There have been more gun control bills filed in the Florida Legislature this year than any in recent memory — but you wouldn’t know it. Despite Democrats’ push to spark a “conversation” about guns after the Trayvon Martin and Newtown, Conn., tragedies, the Republican-led Legislature has traditionally shown little interest in entertaining the gun control debate.
As more than two dozen gun control bills languish in a sort of legislative purgatory, one Democratic proposal defied the odds Tuesday, getting a hearing before lawmakers.
“We were able to sit everyone down at the table, and it took two minutes,” said Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, who formed an unlikely partnership with the gun lobby to push for new firearm restrictions for mentally ill people. The bill, HB 1355, cleared its first committee on a 13-0 vote.
Other proposals — which range from anger management classes for gun owners to new “mental health taxes” for gun sales — haven’t been as fortunate in Florida’s firearm-friendly Legislature, where attempts at gun control typically die quietly.
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Asked Tuesday about how the near-tragedy at the University of Central Florida when a heavily-armed student planned a massacre earlier this week affected the gun debate, Gov. Rick Scott was vague in his response.
“Anything like that you always worry about,” he said, before hailing the Florida’s law enforcement community for the state’s declining crime rate. “Anytime something happens in the state… you reflect back and say ‘What could we do better?’”
Scott’s office said in January that he is “not proposing any gun law changes.”
Florida’s House Speaker and the Senate President — who play a major role in setting the legislative agenda — have echoed that sentiment, reaffirming their support for the Second Amendment even as national tragedies have sparked calls for tougher gun laws.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who recently quipped “My idea of gun control is a steady aim,” said he will leave the decision over whether or not to entertain a gun debate to Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker.
Evers, who chairs the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee and is an “A+” rated life member of the National Rifle Association, said he doesn’t see the need for such a debate.
“I don’t really look for a gun debate this year,” he said. “There may be some good legislation out there but right now I don’t see any controversial bills that we need to bring up or any bills dealing with guns that need to be moved.”
That hasn’t stopped Democrats from trying.
A bevy of bills sponsored by Democrats would force universal background checks, repeal the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law which grants immunity to people who use deadly force if they believe they’re acting in self-defense, and place new taxes and fees on gun sales.
One proposal, by Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, would require people to take anger management classes before buying ammunition. Another, from Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, would close the so-called “gun show loophole” and require all gun sales to be processed through a licensed dealer.
But three weeks into the 9-week legislative session, those and other gun bills have idled, with none being scheduled for a committee hearing.
After tragedies last year in Sanford, Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn., some Democratic state legislatures have toughened gun laws while conservative states have threatened to defy any new federal gun control measures. In Florida, a gun-friendly state that voted for President Obama in 2012, leaders in the Republican majority have opted to avoid the divisive debate altogether.
The non-debate reflects the political landscape in Florida, dubbed the “Gunshine State.”
A series of pro-gun measures over the years has made Florida a top state for gun ownership, with more than 1 million active concealed carry permits. That translates into an army of voters, and the gun lobby is adept at mobilizing them at the first sign of any challenge to gun rights.
Marion Hammer, the former NRA president who lobbies for the group in Florida, said the organization is always “on defense,” and that gun control advocates err when they target “law abiding” citizens. That sentiment, and NRA lobbying efforts, forced U.S. Senators to abandon a push for an assault weapons ban Tuesday.
Hammer expressed support Tuesday for Watson’s HB 1355, showing rare agreement between the National Rifle Association and a Democrat pushing for gun control.
It highlighted the one area where both sides of the gun debate have common ground: keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
Watson’s bill closes a loophole that allows people who voluntarily commit themselves into a mental treatment facility to continue to buy guns, something prohibited to people who are involuntarily committed.
The spirit of cooperation could be short-lived. Watson, who has supported more controversial gun control measures, said HB 1355 was a “first step.”
Other Democrats have pledged to turn up pressure on Republican leaders if their gun control proposals don’t begin to move soon.
“You don’t file a bill and then sit on it, waiting for divine intervention,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “Why file something and then sit back and wait for a miracle to happen?”
Meanwhile, pro-gun legislators are moving in the opposite direction. More than 50 Republican co-sponsors have signed on to HM 545, a memorial to Obama stating that Florida will defy any new gun restrictions.
Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story. Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.