When Anitere Flores declared, unprompted, a month ago there were a lot of controversial gun-rights measures she wouldn’t support this year, the Miami Republican state senator truly set the tone for the Legislature’s gun debate in 2017.
With the session half over, only a handful of the two dozen pieces of gun-related legislation proposed this year have been considered at all, and of those, only a couple have a viable path at actually becoming law.
The House approved three such bills this week — two of which could likely be enacted this year, including highly divisive changes to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law — but lawmakers in both chambers and from both parties predict those measures will be the only ones on the table for this session.
Several attribute Flores — who is No. 2 in the Senate behind President Joe Negron, R-Stuart — as the reason.
“Senator Flores, I applaud her for her leadership and her courage because without her, we might be dealing with a lot of really extreme proposals,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.
“Florida has a lot to be thankful for with her,” agreed Michelle Gajda, volunteer state chapter leader for the gun-safety group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
The Legislature’s conversation around gun bills this spring is quite tame compared to 2016, when debates raged — and stretched throughout most of the session — particularly over proposed laws that would have allowed concealed guns on college and university campuses or to even be carried openly in public places throughout Florida. (Although both of those measures overwhelmingly passed the Republican-led House, they ended up stalling in the more-moderate Senate — as with this year, over a Miami Republican lawmaker’s opposition.)
Those same proposals were filed again this year — campus carry in both chambers, open carry just in the Senate — but they haven’t been taken up at all. Nor have several other controversial proposals to expand gun-owners’ rights, such as plans to eliminate some or all “gun-free zones” in the state.
“I think the members — not just myself, but some others — we’re a little gun-bill fatigued,” Flores told the Herald/Times in late March.
Longwood Republican Rep. Scott Plakon, who sponsored the House’s campus-carry bill this year, called Flores’ comment “more of a political answer, than a policy answer.”
“I don’t understand ‘bill fatigue,’ ” he said. “I think we should focus on the policy and, if it’s good, we should bring it up.”
When told Thursday of the credit many lawmakers were giving her for the demise of this year’s gun bills, Flores — who represents a more moderate constituency this year — said: “This is not about getting credit. This is really just about reflecting the people who elected me, doing what I think is the right public policy.”
“Probably for just as many people who are reaching out and making it seem like they’re crediting me for this being a good thing, there are a lot of other people who say this is a bad thing,” added Flores, who swiftly drew the ire of the powerful gun lobby after her remarks last month.
During the first week of session, when the Senate Judiciary Committee took up a bill to let concealed-weapons permit-holders temporarily store their guns at courthouse security, Flores said that was a “very limited situation” she could back but she pointedly added that many other gun bills — such as campus carry — wouldn’t have her support.
Fellow committee member and Hialeah Republican Sen. René García has also voiced opposition to campus carry, as well as reluctance about other controversial gun bills. Together, García’s and Flores’ positions have given them a lot of sway over which gun bills might actually advance in the Senate, since most are assigned to Judiciary first.
That power, specifically, has thwarted chairman Greg Steube from successfully moving all but one of his 10 gun bills through his committee, which has five Republicans and four Democrats.
Steube, a conservative Sarasota Republican who campaigned prominently on Second Amendment rights, has twice had to postpone one of his other bills; it primarily would change the penalties permit-holders face if they accidentally open carry or display their concealed gun. (A scaled-down version of that same bill passed the House on Wednesday mostly along party-lines, while Steube’s bill hasn’t moved.)
“It’s just the way the make-up of the committee is; Senator Flores made it pretty clear where she is,” Steube said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a hearing and get the opportunity for it to be heard.”
Even though he’ll most likely lack the favorable votes, Steube told the Herald/Times he plans to schedule hearings for some of the bills that would eliminate “gun-free zones” during what will be Judiciary’s final committee hearing of the session the week of April 17. The agenda detailing exactly which bills Steube will hear will be released next week.
Flores said she’d be “a little surprised” if Steube did that. “I’m hoping that before a bill like that would come up, he’d count the votes,” she said.
In the House, several members blame the Senate’s lack of interest as the reason the gun bills are stalling this session.
“A lot of it has to do with bill management more than anything else,” House Judiciary chairman Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said of the House’s decision not to hear most of its gun bills this year. “If there’s lack of movement in the other chamber on the bills, we try to minimize the amount of time we spend in committee on things that might not have a chance of success.”
However, the Senate’s different legislative priorities haven’t stopped the House in other cases from advancing bills its Republican majority wants enacted that the Senate doesn’t. (For instance, last week, House Republicans pushed through a bill targeting labor unions, which hasn’t gone anywhere in the Senate and isn’t likely to.)
Dover Republican and Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Ross Spano — whose committee was assigned to hear almost all of the House gun bills but only took up a few before it met for the final time in late March — did not return a message from the Herald/Times seeking comment.
