Gun Politics Stir Up Florida Midterm Races
In the wake of last week's school shooting that left 17 people dead and sparked an unprecedented wave of youth activism about guns in America, Florida finds itself at the center of the political universe.
In the more immediate term, the Republican-led state legislature is under pressure to consider proposals spurred by the mass shooting before the legislative session ends on March 9; the outcome could be a harbinger for federal gun measures. And it could also shape high-profile races in November, as the state will be hosting competitive contests for governor, U.S. Senate and multiple congressional seats.
For example, term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott is expected to challenge Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson for the U.S. Senate. House Speaker Richard Corcoran is likely to wage a bid for governor, facing a primary against Rep. Ron DeSantis, who is backed by President Trump, and state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has made gun-owner rights a pillar of his campaign.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidates for these offices are united in calling for a ban on assault weapons and enhancing other gun-control policies, a signal of where their base is on the issue even in a purple state.
Florida has long been considered a bastion for expanded gun rights and looser restrictions, leading the way on issues like concealed carry and Stand Your Ground laws. Governor Scott signed two new laws during his tenure that were ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the courts: one that would expand the current Stand Your Ground law and another that would bar doctors from discussing guns with their patients. The state legislature did not take action on guns after shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed 49 people in 2016, and at the Ft. Lauderdale airport, which killed five people last year.
And earlier this week, as student survivors from the Parkland shooting filled the state capitol in Tallahassee, the legislature voted down a motion to consider a ban on semi-automatic rifles.
Yet there have been some signs to indicate that the politics could be shifting under the new public pressure.
In a CNN-sponsored town hall in Broward County Wednesday night, Sen. Marco Rubio said he would support increasing the age limit for purchasing rifles and putting in place restraining orders that would take guns from those considered mentally unstable. He also said he would oppose arming teachers, after Trump suggested doing so earlier in the day. Perhaps most notably, Rubio, who voted against a bipartisan measure to expand background checks in 2013, said he would reconsider his opposition to banning high-capacity magazines, a centerpiece for gun-control advocates.
The Florida Republican said he learned information through the Parkland shooting that he couldn't reveal but that caused him to revisit the issue. While such a ban would not have prevented the shooting, he said, it might have saved the lives of three of four students. "I believe we can reach a compromise in this country and that I am willing to reconsider because I do believe that in this instance, it wouldn’t have prevented the attack but it made it less lethal," he said amid jeering from the audience.
Rubio's Democratic counterpart, Nelson, advocated for a permanent ban on assault-style rifles, calling it one of the "common-sense solutions" to mass shootings during the town hall. Nelson said he grew up on a ranch in Florida and still hunts, but insisted that an "AR-15 is not for hunting, it's for killing."
At the CNN-sponsored event, Nelson took a swipe at his expected rival for his absence. "Our governor did not come here, Gov. Scott, but Marco did," he said. Scott declined CNN's invitation, citing work on the issue in Tallahassee.
Despite the state's conservative history on gun laws, Democrats see little liability in running on the issue statewide. While Trump won Florida in 2016, he carried it by just over one percentage point. And Scott won his gubernatorial re-election by a single point in 2014, which was considered a banner year for Republicans. And last week, Democrats flipped a state House seat in a Sarasota district that Trump had won overwhelmingly, indicating that opportunities exist for Democrats in suburban areas.
"If you add this gun control issue to so many of the other things that have incensed and incentivized Democrats and independent voters around the country, this could make a difference," said veteran Florida Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich. "If anything close to this intensity and commitment continues, it could be very significant. Typically, the passion of the young, if it doesn't wane it at least wanders."
Stipanovich said action taken by the legislature in the coming weeks will be key in determining how the gun issue plays in November. If lawmakers are unable to come up with some gun-related provisions, however narrow, that could complicate Scott’s path in the general election for the U.S. Senate. The advocacy group founded by Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman who was shot in the head during a constituent event in 2011, launched a six-figure ad buy this week going after the governor on guns.
But in the race to succeed him, the pressure is being felt in the competitive primaries. Corcoran, the House speaker considering a run, said the legislature would unveil measures by the end of the week. Some new proposals being talking about in Tallahassee include raising the age limit for purchasing assault weapons, adding a waiting period to purchase, and taking guns from those deemed mentally ill.
But Corcoran, who is running anti-sanctuary city ads that warn constituents about getting killed by undocumented immigrants, signaled there would be little appetite for changes to gun laws. "Being in elected office, you have to be very, very, very careful how much authority and power you bring to government," he told students at the capitol this week, according to the New York Times. "The greatest atrocities known to mankind have been committed by governments”
Putnam, the agriculture commissioner, recently described himself as a "proud NRA sellout" and pushed for a bill that would provide concealed-carry permits if background checks weren’t completed in time. In the wake of the shooting, however, Putnam advocated postponing action on the measure.
And U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who represents the Jacksonville area and is also running for governor, has named a different culprit in aftermath of the shooting: "Catastrophic failure by the FBI re: the Parkland killer. Protecting society requires a basic level of competence by the authorities. Having members of the public identify threats won't be effective if the authorities fail to act," he tweeted. DeSantis is a top Trump ally in Congress, and the president has endorsed his gubernatorial bid.
Republicans say Trump could be a wildcard on the issue. While his level of engagement on the legislative front remains to be seen, he could eventually provide political cover for party members running in Florida.
On Wednesday, Trump held an hour-long, televised listening session at the White House with students and families of victims from various shootings. In addition to proposing an end to gun-free school zones, Trump also said he would push for stronger background checks and would support increasing the age limit for buying firearms. Earlier this week, he directed the Justice Department to propose ways to ban the use of bump stocks, the mechanism used in the Las Vegas shooting that effectively turn semi-automatic rifles into fully automatic weapons.
Still, other states have offered warning signs for local legislatures. Colorado passed a package of gun laws after a shooter killed 12 people in a movie theater in 2012. The following year, however, voters recalled two Democratic state lawmakers for their votes on the measure.
While that kind of pushback may be concerning to Republicans in Florida, Democratic candidates there seem undeterred. Three Democrats running for governor have immersed themselves in the issue, calling for stricter gun laws. Former U.S. Rep Gwen Graham, the daughter of former governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham, tweeted Wednesday: "The Legislature had better get out of bed with the gun lobby and DO SOMETHING. NOW.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum also joined student protests around the capitol, telling them: "I believe that weapons of war belong in the military and not in our city streets."
And former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine launched a television ad calling for a permanent ban on assault rifles, in addition to other regulations. "And if the legislature won't do it, we will," he said.