On the heels of a gunman’s rampage in a Fort Lauderdale airport and an Orlando nightclub massacre that at the time was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, a leading candidate to become Florida’s next governor was gifted with an intended slight by a newspaper columnist.
Adam Putnam was called a sellout to the National Rifle Association. And he was delighted.
“I’ll wear that comment like a badge of honor,” Putnam, Florida’s Republican agricultural commissioner, posted on his website along with a petition. “I’m a proud NRA Sellout.”
In the “Gunshine state,” celebrating the Second Amendment is close to a requirement.
Following decades of legislation favored by the gun lobby, the nation’s third-most populous state has become something of a frontier for gun ownership and Second Amendment rights. It is the birthplace of the Stand Your Ground law, where legislators codified the rights of schoolchildren to fashion pastries into guns and banned doctors from asking a patient if there’s a Glock in the home.
Lawmakers’ grasp on the importance of gun rights has remained tight as a hand around a pistol grip — so much so that following the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando in June 2016, the only gun bills passed in Tallahassee the following session made it easier for someone in a shooting to beat a criminal gun charge. After the shooting, a push to hold a special session on gun control ahead of the 2016 election failed.
But something feels different this time around.
This is not about if. It’s a matter of when.
Cameron Kasky, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student
After a teen’s deadly assault on his former high school in Parkland last week, Republican leadership is considering legislation to restrict access to assault rifles, donors are threatening to pull funding unless gun control is once again on the table, and scores of teenagers, the faces of the next generation of voters, are descending on the state Capitol this week.
Putnam’s online NRA sellout petition? Temporarily disappeared. A bill he championed to relax background check requirements? Pulled.
Heading into a key November election, Florida politicians are facing political fallout over gun control in the aftermath of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“I’m a conservative Republican, always have been and always will be. But when that tragedy occurred I thought, ‘My God what can we do?’ ” Al Hoffman, a real estate developer and former Republican National Committee finance chairman, who raised more than $600 million in 2000 and 2004, said on CNN. “The only thought that came to me is, I have to adopt a plan whereby we contact every Republican donor around the country to endorse the adoption of a ban on assault weapons.”
One difference-maker could be the students who survived Nikolas Cruz’s rampage, and who traveled this week to the Florida Capitol to lobby the Republican-controlled state government. Ahead of their trip, incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, introduced legislation that would raise the age limit to buy an assault rifle to 21, strengthen background checks and bolster funding for school security. Legislation is also being developed in the House.
Politicians who’ve reacted to mass shootings by calling for a grieving period void of politics risk looking foolish in the face of immediate calls for debate from students who survived the shooting. Should they do nothing, they also risk alienating thousands of teenagers who are staging walkouts, protesting in front of the White House and threatening to create a new voting bloc with a single-issue litmus test for Florida politicians.
“Everybody is always asking me, ‘What about this is going to be different?’ Look around,” Cameron Kasky, one of a number of Stoneman Douglas students who’ve turned activist, said Monday to the crowd at an anti-gun violence rally in Delray Beach. “This is not about if. It’s a matter of when.”
If folks think that response is going to end up with the state of Florida with a ban on AR-15s, good luck.
Rick Wilson, Republican political consultant
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida associate professor who studies elections, said if young, voting-age people suddenly began voting in midterm elections the way they vote during presidential elections, they could change the results by a percentage point, enough to sway a close election. Turn out on election day in percentages similar to senior citizens, and you’re talking multiple points, McDonald said.
In a state controlled for decades by Republicans, many of whom are in conservative districts and need only worry about facing a primary challenge by another Republican, that could sway things for gun-control activists.
“You’d see some conservative elected officials softening their positions because they’d want to head off this group that would potentially be voting against them,” McDonald said.
But Florida has seen rallying and protesting before in the days after a shooting. It always wanes, and campaign strategists and politicians facing elections — like they are this November — are concerned about the opinions of voters.
“Overall, the past history is that events like this that spark the interest and imagination of young people tend not to have permanent effects on their participation,” McDonald said.
A massive voting bloc that does exist, and will vote in November: gun owners, who make up about 10 percent of the state’s population. Recent studies have shown that gun owners are more likely to register Republican and identify as conservative, something Florida NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer — who said she’s “not taking news calls” and hung up on a reporter — alluded to last year after the Pulse and airport shootings, when she said state lawmakers don’t fear her, but rather the people she represents.
“Regardless of where you stand on gun control, if you’re a long-standing observer of Florida politics, you’ll recognize this is a Legislature that is very strongly pro Second Amendment. It’s very difficult to see a scenario where you’ll end up with any significant changes,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican political strategist. “This was a terrible, unspeakable tragedy. But this is a state with 1.3 million concealed-carry permit holders, and an estimated million people own AR-15s. It’s not a black-and-white, all-political-upside” situation.
Following last week’s shooting, the leading Republican candidates for governor have said little about the topic beyond echoing Gov. Rick Scott’s call for legislation strengthening school security and reevaluating issues related to mental health and access to firearms.
Scott, who boasts the NRA’s coveted A-plus rating for his embrace of the association’s platform, said on CNN that “everything is on the table” regarding gun rights, and is spending the week hosting the families of victims of the shooting. His chief spokesman, John Tupps, said Tuesday that Scott “will be releasing his proposal this week aimed at keeping Florida schools safe and keeping firearms out of the hands of mentally ill people.”
Also Tuesday, the Florida House shot down a push to debate a bill banning semiautomatic weapons, a key goal for high school students visiting the Capitol.
Wilson, who says he owns three AR-15s, knows it’s unlikely that Scott or any of the gubernatorial Republican candidates in positions of power will suddenly rush to embrace the platform of gun-control activists. He said both Republicans and Democrats remain too entrenched in the extremes of the debate, meaning everyone should reduce expectations of what will happen this month in Tallahassee, and what will happen at the polls in November.
“The shock and awe of this horrifying tragedy, it does demand a public response. It does demand a government response at some level,” he said. “But if folks think that response is going to end up with the state of Florida with a ban on AR-15s, good luck.”
Both the state and federal governments took action Tuesday related to gun control.
▪ President Donald Trump signed a memo directing U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to craft regulations banning bump stocks, devices that effectively turn semiautomatic guns into automatic weapons
▪ The Florida House of Representatives voted against a proposal to have floor debate on a bill banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.