State Politics

Lawmakers still split on assault weapons ban — but survey finds room for compromise

A Herald/Times survey of Florida legislators indicates that a ban on assault weapons is unlikely, but many support limiting access to semi-automatic weapons, such as the AR-15 rifle used by Nikolas Cruz at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
A Herald/Times survey of Florida legislators indicates that a ban on assault weapons is unlikely, but many support limiting access to semi-automatic weapons, such as the AR-15 rifle used by Nikolas Cruz at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Bloomberg

After the shock of the Parkland school shooting began to set in and the nation began to comprehend the 17 murders committed Wednesday, there was a crescendo of noise from the Florida Legislature.

First it was tweets of “thoughts and prayers.” Then came email statements supporting various policies or condemning the National Rifle Association’s mighty influence. Lawmakers made fiery comments to reporters in hallways of the Capitol, declaring this could not happen again.

But how do they propose to stop these chronic, uniquely American tragedies?

Pieces of the debate surrounding gun control are still tainted by partisanship, but in other areas, the party lines have begun to melt away, according to a survey of Florida’s lawmakers conducted by the Herald/Times. Reporters conducted the poll through an email blast to all lawmakers the day after the shooting, as well as through interviews in person and over the phone.

Of the 156 sitting members of the Florida Legislature, 65 had responded by 4 p.m. Monday.

According to the responses, the odds are slim that the student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will achieve their legislative goal: a ban on assault weapons.

None of the 37 Republicans from Florida’s House or Senate who responded to the Times/Herald survey said they supported such a measure, a deal killer in the state’s GOP-controlled statehouse.

“I just think it’s misguided,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, one of the Legislature’s most active advocates for expanding gun access. He’s introduced a bill that would allow teachers to carry guns. “We’re obsessing over the hardware of violence, and it makes as much sense as saying we’re going to stop obesity by collecting spoons.”

Meanwhile, 19 Democrats who responded said assault weapons should be banned for public use. Assault weapons are typically classified as semi-automatic guns with a detachable magazine and a pistol grip, such as the AR-15, the weapon of choice for many mass killers including Nikolas Cruz in Parkland.

“Assault weapons are tools designed to kill efficiently,” said Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Ocoee. “Not only are they found in nearly every case of a mass shooting, they make it easy to inflict as much pain and damage as possible.”

IMG_Florida_Capitol_2015_8_1_0552H8FC_L134258281
A Herald/Times survey in the wake of a former student’s shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week shows that pieces of the debate surrounding gun control are still tainted by partisanship, but in other areas, the party lines have begun to melt away. SCOTT KEELER Tampa Bay Times

But lawmakers agree on some measures. In fact, the survey found legislators from both parties were willing to consider “limiting access” to semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines — marking the first time this body has mulled over a gun restriction in more than a decade.

Nineteen legislators, including six Republicans, said the state should definitely raise the minimum age to purchase these weapons, tighten background checks, increase waiting periods or otherwise increase the barriers to getting high-powered guns. Three more Republicans said they would consider voting yes.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is the next Senate president, is drafting a proposal that would do just that.

Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, said she’d support that kind of legislation.

“Listen, I’m a big gun advocate, but at the same time, it’s reasonable, sensible restrictions that need to be placed to keep this type of gun out,” she said. “Look how many kids he killed in just such a short period of time.”

The survey also found near-universal support for beefing up security at schools, which includes adding more armed officers on campus, barricading campuses to be single-entry only and even adding metal detectors or bulletproof glass.

There was also widespread talk of pumping more money into the state’s mental health programs, especially in schools, to get help for troubled kids before they turn to violence.

At the beginning of this session, a bill to fund mental health services and training in schools had $40 million behind it. Galvano’s proposal would up that figure to $100 million.

“I think at a minimum we need a conversation for how we assess the ability or stability for someone to acquire a firearm,” he said.

Some lawmakers responded to the survey, but declined to answer the questions, or said there was nothing they could do.

“This is no time for quick thoughts,” said Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, who is running for attorney general. “I’m not ready to offer a short answer because I want to take the time to seriously consider more comprehensive solutions. My suggestions for comprehensive solutions will be forthcoming within the next few weeks.”

Others professed a sense of helplessness in the face of such tragedies.

“Solutions to the human condition are something we search for every day,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples. “As unfortunate as it is, there’s not a law we can pass that stops crazy people from doing crazy things.”

A makeshift memorial outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland turned into a gathering point for the community to grieve and remember the victims.

Still others proposed more obscure solutions not mentioned in the survey questions, such as regulating violent video games, taxing bullets or even imposing tighter rules on antidepressant drugs.

All will be forced this week to reckon with the calls to action from the students of Parkland, who will be marching at the Capitol and meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday. Their rapid rise as a political force after the shooting has elevated the stakes of the gun debate, as they have made their demands clear and called out specific politicians like President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for taking money from the NRA.

Gov. Rick Scott has said “everything’s on the table” in terms of new gun legislation, but has declined to give specifics thus far. The legislative session ends March 9, which means lawmakers are scrambling to come up with effective pitches in the House and Senate in the final three weeks — a period usually considered too late for new policies to pass through all the committees and budgetary negotiations.

But Rep. Robert Asencio, a Miami Democrat who is a former captain of the Miami Dade Schools Police Department, spoke for many in the Legislature when he said the time is now.

“I know that sadly we may never be able to prevent someone who’s intent on causing harm … but we can make it harder for people to come on our campuses and kill our children,” he said. “While we talk and get caught up in B.S. partisan crap, our kids are facing violence.”

This story was updated to clarify that Robert Asencio was a captain with Miami Dade Schools police.

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