It’s clear the Florida Legislature will do nothing to ban the sale and possession of military-style, high-velocity, semi-automatic rifles – the weapon of choice in America’s epidemic of mass shootings.
Banning these weapons – whose bullets pulverize human organs and minimize a person’s chance of survival – is the single biggest step lawmakers could take to ensure public safety at schools, malls, theaters, airports, concerts, restaurants, universities and other public places.
A strong majority of Americans support an assault weapons ban. Polls put the number at around 70 percent since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 people were killed, and 16 injured, by a young man with an AR-15.
President Ronald Reagan, the standard-bearer of conservative Republicans, supported such a ban. Yet the Republicans who control Tallahassee won’t even discuss it. They say a ban would infringe on Second Amendment rights. More importantly, a large bloc of Republicans are single-issue voters on gun rights. For political reasons, their voices ring louder than those of the many Florida students, teachers, parents and communities who are crying for common sense gun laws.
That said, for the first time in about 20 years, the Republican-led Legislature appears poised to take some baby-step reforms on gun laws. And for this they deserve some credit.
It makes sense, as is proposed, to require someone who wants to buy a rifle from a licensed dealer to be at least 21 years old, undergo a criminal background check and wait three days before taking possession. It’s what’s required of people who buy handguns. This would do nothing about people who buy guns from neighbors or at gun shows. But something is better than nothing.
Such an increase would have stopped the Parkland shooter from buying his weapon of mass destruction, though not the Pulse nightclub shooter in Orlando, who was 30 years old. The median age of those who commit mass shootings in America is 28. Still, half a loaf is better than no loaf.
It also makes sense, as is proposed, to ban bump stocks, which convert semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons. Neither the Parkland or Orlando shooters used this device, but it was used to kill 58 people – and injure more than 500 – at an outdoor Las Vegas concert. The Florida House would delay implementation until October, giving people time to dispose of them. It’s February. How much time do they need? And what if someone uses one to kill people before then? Still, it’s better than nothing.
And it makes sense, as is proposed, to expand the Baker Act program to let police officers confiscate weapons from people whom they, or families, consider dangerous. The proposal also would let unstable people be held longer for observation. And it would take their guns away for 60 days, and perhaps a second 60 days, if law enforcement convinces the courts the person remains a clear and convincing threat.
The NRA hates all of these changes. We’re told lawmakers with an A+ rating have been told they'll be downgraded to a D if they support the changes. There’s also talk of “primarying” Republicans who vote in favor of the legislation. Because so many political districts are solidly Republican or Democrat, incumbent politicians often fear a primary opponent more than opposition in the general election.
The proposal has other measures, too, about hardening schools with metal detectors, bullet-proof windows and more armed guards. Students would get annual access to a mental health counselor. And $400 million to $500 million would be budgeted to pay for all this, though it’s hard to see how that would be enough. Still, it’s a start.
But what African-American lawmakers consider a “poison pill” emerged Tuesday, when a change was made to the provision to arm teachers under a “marshal program.”
Tuesday was the sixth anniversary of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the teenager killed in Sanford by a law enforcement wannabe. His death brought the national spotlight to Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which eliminates the duty to try to retreat before shooting someone. Among the many guns-rights laws Tallahassee has passed over the years, “stand your ground” remains the biggest open wound.
Until Monday night, Bobby DuBose, an African-American representative from Fort Lauderdale, thought he was going to vote for the bill. Though he doesn’t want to arm teachers and wants an assault weapons ban, he said he wanted to demonstrate the bipartisan ability to get something done. He, like other members of the Black Caucus, thought he could live with the proposal to arm teachers who volunteer and undergo training. The proposal would have required both a county’s sheriff and school superintendent to opt in.
More than most, black lawmakers worry that armed teachers might pull a gun in an altercation with a student. They’re especially concerned because black students face disproportionately more discipline in schools.
Late Monday night, the bill was changed to eliminate the requirement that both a county’s sheriff and its schools superintendent agree to the marshal program in their county, which puts a check on the system. Now it’s just one.
“It’s not easy to be on the opposite side of this bill,” DuBose said. He noted that for what was supposed to be a bipartisan effort, none of the Democrats’ amendments were considered. “Not one.”
“When these kids came to talk to us, they asked us to ban the AR-15,” he said. “We’re not even entertaining it. We’re now arming teachers with guns. They asked us not to do that. Let’s listen to this generation … Let’s listen to these kids.”
Whether the Senate agrees to let teachers carry concealed weapons into classrooms remains to be seen. Most teachers don’t want it. Most superintendents don’t want it. Most school boards don’t want it.
Neither does Gov. Rick Scott, whose daughter is a teacher, want it.
To preserve the half a loaf supported by a fragile majority of lawmakers, Gov. Rick Scott should quickly make clear whether he will support a bill that arms teachers, especially over the objections of superintendents and sheriffs.
“The governor needs to tell us, is he going to veto the bill if the marshal program is in it?” says Rep. Jared Moskowitz, whose district includes many families whose children attend Stoneman Douglas. “He needs to tell us that. He can’t keep us guessing.”
It’s said that if both sides hate a bill, it must be a good bill. But sometimes, it’s a bad bill.
The governor should make clear whether the marshal program, as proposed by the House, makes the baby-step bill something he cannot sign.