February 22, 2018
TALLAHASSEE — In a major and unprecedented move toward gun-control in the Republican-led Florida Legislature, the outlines are forming of a deal that would call on age limits and waiting periods for so-called assault rifles as well as a new program to arm school personnel to prevent future classroom slaughters.
The momentum for the quick legislative action after years of inaction was last week’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead. Students from that Parkland, Florida, school have flooded the capitol this week to lobby lawmakers for gun control legislation and have already suffered some stinging setbacks.
“When the people clamor at the rate that they have in the shadow of a terrible massacre like we saw, you see a reaction that you otherwise would not see,” said state Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami Lakes) who’s set to take over the House after this legislative session and acknowledged that he never expected to move gun control in the chamber.
Oliva said, however, that the students who traveled to Tallahassee to urge action on gun control Wednesday will probably be “disappointed” because lawmakers won’t ban military-style semiautomatic rifles.
Oliva said he’s not locking down Republican members to vote for the legislation, which he’ll likely unveil later this week or early next week, because “it’s a conscience vote and a Constitutional issue that every member has to decide.” But House members say the fact that the second-most powerful man in the top-down House will carry the legislation helps ensure its passage.
Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican leading the talks on the Senate side, said that removing schools as so-called gun-free zones has gone a long way to bringing Republicans along to support age and wait period increases for semiautomatic rifles, such as AR-15’s.
The program that is getting the focus is called the Sentinel Program, which has been implemented by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd at Southeastern University last year. It allows specially trained school staff to carry concealed weapons on campus to respond to an active shooter.
“The Sentinel Program has picked up a lot of steam on both sides,” Galvano said.
He said that increasing the wait times for military-style semiautomatic rifles to three days and age limit for purchase to 21, both currently in place for handguns, have also been key elements of negotiations. Authorities say the Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz is 19 years old and used an AR-15 to mow down his victims. He’s facing 17 counts of premeditated murder.
“We have had some productive negotiations so far,” Galvano said. “We are moving quickly towards agreement, and think we can have something as soon as the end of this week.”
Also backing Republican lawmakers: Florida Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump, who have both signaled that they’re open to some measured gun-control legislation. Scott plans to announce legislation on Friday to address school safety and keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
Still, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who wants to run for governor in a three-way GOP primary, has been uncharacteristically quiet and been put in a no-win situation politically, allies say, because the NRA is expected to oppose provisions of the bill that would increase regulations semiautomatic rifles, such as AR-15s.
“The smart ones are watching what Rick Scott does and what President Trump does and they’ll see today that the president is talking about age limits,” said a top Republican ally of the speaker who’s familiar with his thinking.
“If you’re Richard Corcoran, you wait and you don’t say anything so you can embrace Donald Trump and Rick Scott,” the source said. “It’s also important to say that how Richard votes could be different from the legislation that Oliva carries.”
Corcoran did speak with a group of Parkland students Wednesday on the House floor. He told them he wants to increase funding for armed school resource officers, get a special counsel to review failures that led to the shooting, and beef up background checks.
Corcoran played host to a crushing defeat for many of the students on Tuesday when he oversaw the House’s procedural vote to kill consideration of a ban on assault weapons, which is what many of the Parkland survivors had demanded of lawmakers. Some students were visibly upset when watching the vote.
Corcoran was asked directly about that issue Wednesday by the group of students he met with on the House floor.
“What I tell my kids about being in elected office, you have to be very careful of what authority you give the government,” he said. “I don’t think that [a ban] is the solution.”
Asked by the students why they should “trust” him, Corcoran responded: “We want this to be the end of it.”
Another ally of Corcoran’s expressed concern that he will pay a price that will only benefit one of his likely opponents, Rep. Ron DeSantis, in the race to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Passage in the Florida House, the more conservative and reactionary chamber in the Florida Legislature, is not guaranteed, Oliva said. Nor is opposition by the NRA a sure thing. NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said she wants to see the legislation first but has expressed concern to others about any incremental gun control measures.
House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Naples, said that if the gun bill’s tentative current outline holds, he does think there is a sense that there can be broad support in his chamber, which is the bigger sticking point.
“We think there is support there from a lot of members,” he said, while stressing negotiations are ongoing.
Many Republicans hail from GOP-heavy districts where they’re vulnerable to challenges from the right and some count on the endorsement of groups like the NRA. For state Rep. Jay Fant (R-Jacksonville), who’s running in a crowded GOP primary for attorney general on a gun rights platform, the waiting period doesn’t make much sense.
“So a law-abiding citizen is punished by a three-day waiting period, while a criminal gets a gun off the street?” Fant asked. “Why punish the law-abiding citizen?”
Fant said, however, that he would have to see the entire package of legislation before commenting on how he would vote.
Oliva, who said he owns an AR-15, said the weapon “blurs the line” between a handgun and a traditional rifle. But he thinks it should be regulated more like a pistol.
“A semiautomatic rifle like this one has more in common with a handgun in its use and capability than a traditional hunting rifle or a shotgun,” Oliva said.
Oliva said the legislation he envisions wouldn’t just deal with waiting periods and age limits for military-style semiautomatic rifles. The bill might also call for more mental health funding, more money for “hardening” schools and a new program for training specially chosen armed school personnel, modeled after Polk County’s “Sentinel” program.
Mirroring Corcoran’s special counsel idea, Oliva said he also wants a fact-finding panel of lawmakers to investigate what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on the Valentine’s Day massacre.
“There were 39 visits to this shooter’s home. There were signs from the school. But when DCF [the Florida Department of Children and Families] met with the school, it would not share information. And then there’s the FBI issue,” Oliva said, referring to the federal agency’s failure to follow up on a tip about the shooter as late as Jan. 5.
“It’s unfortunate that the entire focus is on the weapon, when what is most concerning to many of us is the systemic failure at the local, state and federal level,” Oliva said.