Arizona shooting energizes gun debate in Florida

TALLAHASSEE -- In the aftermath of Tucson's shooting rampage, lawmakers in Florida are ready to make their stand on guns clearer: They want more people to have the right to carry them in the open and fewer government restrictions.

All told, lawmakers have filed three separate bills that seek to restrict local governments from regulating firearms, stop doctors from even asking patients about them and that allow for licensed gun owners the right to wear firearms outside their clothing -- including on college campuses.

The bills were all drafted prior to last week's shooting in Arizona, and before a drunken Florida State University student in Tallahassee accidentally killed his girlfriend's twin sister with an AK-47 on campus.

Both tragedies loom over the legislation, but they probably won't halt the passage of any of the bills. Almost every year, a gun-rights measure passes Florida's Legislature.

"The gun lobby has a stranglehold on Tallahassee," said Rep. Ari Porth, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat and career prosecutor. "I ran for office to keep the public safe, and what we do in the Florida Legislature with guns isn't good for public safety."

But a majority of the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, don't see it that way. Many adhere to the maxim that if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

"I don't think that there's any amount of gun control that would have stopped some of the tragic events that we've seen," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who's sponsoring legislation to clarify an old state law that bars local governments from regulating guns.

"It's unfortunate," he said, "that anytime there's a tragedy people come out of the woodwork with their agendas."

Everyone in the state Capitol has an agenda, though. Normally the National Rifle Association's is supreme.

Since 2004, the NRA has successfully taken on the business lobby, law-enforcement agencies and adoption agencies. Police are now banned from tracking gun purchases at pawn shops, adoption agencies can't use forms that ask prospective parents about guns in the home and citizens have the right to stow guns locked in their cars in workplace parking lots. Citizens can also use more deadly force under what's known as the "Stand your ground law."

The NRA's chief foe, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, doesn't have a lobbyist in Tallahassee. This year, it's concentrating on Congress in an effort to ban high-volume clips, such as the one used in the Tucson massacre. Both sides of the gun war portray America as a violent place, where the murder rate is higher than that of similar industrialized nations. About two-thirds of homicides in Florida and the nation are committed with a firearm, according to state and FBI statistics. The NRA says murders would be higher without gun rights.

The Brady campaign -- named after James Brady, the Ronald Reagan press aide shot in the head and gravely wounded by a gunman who also wounded the president -- says the opposite.

This year, the NRA has picked fights with three other special interests: local governments, the doctors lobby and the college and university system.

The NRA's lead lobbyist, Marion Hammer, said she expects the Tucson shooting to become part of the dialogue. And she's ready for it.

"There are people out there who will try to capitalize on the Tucson shooting, and they're grasping," Hammer said.

But in the NRA's zeal to protect the Second Amendment, doctors say their First Amendment free-speech rights are being trampled due to the bill that bans medical personnel from even asking a patient about guns.

The also bill says physicians can't refuse to see patients who don't answer questions about guns, and it prohibits medical staff from writing down gun-owning information. That way, a list of firearm ownership can't be maintained -- a persistent worry of the NRA.

Anyone who would willfully break this law would face a $5 million fine, which is incidentally the same penalty that local government officials would face under Gaetz's bill.

Those doctors who ask about guns say they just want to inform parents about the need for child safety. They say they also inquire about swimming pools, which lead to the deaths of more children than handguns.

Hammer sees a more nefarious agenda, pointing to an American Academy of Pediatrics website that warns people about guns and states "the best way to keep your children safe from injury or death from guns is to NEVER have a gun in the home."

Hammer also cites statistics showing that medical mishaps kill more people than guns, a statement that irked the Florida Medical Association's executive director, Tim Stapleton.

"The FMA respects gun-owners and many of our members are law abiding gun owners," he said in a written statement. "It is unfortunate that a lobbyist has made a decision to demonize physicians, who take an oath to heal and devote their lives to serving others. In light of the recent events in Tucson, where physicians saved the life of a congresswoman, it would be wise to tone down the rhetoric and work together to address these issues."

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, said he sponsored the bill after a constituent complained that a family physician asked about guns but not other dangers, such as the potential presence of drugs in the home.

Evers has another bill that would allow concealed weapons permit-holders to wear their guns out in the open. Florida is one of only four states that expressly ban so-called "open carry."

Evers bill would also change state law to allow permit holders to carry their weapons on college and university campuses.

FSU Police Chief David Perry said the recent accidental on-campus shooting shows that guns and higher education don't mix.

"You have young people still learning how to be adults, and unfortunately alcohol and drugs are part of that equation on campus," Perry said. "This is a place of learning and nurturing and you shouldn't be put in a position where you feel intimidated by someone walking around with a gun."

The NRA's Hammer said she expected the push-back. But, she said, concealed weapons permit holders are adults. And they have the same rights as others.

"Every time you try to give people back their Second Amendment rights," she said, ‘‘people go ballistic because you're infringing on their turf. But they're the ones infringing on the Second Amendment of the Constitution."