As their community reeled from the unimaginable bloodshed of a lone gunman, local elected leaders gingerly addressed this question Sunday: Do laws need to change to prevent this from happening again?
“We have an ongoing debate about gun ownership in this country and we’re trying to prevent mental illness,” said Rep. Mike Miller, R-Orlando, whose district office is less than a mile from the Pulse nightclub. “We’ve got to put something in [the law] where we figure out if someone is having mental health issues” before they can obtain a gun.
The FBI reported Sunday that a week before Omar Mateen stormed into the popular gay nightclub and killed at least 59, he bought an AR-15 assault weapon and a handgun. Mateen had a concealed weapons permit, and Florida law does not impose a waiting period on gun purchases for those with a concealed weapons permit. In 2015, records show that Florida had more gun permits registered than any other state.
Orlando FBI Special Agent in Charge Ron Hopper said Mateen was twice investigated by the FBI for possible links to terrorism because of comments he had made. Documents indicate he had also been accused of domestic assault and a former wife told the Washington Post that he was violent and mentally unstable.
Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who has represented the community for nearly two decades and lives just blocks from the nightclub, said those facts trouble him.
“The FBI apparently contacted this individual at least four times. Why wasn’t there a connection of the dots?” asked Gardiner, who used to visit the site as a kid when it was a popular pizza parlor.
“I think there's a whole host of things that raise questions,”' he said. “There may be more people like him all over the country.”
Gardiner and Miller added, however, that the time would come for more answers.
“For me and my community, we’re not in the finger-pointing right now. We’re in the grieving,” Gardiner said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, told reporters at a news conference Sunday the answer is not more gun laws but more vigilance of terrorism.
“There's been dozens of plots like this disrupted over the last few years, but you only have to be right once, be successful once, and unfortunately, last night he was successful,” Rubio said.
Rubio also rejected calls for banning assault rifles.
“Europe has very strict gun laws, and in Paris they conducted a devastating attack using banned guns,”' he said. “Whether he would have gone in there with an explosive or fertilizer, what’s the difference? My point is he’s a terrorist. He's committed to killing as many people as he could in the most dramatic way possible.”
For others, however, the tragedy was a call to action.
“How obvious can it be that we have to ban assault weapons in our country,” said the Rev. Nancy Wilson, moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches Worldwide at a news conference for Equality Florida late Sunday.
Wilson is a past member of President Obama’s Faith Council and she echoed the president’s comments and made an appeal.
“Terror and hate crimes met each other in a powerful way,” she said. “In many ways, this is our Charleston....We have to take a stand against assault weapons.”
Miller, a first-term Republican state representative, said he was determined not to politicize the tragedy but the questions were unavoidable.
“I don't want any family to think there is anything political here but it’s a question that needs to be discussed,” Miller said. “We’ve got to have a national conversation about how we can prevent these things.”
Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris contributed to this report.