As Florida politicians react to the latest mass killings, a ballot initiative to ban assault-style weapons moves forward.
COMPILED FROM WIRE AND STAFF REPORTS
TALLAHASSEE – The El Paso and Dayton shootings could help fuel debate in Tallahassee about gun-control issues and ideas for preventing mass violence, starting with a Florida Senate review of factors such as White supremacist terrorism.
The shootings come after years of debate in Florida about gun-control issues, including whether to ban assault weapons. The Republican-dominated Legislature has rejected proposals by Democrats to ban the semiautomatic weapons, though a political committee, Ban Assault Weapons NOW, is trying to get a proposed ban on the November 2020 ballot.
“This weekend, we saw yet two more mass shootings in our country take the lives of 31 fellow Americans, with both shooters armed with military-grade assault weapons,” Gail Schwartz, chairwoman of Ban Assault Weapons NOW, said in a prepared statement.
“These events highlight the harsh reality: These killings will continue to happen, here in Florida and across the country, until we take action and do what our elected leaders have failed to do. We must ban these weapons of war.”
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, on Monday directed Senate Infrastructure and Security Chairman Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, to lead efforts to determine if any further action is needed after laws were enacted in the wake of the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
In the aftermath, the Legislature approved a wide-ranging measure that required schools to have safety officers, bolstered mental-health services and upgraded protections through school “hardening” projects.
The law also raised the minimum age from 18 to 21 and required a three-day waiting period for purchasing rifles and other long guns. The increase in the minimum age to purchase long guns drew a still-pending legal challenge from the National Rifle Association.
In May, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation (SB 7030) that built on the 2018 bill. Among other things, it expanded the controversial school “guardian” program to allow armed classroom teachers, put $75 million into school mental-health services and strengthened reporting requirements for potentially threatening incidents that happen on school premises.
State ‘red flag’
Part of the 2018 law established what is known as the “red flag” law, which allows law enforcement agencies to seize firearms from people they believe may pose a threat to themselves or others.
“With committee meetings resuming just one month from now, our focus should be on steps the Senate can take to review and better understand the various factors involved in mass shootings, in addition to, and also including, school shootings,” Galvano wrote in a memo to senators.
“This includes White nationalism, which appears to be a factor not only with regard to these recent mass shootings, but also with other acts of violence we have seen across the country in recent years.”
‘Focus on solutions’
DeSantis pointed to “recesses of the Internet” where people can share “vile” views and a need to look at White nationalism – along with other causes – when asked Wednesday about tackling mass violence.
But he also said, after a Purple Heart dedication ceremony at Tallahassee National Cemetery, that it’s not productive to any gun-safety dialogue to focus on partisan politics, as Democrats continued to criticize President Donald Trump after two mass shootings over the weekend.
“I have no interest in being part of people’s political narratives. I understand the narratives. I’ve seen it for years and years,” said DeSantis, an ally of the president. “I’m trying to focus on solutions, and that’s why we’ve been forward-looking on our threat assessment strategy.”
‘Never blamed Bernie’
DeSantis said delving into every word said by a politician as a way to find fault for a mass shooting only makes it harder to have discussions about preventive measures.
While Democrats have focused on Trump’s rhetoric, DeSantis, a former congressman, brought up a 2017 incident in which an activist who had worked on Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign shot four people, including Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise, during a GOP congressional baseball team practice.
“Absent of someone saying, ‘Hey, go do this,’ to try to cherry pick someone saying one thing and saying this led to that, I don’t think that’s productive,” DeSantis said. “That’s why I never blamed Bernie for (the) shooting (at) our baseball (practice), because as much as I disagree with what he (Sanders) says, what that individual did was not justifiable, and there was nothing that was said that would justify you doing that.”
DeSantis said that while it may still be too early to determine the impact of the mental-health aspects of the 2018 law – about 1,600 orders have been issued – he supports a proactive approach by law enforcement.
“You have the guy in El Paso, which obviously that was like an ethno-nationalist motivation. Obviously, the Pulse nightclub (mass shooting in Orlando in 2017) was militant Islam. And then you have some people who are just crazy, there’s not necessarily a clear motivation,” DeSantis said.
“I think you have to be familiar with all of those types of threats and have the warning signs identified and then do something about it.”
Another area he said needs to be addressed, even though the government is limited in what it can do, is the Internet.
“You have these recesses of the Internet where people who may not have a lot of common compatriots where they live, now they can all congregate in this community online and spread a lot of the vile stuff,” DeSantis said.
House may not follow
The Florida House isn’t expected to engage in a similar review before the January start of the 2020 session. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, released a statement in which he said “Racism, including White nationalism, is a vile, disgusting, un-American ideology.”
“We cannot lose sight, however, that those who subscribe to those beliefs are few and their ideas so rejected that their words and actions unify all Americans -– left and right, Black, White or Brown – in abhorrence and condemnation,” Oliva said.
Oliva noted that as a Hispanic American, he’s seen more generosity and inclusiveness than discrimination and hatred.
“What we know is; evil exists, all of us play part in either expanding hatred or loving our neighbor, and despite what we see on the news, America is a great place, filled with kind people, always willing to help a neighbor in need,” Oliva said. “We must ask ourselves more than ‘what to do’ we must figure out, as leaders and as a society, ‘who we are.’ ”
‘Deranged’ and ‘evil’
Attorney General Ashley Moody on Monday pointed to a need to prioritize public safety. Moody said during a news conference in Jacksonville that everyone should be “horrified, shocked and saddened” by the recent attacks and more needs to be done to detect “those that are mentally deranged, that would seek to do us harm.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley said on Twitter that “the ideology of White supremacy is evil.”
“It is the antithesis of what our country stands for and it offends God,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said. “It must be confronted aggressively so that it cannot metastasize further.”
‘Republicans won’t act’
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, urged Floridians to back the 2020 ballot proposal to ban assault weapons. Backers of the proposed constitutional amendment still need to submit hundreds of thousands of petition signatures and get a key approval from the Florida Supreme Court before the issue could go to voters.
“Republicans in FL won’t act on our epidemic of gun violence,” Farmer tweeted.
The proposed constitutional amendment seeks to ban “possession of assault weapons, defined as semiautomatic rifles and shotguns capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition at once, either in fixed or detachable magazine, or any other ammunition-feeding device.”
The measure, which would not prohibit handguns, includes an exemption for military and law-enforcement personnel “in their official duties.”
The proposal would allow people who already own assault weapons at the time the constitutional amendment goes into effect to keep them, if they register the guns with state law enforcement.
Moody is asking the Supreme Court to block the proposal from going on the ballot and reiterated Monday that she thinks the proposal’s wording is “misleading,” contending the proposal would ban possession of “about virtually every self-loading long gun.”
Ana Ceballos and Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.