When the annual 60-day legislative session gets under way next month, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will be looking for ways to keep Florida’s kids safe from guns.
Statewide, the number of children killed by guns has risen nearly 20 percent since 2010, a Tampa Bay Times analysis has found. Child gun injuries went up 36 percent.
Not surprisingly, the solutions up for consideration this year differ radically along party lines. Democrats want to tighten the existing law that hold adults criminally liable when kids access their firearms, and increase the penalties. But the lawmaker with the most power over the matter has a different idea.
“We could do away with gun-free zones,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, naming a key piece of the National Rifle Association’s agenda in Florida.
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Florida law currently prohibits concealed weapons in 15 types of locations, including elementary through high schools. Steube and other Republican lawmakers have argued that people are generally less safe in these so-called “gun-free zones” because they cannot protect themselves in an active-shooter situation.
“There’s not a school resource officer in every one of our elementary schools,” he said. “If a terrorist wants to come in and start shooting our kids, there’s nothing to stop them.”
The Times looked at all types of gun incidents that affect children: accidents, suicides and shootings that took place during the commission of a crime, among them. The newspaper found the number of accidents and assaults were roughly even between 2010 and 2015, but that accidents increased far faster than assaults or suicides.
More than a quarter-century ago, Florida took the lead on preventing accidental firearm incidents. In 1989, it became the first state to lock up gun owners for failing to secure their firearms around kids.
Under the law, which remains on the books, a gun owner can face second-degree misdemeanor charges if a child 15 or younger accesses his or her weapon and takes it to a public place or waves it in a threatening way. If the child uses the weapon to kill or injure someone, the gun owner can face third-degree felony charges punishable with a fine of up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison.
The 1989 law achieved “significant, impressive results,” said Ari Freilich, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. A 2000 study in the journal Pediatrics found it was associated with a 51 percent drop in unintentional child gun deaths.
But some gun-safety advocates contend that the measure isn’t working as well as it once did, in part because people have forgotten about it.
Florida law requires gun stores to warn potential buyers about the criminal penalties they could face if children access their firearms. But in 2014, the League of Women Voters of Florida sent representatives into about 30 gun stores from Tallahassee to Miami, and found fewer than half had the warning posted.
“It was clear that safety was not a priority,” said Patricia Brigham, who formed the league’s gun safety committee.
What’s more, convictions are rare. Only nine people were convicted of the felony charge between 2010 and 2016, Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show.
Some Democrats say the language needs to be tightened to allow for more prosecutions.
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, and Rep. Patricia Hawkins-Williams, D-Lauderdale Lakes, want to remove language allowing gun owners to store their firearms somewhere “a reasonable person would believe it to be secure,” and instead require the use of a safe or a trigger lock when children are around. Their bill would also allow prosecutors to bring charges even if no child accesses the weapon (SB 142/HB 835).
Three liberal-leaning states — California, Minnesota and Massachusetts — and the District of Columbia already have that latitude, according to the national advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. In Florida, “it could lead to a higher rate of prosecution and strengthen cultural norms,” said Everytown attorney Andrew Karwoski.
Farmer concedes it will be difficult to charge a gun owner for failing to properly store a firearm if a child doesn’t actually get the weapon. The misdemeanor charge could be brought if police officers were called to a home for a different reason and spotted an unsecured gun.
A separate proposal by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, seeks to increase the penalties on gun owners if their firearms are accessed by kids (SB 648). It would also enable prosecutors to press felony charges if the child fires the weapon; current law only allows for felony charges if the child hurts someone.
Additionally, Book’s bill would increase the penalties for carrying a gun on or around a public-school campus.
“You can’t make sure every family stores their weapons properly,” she said. “But you can help reduce the number of incidents. You can reduce the risk.”
The fate of the proposals will be largely determined by Steube, who, as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, will decide which gun-related bills get a hearing.
Steube said he was “comfortable” with the law, as it currently exists.
“It makes it illegal to not have your firearm locked in the presence of children,” he said, adding that he keeps his own firearms in a safe when his 6-year-old son is around.
Steube favors an entirely different approach. He believes allowing permitted gun owners to carry their weapons in places like schools could protect children from potential threats.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, R-The Villages, have filed proposals to allow concealed weapons in the 15 locations they are currently prohibited, including elementary, middle and high school campuses (SB 908/HB 803).
It is too soon to say if the measure will advance. But already, groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America say they are prepared to fight it.
“If we allow guns in public schools there will be more unintentional shootings involving children,” said Michelle Gajda, the group’s Florida chapter leader. “The public safety of Floridians must be the number one priority for lawmakers — not the gun lobby’s agenda.”