South Florida lawmaker who took NRA cash after Parkland votes for background checks

The National Rifle Association is running out of friends in South Florida.

Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who received campaign cash from the NRA four months after the Parkland shooting, distanced himself from the nation’s largest pro-gun lobby and sided with Democrats to expand background checks last week. Diaz-Balart’s new stance blunts a potential 2020 campaign talking point for Democrats, who hammered him on his gun record last year but still came up 21 percentage points short of unseating one of the most well-known figures in Miami politics.

Diaz-Balart says his support for expanding background checks does not represent a philosophical shift on guns, though he did not add his name as a co-sponsor for a background check bill in the last Congress that received the support of 210 lawmakers, including 14 Republicans. He also voted in favor of an NRA-backed bill in 2017 that would have made it easier for gun owners with concealed carry permits to transport their weapons across state lines.

“The bill is super flawed but I figured that it is actually the closest one to being a real effort to get something that might be able to get negotiations in the Senate,” Diaz-Balart said in an interview. “The concept of people having background checks is obviously something I support. The bill wasn’t well-drafted but I figured it’s not a bad place to start and we’ll see what happens.”

In 2018, Diaz-Balart was attacked over his stance on guns by Democratic opponent Mary Barzee Flores, Parkland parents and a host of national gun control groups. Diaz-Balart is also the single largest recipient of direct NRA campaign cash among Floridians in Congress since 1998, partially due to his status as the state’s longest-tenured Republican.

Though he easily won reelection last year, 2020 could be a different story for Miami’s only House Republican in a district where President Donald Trump is not popular.

The bill Diaz-Balart voted for would require a background check on every gun sale or transfer of a gun. While federal law already instructs licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks, the new bill would require gun sellers who are not licensed under the current system to perform background checks through licensed dealers. Currently, unlicensed gun sellers are allowed to legally sell guns at gun shows, online and in-person without conducting a background check.

The Giffords Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which spent $300,000 on radio ads against Diaz-Balart during his campaign last year, praised his vote.

“I think in terms of the Diaz-Balarts of the world, you look at the politics shifting and you see that in the past cycle, voters in these suburban districts are fed up with politicians who take money from the NRA,” Giffords executive director Peter Ambler said. “We weren’t able to beat him like we did so many others but clearly he is feeling the heat.”

Diaz-Balart’s West Miami-Dade district that stretches across the Everglades to Naples is now the most densely populated congressional district in the country held by a Republican after many in the GOP who represented suburban and urban areas were swept out of office last year. Ambler said Diaz-Balart likely took note when other longtime incumbents like Houston Rep. John Culberson lost reelection last year after being pressured on guns.

The NRA isn’t happy with Diaz-Balart.

“Obviously, we are disappointed, as are many of his constituents,” NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter said, adding that the organization will be watching Diaz-Balart’s votes and statements on gun legislation in the current Congress before making any decisions on downgrading his “A” grade or applying other forms of political pressure.

“We really look into the totality of someone’s record,” Hunter said. “A lot of factors go into how we score candidates so voters know who they’re voting for and whether they favor gun rights or not.”

Diaz-Balart said the NRA’s positions and past political support do not determine his vote.

“I don’t do things because groups support them or don’t support them,” Diaz-Balart said. “I’ve always been very clear. I believe the government’s responsibility is to protect innocent life but we also have to do it while protecting basic civil liberties.”

Two other Florida Republicans, Reps. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, and Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, also voted for the background check bill. Mast garnered national attention when he came out in favor of a ban on assault weapons a few weeks after Parkland, while Buchanan was also targeted by national gun control groups during the 2018 campaign.

“Vern hasn’t voted on this issue before but has always been open to strengthening background checks to ensure that mentally unstable individuals or criminals can’t buy guns over the internet or at gun shows,” said Buchanan spokesperson Anthony Cruz. “And more than 90 percent of gun owners support Vern’s position, according to several respected polling organizations.”

Diaz-Balart did vote against a second gun control bill last week that would allow the FBI additional time to investigate whether or not a firearm should be transferred to an individual. Current law allows someone to obtain a firearm if a federal background check has not been completed in three business days. The bill also passed the House of Representatives, though only three Republicans, and none from Florida, supported it.

But the background check bill Diaz-Balart voted for faces an uphill path in the Senate, where at least 60 senators in the 100 person body must vote in favor to pass it and 67 senators would need to support it to override a veto from President Donald Trump. Florida Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio are opposed to the bill and Trump has said he will veto it if it passes the Senate. Republicans currently control 53 Senate seats.

“I’ve reviewed it and I’m not going to support it,” Scott said. “I support the Second Amendment and I’m not going to do anything that’s going to impact law-abiding Americans from having access to their Second Amendment rights.”

Rubio has said he’s focused on bills that could become law given the Senate’s Republican majority, such as a “red flag” law that would make it easier for the courts and law enforcement to disarm people who are deemed a threat to others or themselves.

Scott didn’t receive a direct campaign contribution from the NRA during his 2018 Senate campaign and the group opposed a bill he signed into law as governor that raises the age to purchase a rifle in Florida from 18 to 21. He received a “C” rating from the group during the campaign, while Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson received an “F” rating. Rubio received $9,900 in direct campaign contributions form the NRA during his 2016 campaign, though he benefited from $3.3 million in outside spending from the NRA and received an “A+” NRA rating.

When asked about polls that show widespread public support for expanding background checks, Scott said his focus is ensuring that federal law enforcement agencies do their jobs, citing that the FBI did not respond to tips about the Parkland shooter and gave the Fort Lauderdale airport shooter’s gun back to him after he walked into an FBI office in Alaska and displayed erratic behavior.

“Why don’t we focus on the things we want to solve?” Scott said. “The FBI is not being held accountable.”

South Florida Democrats praised the bill’s passage. Two Democrats in the region — Miami Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala — won Republican-held seats after campaigning for more gun control last year.

“My district is home to two major gun shows where, under current law, individuals can purchase guns without a background check,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement. “My constituents should feel safe, and that won’t begin to happen until we close the gun show and internet sale loopholes. This bill may not prevent every death by gun violence, but that is no excuse for inaction.”

Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.