Florida Senate keeps focus on gun violence as 2020 session kicks off
The Florida Senate kicked off the state’s 2020 legislative session Tuesday by recognizing those killed and injured during a shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola last month.
One after another they stood and were applauded — two mothers of slain soldiers, two soldiers who were injured, two law enforcement officers who were shot responding to the attack. It was a grim reminder of the gun violence that continues to be a fact of life in Florida.
A day earlier a Senate committee advanced bills expanding gun background checks and condemning white nationalism, proposals sparked by previous tragedies.
A series of devastating mass shootings have rocked Florida in recent years, including the 2018 slaughter of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Senate President Bill Galvano took the lead in responding to Parkland and continues to grapple with its aftermath nearly two years later.
No lawmaker is more responsible for elevating and changing the conversation surrounding gun violence in Florida in recent years than Galvano, and he continues to make it a priority in his last legislative session before term limits force him out.
The Senate president is forging ahead on the gun issue despite resistance from the governor and Republican leaders in the Florida House.
“I think it’s important,” Galvano said.
A low-key Republican legislator from Bradenton who is known for encouraging civility, Galvano had the gun issue thrust on him after Parkland. His leadership has changed how the GOP-controlled Legislature discusses the issue, with gun control measures up for consideration for the first time in decades.
After Parkland, Florida lawmakers passed a wide ranging school safety bill that included more money to harden campuses and a provision allowing school districts to arm teachers.
But the most surprising aspect of the bill was the series of gun restrictions in it, including raising the age to purchase guns from 18 to 21, requiring a waiting period for gun purchases and establishing a red flag program (also know as risk protection orders) that allows law enforcement to petition a judge to confiscate guns from troubled individuals.
Strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association, the gun control provisions were a major departure for a Florida GOP that had been known for advancing aggressive pro-gun legislation.
The NRA has kept up the drumbeat against new gun restrictions.
NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer slammed the background check bill — which would address the so-called gun show “loophole” — Monday during a Senate committee hearing as “nothing less than gun control on steroids.”
Hammer helped make Florida a laboratory for pro-gun legislation, but the politics have shifted on guns in recent years, with some Republican lawmakers willing to buck the NRA to advance modest gun restrictions.
“It’s a reflection of the fact that as a society you see a lot more support for reasonable gun measures,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. “There is a strong place and a strong commitment to protecting a personal right to bear arms, but I believe that as a nation and certainly as a state you’ve seen the tide shifting to recognize that you can still have a strong second amendment with reasonable measures to ensure people’s safety.”
The legislation being advance in the Senate (SB 7028) also builds on the red flag law adopted after Parkland. Mental health professionals already are required to warn law enforcement if a patient threatens to kill someone or cause serious injury and law enforcement. The bill would expand that warning requirement to paramedics, doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.
After being warned of such a threat, law enforcement would be required to petition for a risk protection order against the individual. The bill also sets aside $5 million in recurring funding so the Florida Department of Law Enforcement can hire 37 new employees for a “targeted violence prevention” program, and makes a host of other changes aimed at preventing more shootings.
Whether any of these proposals have a chance of passing the House and securing the governor’s signature remains to be seen.
DeSantis questioned Tuesday whether there is even such a thing as the gun show loophole.
“There’s no exemption for gun shows,” DeSantis said, adding: “When they say that to me I don’t know really what it is.”
State Sen. Tom Lee, who is sponsoring the gun bill, said the disconnect may be an issue of “semantics.” Lee said in most Florida counties such a loophole does exist, and it’s not just limited to gun shows.
“The place that most commonly would happen would be at something like a gun show so people refer to it as the gun show loophole; it’s actually something much broader than that,” he said.
Lee said his bill preempts local governments and says “we’re going to ban the sale of weapons in any public place unless there is a background check conducted at the time of the sale.”
Regardless, DeSantis seems skeptical of expanding background checks. There also is no companion bill in the House.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, said Tuesday that “we’re always very careful when we in any way start to infringe on those things that people consider their constitutional rights.”
Facing significant opposition within his own party to expanding gun restrictions, Galvano said he is forging ahead “because it’s important.”
“It’s important that we look at these issues in their totality,” Galvano said. “That’s what we set out to do; that’s what I told the people of Florida that we would do.”
Galvano has plenty of experience navigating the tricky politics of the gun debate. He was criticized by both the right and left for the package of school and gun safety proposals that passed after the Parkland shooting.
Democrats, some Republicans and many teachers and parents fought hard against the proposal to arm school personnel, and dozens of school districts decided not to use the guardian program.
Meanwhile a number of Republicans opposed the legislation because of the gun control measures. But Galvano crafted a compromise bill that gained enough support to pass.
“That’s part and parcel to being in the Legislature process, it’s a give and take and a exchange of ideas and it’s incumbent upon the sponsors of bills and the members of bodies to explain and make the correct arguments,” Galvano said.
He added: “I mean if you would have said to me three years ago that we were gonna do what we did two years ago in the wake of Parkland I would have said, boy that’s going to be a really difficult lift in the Legislature that I’ve lived in for many, many years.”
But even if nothing else happens this year on gun safety, Galvano still will have left mark.
“In all my years in the Legislature — and I’ve been here 16 just like the Senate president — this is the first time I’ve really seen us take so many steps towards addressing gun violence,” Flores said.