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5 years after Pulse shooting, Florida has seen few gun reforms

Steven Lemongello, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in Political News

ORLANDO, Fla. — Gun reform advocates vowed action after 49 people were killed in the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando five years ago, but since then state and federal leaders have accomplished little toward that goal.

After years of repeated mass shootings, including the third in Miami in two weeks on Sunday, advocates worry the country is becoming numb to gun violence.

“We’re living now in a culture that has normalized these mass shootings,” said Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a senior adviser to the gun reform group called Giffords and a former Democratic congresswoman from South Florida. “We’re living in a culture where Americans love their guns more than they love their community members, their neighbors, their friends. And unfortunately, many people think that this is one more incident that’s happening in another city, and it doesn’t touch you.”

Days after Pulse on June 12, 2016, Democrats held a sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House trying to force Republicans to vote on gun control. But the effort failed, as did Democratic calls for a special session of the Florida Legislature to address reforms.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, has introduced bills to ban sales of assault-style rifles in Florida every year since his election in 2016. None has come to a vote in the GOP-controlled chamber.

“We’ve got problems in Tallahassee because we appear to be going in the opposite direction,” Smith said. “We have not been given a single hearing by the majority party, even if symbolic. They refuse to put this issue on the agenda. [But] the issue is not going away.”

Just this year, Democratic bills to require background checks for the sale or transfer of ammunition, increasing requirements for safe storage of firearms, and to allow local governments to set their own gun laws all failed to come to a vote on the floor.

Instead, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law preventing local governments from regulating guns. A bill allowing guns on properties at churches attached to schools also passed, though bills introduced by state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, allowing open carrying of guns on college campuses have died in committee for three straight years.

GOP cites personal rights

Leaders of the GOP say their opposition to gun reforms comes down to the issue of personal rights.

“The Republican Party of Florida supports all rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and the Second Amendment is no exception,” said Florida Republican spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre.

Ferre responded to a request to interview state Sen. Joe Gruters, head of the GOP in the state.

The lack of action comes even as polls have shown a vast majority of Americans, Republicans included, support some reforms.

A Politico/Morning Consult poll from March showed 84% of voters, including 77% of Republicans, supported closing the gun show “loophole” and requiring all gun buyers to go through a background check. That echoes similar polls over the past few years, including a Washington Post-ABC News poll from 2019.

Ferre, though, said the March poll “flies in the face of numerous recent reports of increases in the sale of firearms and ammunition, including first-time buyers, in the face of increased violent crimes over the last year.”

A bill closing the gun show loophole passed a Republican-controlled state Senate committee in 2020 but then died in another committee.

Ferre said it was Republicans who introduced and passed the only successful gun reform legislation in Florida in the five years since Pulse.

The law, signed by Gov. Rick Scott in the immediate aftermath of the 17 deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in February 2018, raised the minimum age to buy rifles and shotguns from 18 to 21.

 

The law also extended a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases to include long guns and banned bump stocks that allow guns to mimic fully automatic fire. It also allowed some school staffers to be armed.

Smith said the bill was “slammed together” in response to the increased pressure caused by such a tragic shooting happening in the middle of the legislative session. Lawmakers realized they had to do something after the students from the South Florida school stormed the Florida Capitol in the weeks after the shooting to demand action.

“When it comes to the Republicans, they’re very reactionary,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. “And after every major mass shooting, we see they want to do something because the light is shining on them at that time. But as soon as the news cycle passes, they’re back to their old ways.”

The NRA holds sway

The law was passed over the fierce opposition of the National Rifle Association, and in the years since attempts have been made by some Republicans to claw back some of its provisions.

The NRA, though, is in a much weaker position than it was in 2016 thanks to its bankruptcy and legal troubles, including a lawsuit alleging that CEO Wayne LaPierre and other leaders spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on private charter planes, lavish gifts and personal expenses, according to media reports.

But Democrats said they believe when it comes to holding sway over Republicans, the NRA hasn’t lost much of a step.

“Despite what people think of the NRA, they’re investing millions of dollars right now nationally,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “... Even though they’re having issues, they continue to use their power to influence Republicans in Congress to prevent them from taking action to protect our communities.”

On the federal level, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park, cited Pulse as one of the reasons she decided to run for Congress just weeks later.

“One of the key areas that I focused on when I got to Congress was on trying to lift the 22-year ban on gun violence research,” she said. “And I’m proud to say that we were able to achieve that.”

Murphy introduced the research amendment onto a budget bill in 2018 and later locked down $25 million in funding for 16 studies, including the risk of suicides among U.S. Army soldiers.

“It was really the aftermath of Parkland that allowed that initiative to gain the bipartisan support he needed to get over the finish line and become law,” she said. “But more needs to be done.”

She pointed to the Democratic-controlled House’s passage of HR8, which requires background checks for all gun purchases. But it’s stalled in the Senate, where bills need 60 out of 100 votes in order to proceed because of the filibuster.

“If we continue down this path, we will see almost every American be touched by gun violence,’' Mucarsel-Powell said. “And these are not just numbers. These are our parents, our children, our loved ones, who are now in danger of losing their life when they go to school, when they go to church, when they go out shopping. It is happening everywhere.”

Jones concluded that increased familiarity may end up being what ultimately pushes reform forward.

“I’m a firm believer that until it happens to you, you remain as callous as you are,” Jones said. “And that’s exactly where the Republicans are at right now, [unlike] the Pulse parents and family members, or the parents of the kids from Parkland, or the mothers in Miami … So the only way change will happen is that, unfortunately, it will have to hit home.”

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