Shaken by the mass killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders say they will shift more money and policy to mental health and school safety, but as with earlier Florida gun tragedies, the Republicans skirted talk of stricter gun laws.
The day after 17 people died in a barrage of gunfire in Parkland, Scott sought assurances from House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron to focus on campus security and steering more money to school-related mental health treatment.
“Something has to change here,” Scott said on “Fox & Friends.” “We cannot continue to have this violence. We’ve got to keep our students safe.”
In Florida, little changed after previous mass shootings at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June 2016 and at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in January 2017.
This time the response may be different because the killings happened at a school in the middle of a legislative session in an election year.
The first sign of change came when a powerful senator, Rob Bradley, the appropriations chairman, said he won’t hear any gun bills this session unless they deal with denying guns to people who are mentally ill.
“I’m looking for solutions,” Bradley said, rejecting a bill that relaxes background check requirements for some people applying for concealed weapons licenses, which had been championed by Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, a leading GOP candidate for governor.
What likely won’t change are Florida laws that allow teenagers such as Nikolas Cruz to purchase semi-automatic weapons with extended magazines without a waiting period. Federal authorities confirmed that Cruz, 19, bought an AR-15-style rifle legally.
Democrats say the violence is a result of easy access to guns.
“You know what’s going to happen after this? Nothing,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, a 1999 graduate of Stoneman Douglas High who represents Parkland. “Politicians need to look these parents in the face and say: ‘We will do nothing.’ ”
Democratic lawmakers demanded that schools be required to have at least one sworn law enforcement officer in every school during school hours.
“It’s crucial that we do more than speak about solutions,” said Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura. “We must act quickly and effectively.”
Negron said he welcomed ideas from all five Democratic senators who represent Broward to make “enhancements” to school safety and to make sure that mental health treatment is available for people who are in need of that.
He made no mention of reviewing state laws that allow 18-year-olds to buy semi-automatic weapons without a three-day waiting period. To buy a handgun in Florida, a buyer must be 21 and wait three days.
Corcoran, a Republican who may run for governor, did not respond to a request for comment and two carefully worded tweets stopped short of endorsing more mental health money.
He tweeted: “We will work together to make a significant investment in school safety (and) engage in a conversation” about mental health.
Scott and his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature did not propose new gun laws or seek significant mental health funding increases after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in 2016, where a gunman took 49 lives.
The state hired several dozen terrorism experts after the Pulse massacre, which state authorities called an act of terror.
Not much happened in Tallahassee after the mass shooting 13 months ago at the Fort Lauderdale airport, where five lives were lost.
Scott’s office cited his support for yearly increases to a Safe Schools program starting in 2012 and a requirement that schools prioritize the stationing of resource officers.
As authorities continued to notify victims’ families Thursday and at least 14 people were being treated for gunshot wounds, Scott said: “If somebody’s mentally ill, they should not have access to a gun.”
Scott said almost those identical words in January of last year, after the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting.
And when the Broward school superintendent, Robert Runcie, called Thursday for action to curb gun violence in Florida, Scott, standing alongside, said nothing. The two-term Republican governor is considered a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate this fall.
For the second legislative session in a row, Republican legislative leaders show little or no interest on either side of Florida’s perennial debate over guns.
In a compressed 60-day session, lawmakers have found time to debate specialty license tags, daylight saving time, changing the local election calendar and outlawing so-called sanctuary cities.
Scores of bills dealing with gun regulation were filed for the current session, now in its sixth week. Most won’t be heard.
Six months ago, Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, filed a bill (SB 196) to ban semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines. She also filed it a year earlier, after the Pulse massacre.
“It got nowhere,” Stewart said. “Nothing’s getting resolved.”
After the mass shooting in Las Vegas last fall, Stewart filed a bill to ban the use of so-called bump stocks that give semi-automatic weapons more rapid-fire capability. That bill, too, has gone nowhere.
Asked why Stewart’s bills were ignored, Negron said his focus was on making sure that mentally ill people don’t have access to guns, and that schools are made as safe as possible.
“What’s important is, we want our students to be safe,” Negron said.
At least three pro-gun bills were defeated in Senate committees that dealt with concealed weapons issues. In all three cases, a deciding vote was cast by Sen. Anitere Flores, a moderate Republican from Miami.
“I have yet to be convinced of the purpose of these multiple magazines,” Flores said.
But barring a major shift in philosophy by Republicans in the next three weeks, the session will end with no new gun regulations.
After the Pulse shooting, Democrats signed petitions to demand that Republicans call a special session to review gun laws, but it was ignored.
During the session that followed, 24 gun bills were filed and the only one that passed expanded gun owners’ rights.
Despite that, the National Rifle Association has struck out in efforts to expand gun rights at college campuses, churches and courthouses.
The pro-gun rhetoric of Republicans hasn’t changed but several lawmakers told the Herald/Times they were willing to consider changes to ensure that people with mental illnesses can’t get weapons.
“It’s not working when a maniacal person with all these flags can buy a weapon and cause this tragedy,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. “It doesn’t take a psychologist to recognize these signs. Some things are so visceral that even a lay person like me knows it’s wrong.”
The shooting has also forced lawmakers to do something they have long neglected: focus discussion on the need for more school-based mental health counselors.
House Democrats sent Corcoran a letter urging support for more safety officers and mental health money, and a handful of Republicans said they supported it as well.
“I raise my hand. I’ll give up all my appropriations in our House budget — and that’s like $9 million or $10 million,” said Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola. “I think if you were going to ask every other member, we’re all going to do it. That’s the kind of stuff we need.”
Herald/Times staff writers Elizabeth Koh, Emily L. Mahoney and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.
Information from The New York Times was used in compiling this report.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com. Follow @stevebousquet