Bill Nelson’s word carries weight in Florida.
The state’s longest-serving federal official, a man who has spent decades building connections with law enforcement agencies and lawmakers from both parties, is a go-to source for information during big events like Hurricane Irma and the Parkland school shooting.
But Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat spread wrong information after the Parkland shooting, and now he’s spreading wrong information about a shooting in Liberty City that claimed the lives of two young people and wounded two more.
In a tweet on Sunday night, Nelson cited a Democratic state representative and said “apparently assault weapons [were] used” in the Liberty City shooting.
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But on Monday, Miami police said handguns, not assault-style weapons, were used in the shooting.
The shooting, on the eve of Gov. Rick Scott’s U.S. Senate announcement, became a political flashpoint in South Florida.
State Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, took a shot at the governor, asking “before you make your big ‘announcement’ tomorrow, who’s going to show up for our community?” Student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tweeted information about the shooting to hundreds of thousands of followers.
Nelson’s mistaken announcement that the Liberty City shooter used an assault weapon is tinged with politics. Nelson has constantly advocated for a ban on assault-style weapons like the AR-15 rifle used in the Parkland shooting, while Scott does not support an assault weapons ban.
When asked to explain why he spread misinformation on Sunday, Nelson deferred blame.
“That was from Kionne. That was Kionne’s impression,” Nelson said, referring to state Rep. Kionne McGhee. “It was information from somebody right on the scene and I think people are entitled to that information.” McGhee did not respond to a request for comment.
But Nelson also spread wrong information about the Parkland shooting.
Four hours after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Nelson went on a media blitz with the major TV networks. He cited the FBI and said shooter Nikolas Cruz wore a gas mask and tossed smoke grenades as he shot people. Neither of those details turned out to be true.
Nelson said Monday the FBI gave him incorrect information based on video of the shooting. The FBI wrongly assumed that dust and debris from falling ceiling tiles during the shooting was actually some sort of smoke device used by Cruz, Nelson said, and that Cruz’s ski mask he wore during the shooting was actually a gas mask.
“I was told this by the FBI.... The [Broward] Sheriff’s Department, days later when I went to the school, corrected it,” Nelson said. “They said the FBI’s mistake was that they saw... with the smoke and they assumed it was a gas mask, as it turned out it was a ski mask.”
In contrast, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did not share specific details about the Parkland shooting in the immediate aftermath, referring to the shooting in more general terms and waiting for law enforcement to make initial announcements.
“This individual used not [only] lethal weaponry but used some other tactics and methods that I’ll leave to law enforcement to announce but he possessed some other gear that was indicative of someone who was trying to maximize the loss of life,” Rubio said at the time.
In a state still scarred by Parkland, reports of gun violence during what could be the most expensive U.S. Senate campaign in history will continue to evoke strong emotions and be used as justifications for changing policy.
A Democratic-controlled House and Senate after the 2018 elections would put more pressure on President Donald Trump to change the nation’s gun laws, though its unlikely that ideas like an assault weapons ban will become law under a Republican president.
The police still haven’t determined a motive for Sunday’s Liberty City shooting and the shooter or shooters haven’t been caught. Kimson Green, 17, and Rickey Dixon, 18, were killed as they sat on the front lawn of an apartment complex at Northwest 63rd Street and 13th Place in Liberty City.
Miami Herald staff writers Joey Flechas and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.