Sue the gun makers? Miami congressional candidates debate guns

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If you want to find out just how different the options are likely to be in November as voters decide whom to choose to replace long-serving Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, ask them about guns.

“I know a lot of people aren’t going to like what I’m about to say,” Republican Bettina Rodriguez-Aguilera said Tuesday night during a candidates forum for Florida’s 27th congressional district. “But guns don’t kill people. People do.”

The conservative talking point drew out cheers and boos from a divided audience at Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus, where the Miami Herald, WLRN Public Radio, the League of Women Voters and AARP Florida invited all 15 candidates running for Ros-Lehtinen’s seat to discuss politics. All five Democrats, four of the nine Republican candidates and independent Mayra Joli attended.

Among that group ranged a wide variety of opinions on guns, which have again become a flashpoint in American politics following the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Outside of a shared concern about the proliferation of 3D guns, opinions about tamping down gun violence were split clearly along party lines.

“We need to eliminate the exemption gun companies have that protect them from any kind of liability for the use of their guns,” Democratic frontrunner Donna Shalala said.

“If some lunatic shoots somebody, how is it the gun company’s fault?” countered Stephen Marks, a Republican political consultant.

The Democrats in the race — Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn, David Richardson, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Shalala — are generally aligned on gun control. Banning assault weapons and modifiers that effectively make guns automatic, universal background checks and raising the minimum age of gun purchases are more or less universal aspects of their platforms.

Other ideas, like Rosen Gonzalez’s call for an excise tax on bullets, are part of different candidates’ platforms.

But for the most part, the Republicans who attended Tuesday’s event — Angie Chirino, Marks, Rodriguez-Aguilera and Gina Sosa — said the answer to less gun violence generally lays in better mental health services and improved juvenile justice, as opposed to further restrictions on access to firearms.

Rodriguez-Aguilera said the government has to shut down the PROMISE program, the beleaguered system employed by the Broward School district to curb school suspensions and expulsions, and “return respect for God and country” to schools. Sosa argued that if she knew judo then her hands would be banned as lethal weapons.

“My volunteer is from Nicaragua. Her husband just got kidnapped from Nicaragua,” said Rodriguez-Aguilera, who argued that the shooting at Stoneman Douglas was more the product of incompetent and cowardly police than guns. “In Cuba, and Nicaragua and Venezuela there’s a ban on guns!”

Whether their opinions reflect the likely views of the eventual Republican nominee are unclear. Among the no-shows Tuesday were former county commissioner Bruno Barreiro and television personality Maria Elvira Salazar.

Voting is already underway by absentee ballot, but Florida’s primary elections won’t be decided until Aug. 28.

But one candidate in attendance Tuesday will definitely be on the ballot. Joli, who is running without party affiliation, said she wants to eliminate gun-free zones and give schoolchildren the “tools” to defend themselves.

“We need to arm those children with the necessary tools to defend themselves from the bullies,” she said.

After the forum, Joli clarified that she wanted to give children the “skills” to deal with bullies.

This article has been updated to clarify that Bettina Rodriguez-Aguilera spoke about a volunteer whose husband was kidnapped in Nicaragua. The statement was previously attributed incorrectly to another candidate.