Politics & Government

More gun control makes Florida safer, proponents say

Miami Police detectives register guns collected from the public during a gun buy back event hosted by the department and the Rickia Isaac Foundation at Dorsey Park in Miami, December 17, 2016.
Miami Police detectives register guns collected from the public during a gun buy back event hosted by the department and the Rickia Isaac Foundation at Dorsey Park in Miami, December 17, 2016. El Nuevo Herald

Since the summer shooting that devastated Latin night at Pulse, an Orlando gay nightclub, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith has worn a rainbow-patterned ribbon on his lapel.

It’s a physical reminder of 49 lives lost seven months ago in the worst mass shooting this country has seen, an event that led Smith, who is gay and Hispanic, to focus on gun control in his first campaign for the Florida House of Representatives.

“I see a Florida, a safer Florida, where there are fewer guns because only the more responsible, law-abiding gun owners are allowed to possess those weapons and they can only possess certain kinds of weapons to protect themselves,” said Smith, a Democrat whose district is just five miles from Pulse.

Gun-control supporters — mostly Democrats — don’t have much clout in the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature. Still, they’re pushing new restrictions they say will make it harder for potentially dangerous people to obtain firearms.

They are quick to say they don’t want to take away people’s guns. But they do want an end to what Dania Beach Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne calls a “Swiss cheese” approach to gun regulations.

Legislation they are proposing this year would:

▪ Ban assault rifles like the SIG Sauer MCX, which was used to kill 49 people at Pulse, and high-capacity magazines that carry more than seven rounds of ammunition. Assault weapons are “only there to kill others,” Jenne said.

▪ Require background checks for all gun purchases, closing loopholes that allow people to buy firearms at gun shows and from another individual without having their personal history reviewed. Researchers believe that as many as 22 percent of gun owners obtain their weapons without a background check.

▪ Tighten a law mandating that loaded guns be kept in locked storage when they are near children 16 and younger.

▪ Block people on terrorist watch lists from buying guns, which Democrats tried and failed to do after the Pulse shooting and which leaders say is likely to come back in some form during the legislative session that begins March 7.

Lawmakers also say they want stricter requirements to obtain a concealed carry permit, as well, though they have not proposed legislation to do so. Right now, permit holders have to be 21 years old, pass a gun-safety course and pay a $102 fee.

Ban assault weapons

For inspiration, activists in Florida look to states like Connecticut, where the governor signed an assault weapons ban into law after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or California, which has notoriously strict gun-control provisions in law.

What has worked in other countries — like Australia, where a 35-person killing in 1996 led to strict nationwide gun controls — won’t fly in the U.S., supporters say.

“There is no nation in the world that has the gun culture that the United States has, so we need an American solution,” said Jenne, whose district includes the Fort Lauderdale airport where five people were shot on Jan. 6. “For me, this is not about the event of last Friday. This is about policy as a whole and what’s going to keep people safe.

Banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are popular solutions proposed by gun-control advocates across the country. After the Pulse shooting, a Florida ban became a priority for the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.

Such guns are designed only to kill and make mass shootings easier, some advocates say.

But even some of the most ardent gun-control activists say banning assault weapons is a wrong-headed approach. The bigger problem is handguns, said Michelle Gajda of Tampa, the Florida chapter leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

“[Assault weapons] are not used in the majority of mass shootings and not in the big picture of gun violence in America,” she said.

Close background loopholes

Instead of emphasizing assault weapons, experts suggest that gun law reformers should focus on better background checks.

“Most gun purchases that end up leading to violence are made in ways other than from a licensed dealer,” said Gary Kleck, a professor emeritus of criminology at Florida State University who has researched gun laws for decades. “Most purchases are not subject to background checks. [Laws requiring background checks] are effective because they are all-encompassing and it would probably be advisable for Florida.”

Ten years after Connecticut started mandating background checks and permits to buy a handgun in 1995, researchers at the University of California and Johns Hopkins found a 40 percent drop in homicide rates that they believe is attributable to the new law.

State Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Parkland, whose district includes the Fort Lauderdale airport, plans to file a bill that would make it harder to legally skirt background checks when buying a gun in Florida.

“Right now, we’ve got too many loopholes in the law,” he said.

Critics say there’s no need to make the kinds of sweeping changes supported by gun-control reformers.

Background check laws on the books now are sufficient, they say, and changes won’t bring about substantial reductions in gun violence.

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said targeting assault weapons is “obsessing over the instruments of violence, rather than the problem of violence.”

Editor’s note

In the past seven months, mass shootings at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport have brought renewed scrutiny to Florida’s gun laws. The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau examined two competing ideas to change those laws: One would ease access to guns in hopes that armed bystanders could prevent more tragedies. The other would restrict gun access, making it harder for would-be killers to obtain weapons. But in a state Capitol where guns are a divisive and sometimes politically toxic topic, dramatic change is almost certain to fail.