State Politics

As students watch, lawmakers debate porn but refuse to take up assault weapons ban

Sheryl Acquarola, a 16-year-old junior from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, is overcome with emotion in the east gallery of the state House of Representatives after the representatives voted not to hear a bill banning assault rifles and large-capacity magazines at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.
Sheryl Acquarola, a 16-year-old junior from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, is overcome with emotion in the east gallery of the state House of Representatives after the representatives voted not to hear a bill banning assault rifles and large-capacity magazines at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. AP

House Republicans on Tuesday decisively blocked a move by Democrats to debate a ban on assault weapons in Florida, six days after a massacre that took 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The bill (HB 219), which would ban the sale and possession of semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines like the kind used by Nikolas Cruz, has been mired in a House subcommittee for months and has not been heard.

Amid rising tensions at the Capitol, Democrats used a highly unusual procedure to try to move the proposal directly to the House floor for a debate and vote.

Republicans voted it down, 71-36. Several survivors of the high school massacre, watching from the visitors’ gallery, were overcome with emotion, and the action set off a firestorm of controversy on social media.

“How could they do that to us? Are you kidding me??? #Never again,” tweeted student Emma Gonzalez. “We are not forgetting this come midterm elections — the anger that I feel right now is indescribable.”

The emotional scene at the Capitol came on a day when more than 100 more students from the school were headed to Tallahassee by bus to meet with Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and legislative leaders.

Security in the Capitol was tighter than usual. On Wednesday, hundreds of people are expected to rally on the steps of the Old Capitol in support of additional gun restrictions in Florida.

Among those voting no were House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, a possible candidate for governor; three Republicans who are running for attorney general, Reps. Jay Fant, Ross Spano and Frank White; a candidate for agriculture commissioner, Rep. Matt Caldwell; Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, whose wife is secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Justice; and the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.

Read more: “Leading Florida lawmaker says Douglas students playing ‘major role’ in getting action”

Democrats said the tragedy in Parkland created a new sense of urgency on the issue of easy access to assault weapons in Florida.

“I ask that you keep this bill and the conversation about the solution to combat mass shootings alive,” said Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami. “While this is an extraordinary procedural move, the shooting in Parkland demands extraordinary action.”

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, who knew some of the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando that claimed 49 lives in June 2016.

When Smith tried to debate a proposed assault weapons ban on the House floor, Corcoran quickly cut him off, noting that under House rules, debate must be only about whether the bill should have been referred to three committees.

“You’re on the substance of the bill,” Corcoran told Smith.

While Republicans blocked any discussion of assault weapons Tuesday, they did debate at length another bill that declares pornography to be a public health risk.

That bill (HB 157), a largely symbolic resolution, is sponsored by Spano, who chairs the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, the first committee assigned to hear the assault weapons ban.

“Porn is more important,” Smith told reporters. “Has anyone had to bury their child because of pornography? He [Spano] has made that a priority above gun violence. He needs to own that.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students arrive at Leon High School in Tallahassee Tuesday night, Feb. 20, 2018 to huge crowds of students welcoming them.

Florida is the nation’s most populous swing state, but Republicans control the state House, 76 to 41, with three seats vacant.

Florida also allows 18-year-olds to purchase semiautomatic weapons, as Cruz did more than a year before the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High on Valentine’s Day that claimed the lives of 14 students and three faculty members.

But that could change by the end of session.

State Sen. Bill Galvano is floating a series of plans that would change how Floridians buy and use guns, including one that would increase the minimum age to buy a military-style rifle to 21.

Also among his ideas is a way to allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom. State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, had introduced a bill that would allow teachers with concealed carry permits to take guns into schools, but that was postponed on Tuesday and is likely dead.

Galvano’s plan is to allow teachers who want to carry guns to undergo extensive training under the supervision of a local police department, similar to a program the Polk County Sheriff offers.

Armed teachers would be a supplement to armed school officers that are already on campus. On Tuesday, a Senate committee approved an amendment that would require school districts to train those officers on how to respond to school shooters.

Herald/Times Tallahassee staff writers Lawrence Mower and Emily Mahoney contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

Contact Elizabeth Koh at ekoh@miamiherald.com. Follow @elizabethrkoh.

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