which appeared to have played a role in Texas, Democrats have sought broader restrictions on access to guns. They unsuccessfully tried to call a special legislative session to focus on guns, but Republicans wouldn't go along.
Meanwhile, gun-control advocates are attempting to place a measure on next year's November ballot that would ban assault rifles.
Florida's Department of Law Enforcement commissioner, Richard Swearingen, expressed doubt that banning any specific weapon would solve the spate of gun violence.
"If we focus on the behavior, it doesn't matter what weapon they use," he said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has directed the law enforcement agency to develop a threat assessment strategy focused on detecting warning signs that would enable authorities to thwart future mass violence.
"Deterrence is key," said the governor's spokeswoman, Helen Ferre. "Red flag warnings need to be taken seriously and information must be shared in an interagency manner to be most effective."