Rules aren’t necessarily made to be broken, but they are designed to be waived. The rulebook of virtually every parliamentary body provides for that, usually by a two-thirds vote. The Florida Constitution Revision Commission didn’t hesitate to set rules aside last week to postpone adjournments or revive a proposal killed by an unfavorable vote in committee.
But when it came to protecting Floridians from mass slaughter, the rules were suddenly as sacrosanct as if Moses had brought them down from Mount Sinai. Three attempts to take up gun restrictions were ruled out of order because they weren’t pertinent to the subject of the measure on which their sponsors were trying to attach them. Motions to overrule the chairman’s decisions failed on voice votes.
The same fate met a perfectly proper motion to suspend the rules to address the menace of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The commission will never have a better reason to waive any rule. But that failed, too, on a voice vote that spared members from having it on the record how they favored instruments of death — and the companies that make and sell them — over the right to life of everyone in Florida.
The adoration of rules was a pretext for yet another abasement to the National Rifle Association, which is suing the state in federal court over the modest gun reforms the Legislature passed in response to the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Only six of the 37 commissioners hold elected offices that would make them sensitive to the gun lobby, but most were appointed by Republican politicians who are.
Gov. Rick Scott, a probable candidate for the U.S. Senate, appointed 15, including the chairman. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is expected to run for governor, chose nine. Another nine were appointed by Senate President Joe Negron, who has no immediate political plans. The three commissioners appointed by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga of the Florida Supreme Court strongly supported banning assault weapons. But Attorney General Pam Bondi, a commission member by virtue of her office, wasn’t, and spoke against the motions. An employee of hers, appointed by the governor, served as point man in raising objections to the gun amendments. He was reading from a script.
This is the third of the revision commissions, which are established every 20 years with the power to put constitutional amendments directly on the ballot. Those who appoint its members have rarely been shy about pulling strings. Negron, we’re told, has refrained from that, but Corcoran wrote publicly to the commission this week to express “grave concern” about writing any gun regulations into the state Constitution.
“The Constitution protects the right to keep and bear arms. All firearms policies flow from that fundamental right and should remain policy matters for the Legislature,” he said.
Corcoran’s missive sounded like the primal scream of a politician desperate to appease NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, who had denounced him — but not Negron or Scott — for the modest reform the Legislature passed and Scott signed into law. If he does run for governor, Corcoran would face two hard-line NRA supporters in the Republican primary.
Corcoran’s premise, moreover, was faulty. The Constitution already restricts the so-called “fundamental right.” An amendment ratified in 1988 requires a three-day waiting period to purchase a handgun. The 1987 Legislature put that on the ballot to head off a stronger voter initiative. This year’s modest new law requires a waiting period for rifles, as well. It also bans bump stocks and raises the legal age to purchase any weapon from 18 to 21.
One of the amendments rejected Wednesday would have added the new law’s provisions to the Constitution. Sponsor Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. district attorney, explained it would protect the law from attack in state courts. It was the first, and mildest, of the three amendments. Commissioner Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and former state senator, sponsored another.
Making the case for the strongest of them — a ban on the possession and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — Commissioner Hank Coxe noted that Florida had done nothing in the two years since a terrorist used them to murder 49 people at an Orlando nightclub. Now, it was in question whether the murder of 14 children and three adults at a public high school would move the mountain. Or whether public opinion would matter, either. In a recent poll, 73 percent of respondents wanted to vote on an assault weapons ban and 64 percent would vote yes.
In debate, Coxe exposed hypocrisy on the part of commissioners who said gun controls weren’t a proper subject for constitutional revision. He cited earlier votes to ban greyhound racing and support victims of crime.
“The legacy of the CRC is, as we stand here now given the germanity issue, that we worry about victim’s rights in Marsy’s Law, that we worry about the greyhounds, but, because of adherence to this rule, we do not worry about reducing the number of people murdered in the state of Florida,” Coxe said. “Forget germanity. Just waive the rules.”
But the gun lobby’s long reach won out, as it almost always has — and always will — in Tallahassee.
If Florida is ever to be protected from weapons of mass destruction that do not belong in civilian hands, the people themselves will have to do it through the power of voting. U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, Coral Springs Mayor Skip Campbell and Sunrise Mayor Mike Ryan previously announced plans for a voter initiative to put an amendment on the 2020 ballot if the commission didn’t send one to the voters this year. That’s two more years of inexcusable indifference to the uniquely American plague of mass shootings.
The commission’s failure came a week after the dramatic moment at a public hearing in which Commissioner Frank Kruppenbacher promised students and parents from Parkland, “In my heart I know the majority of this commission stands with you, and we will do what’s right.”
He did. They didn’t.