As most of the more controversial pro-gun legislation hasn’t been heard this year, neither have any of the dozen gun-control measures Democrats had sought — particularly in the wake of last year’s mass shootings at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
“I was hopeful that we’d at least get a hearing on those bills,” said Broward County Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, who co-sponsored a bill seeking an assault-weapons ban and filed two other gun-safety bills, including one strengthening background check requirements.
“These are good policies, and it is frustrating when one interest group can flex its muscle and keep us from having an open and fair debate on those issues,” Farmer, of Lighthouse Point, said in reference to the NRA.
Marion Hammer, the NRA’s influential and longtime Tallahassee lobbyist, did not return voice-mail or text messages seeking comment for this story.
The two gun bills that seem to have the best chance at passing both chambers this year are: A first-in-the-nation law that shifts the burden of proof to prosecutors in “Stand Your Ground” pre-trial hearings, and another that would let private K-12 schools with religious institutions on site decide if they want to allow concealed weapons on their property.
Versions of the “Stand Your Ground” changes have passed both chambers. House and Senate leaders must now compromise on the exact language — which could prove more difficult than expected.
The bill affecting private schools was the third gun bill the House approved Wednesday. A more-limited version the Senate is considering still faces one more committee hearing before it could reach the floor. Republican proponents of the change argue the statewide ban on guns in all schools, including private ones, has prevented churches with schools attached from staffing private security guards who could otherwise legally carry concealed.
Of the remaining gun bills that have been filed, there’s still time for some of them to be considered, but the clock is quickly running out.
Both chambers’ policy committees meet for the final time during the third week in April. While political maneuvers after that date are possible — and not uncommon — House and Senate rules prohibit lawmakers from taking bills that weren’t already approved in committee and amending them onto a related bill that successfully made it to the floor.
“I think we’re finished; I have a suspicious feeling that today was ‘gun day,’ ” Coral Springs Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz said after Wednesday’s floor session. “I’m happy to see — especially with things around the country and what we experienced down in Fort Lauderdale — that even though there’s a bunch of gun bills moving that I don’t like, at least there was some measure this year on what they [House Republican leaders] were willing to bring to the floor for a vote.”
Gun bills in play this year
Of about two dozen gun-related proposals filed for the 2017 session, only six have been considered by either House or Senate committees to date. But only two of those have a truly viable chance at becoming law at this point.
▪ Stand Your Ground (SB 128, from Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka): Both the House and Senate want to shift the burden of proof in a criminal case where a defendant claims immunity under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law by requiring the prosecutor to prove at a pre-trial hearing why the defendant should not be granted immunity from prosecution. Status: Could become law. The House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the bill and must now agree on exact language.
▪ Guns in Religious Schools (SB 1330 / HB 849, from Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk County): These bills would create an exception to the statewide ban on guns in schools by letting private schools with “a religious institution ... located on the property” have the option of allowing concealed weapons on the premises, as any other private property has the right to do. Status: Could become law. The House passed its bill, and the Senate version has just one more committee hearing to reach the floor.
▪ Reduced penalties for open carry (SB 646 / HB 779, from Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and Combee): Both bills propose ways to reduce penalties for displaying a concealed gun by lowering the offense from a second-degree misdemeanor to non-criminal offenses, at least on the first and second violations. The Senate bill, however, would also let members of the Florida Cabinet — the state chief financial officer, attorney general and agriculture commissioner — who have a concealed weapons permit carry concealed “anywhere they are not prohibited by federal law.” Status: Not likely to pass. The House approved its version, but the Senate version has stalled after being twice postponed in Steube’s Judiciary Committee.
▪ Police waiting period exemption (SJR 910 and SB 912 / HJR 291 and HB 673, from Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Reps. Don Hahnfeldt, R-The Villages, and Robert Asencio, D-Miami): These measures propose for voters’ consideration and would implement a constitutional amendment to exempt law enforcement officers from the mandatory three-day waiting period for purchasing handguns. Status: Not likely to pass. The Senate bills have yet to be heard, although the House bills are ready to be voted on on the floor.
▪ Revise ‘Stand Your Ground’ Definition (SB 1052 / HB 677, from Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach): This would remove the requirement in Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law that requires a person to first be attacked in their home or vehicle before using or threatening to use force. Status: Not likely to pass. The House bill has yet to be heard, and the Senate bill has twice been postponed on the floor over disputes in technical amendments.
▪ Guns in Courthouses (SB 616, from Steube): It would allow concealed weapons permit-holders to carry guns in to courthouses and temporarily surrender and store the guns at a security checkpoint. Status: Not likely to pass. This has been approved by two of three Senate committees but it lacks a House companion, which is typically necessary for bills to become law.
Compiled by Kristen M. Clark, Herald/Times