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Shooting roils gun politics in NRA-friendly Florida

MIAMI — The state of Florida, long a laboratory for the National Rifle Association, brought America its first major concealed-weapons law and Stand Your Ground, not to mention policies like a prohibition on doctors asking parents about firearms in the home.

But last week’s mass shooting in Parkland, which left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, has unexpectedly jolted the politics of gun ownership in the country’s biggest swing state. For first time in decades, a Republican-led Florida Legislature and a Republican governor might limit some gun rights.

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Gov. Rick Scott, who won both of his terms in office with NRA support and has signed a passel of gun-rights legislation, says that “everything’s on the table” — though he’s giving away no details.

Agriculture Commissioner and former Rep. Adam Putnam, who’s running to succeed Scott, refused to say whether he would still describe himself as a “proud NRA sellout” on Tuesday night, walking away from a POLITICO reporter.

Chances are slim that Florida Republicans will offer any major concessions on gun rights, which they see as key to their electoral success. And gun-rights advocates say the NRA and other groups like Florida Carry are ready to become active as soon as they see legislation they can comment on.

But strikingly, Florida Democrats running for federal and statewide office feel empowered for the first time to seriously campaign on the issue of gun control.

Sen. Bill Nelson, bracing for a challenge from the term-limited Scott this year, has called for a general ban on AR-15s and other guns typically characterized as assault rifles — as have all four of the major Democratic candidates for governor. Nelson and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio accepted an offer from CNN to attend a Wednesday town hall on guns in South Florida.

Scott, who plans to meet with students Wednesday, declined and said he needed to stay in the Capitol to discuss solutions to gun violence.

Other Republicans have been far less voluble about guns as well. Florida’s House Speaker, Richard Corcoran, who plans to run for governor and has made illegal immigration a rallying cry, has toned down his rhetoric, avoided the press and said relatively little about what gun control measures, if any, he would back. Florida House leaders are concentrating more on “hardening” schools from attack by either providing more security or safer classrooms.

In the more moderate Senate, however, there’s talk of putting age limits on the sale of assault rifles, adding a three-day waiting periods for their purchase or instituting a “gun violence restraining order.” Until last week’s shooting, any of those proposals from Republican leadership would have been unthinkable in the Florida Legislature.

“What in the past were nonstarters are now in play,” said Republican Bill Galvano, who’s slated to become the president of the Florida Senate later this year.

Galvano, however, said the Legislature won’t ban semiautomatic rifles and high-volume magazines, which is what most gun-control advocates and many students from Parkland have called for. Such a proposal was voted down dramatically Tuesday in front of Parkland students who watched from the House gallery. Some wept.

“How could they do that to us? Are you kidding me??? #Never again,” tweeted Emma Gonzalez, one of the high school’s leaders on the issue. “We are not forgetting this come midterm elections — the anger that I feel right now is indescribable.”

Students are expected to swarm Tallahassee on Wednesday. And as Democrats and gun-control advocates target Scott in ads and pressure Republicans, the NRA and Florida Carry have yet to engage.

Gun rights groups are counting on Corcoran to be a crucial ally of what’s called “the Second Amendment” or “2A” community.

President Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images

Asked how gun voters would view Corcoran if the House passed a law calling for a waiting period for long gun purchases or limiting their sale to those 21 and older, Florida Carry’s executive director, Sean Caranna, was blunt: “It would ruin his campaign hopes.”

“Nobody can truthfully say that a waiting period would have stopped any school shooting. This is political opportunism,” Caranna said. “The 2A community will be voting based on what happens in the next few days.”

The NRA’s feared and famed lobbyist in the Florida Capitol, Marion Hammer, said she’s withholding comment until she sees legislation.

Time is potentially on the NRA’s side. The 60-day legislative session ends March 9 and controversial pieces of legislation proposed this late in the game often fare poorly.

Still, advocates on both sides of the debate say the Parkland shooting, as well as the memory of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando that left 49 dead in 2016, have increased pressure on lawmakers like never before.

For years, Hammer and the NRA scored win after win in this gun-shaped state. The lobby’s first big victory came in 1987, when Florida became the first “shall-issue” state for concealed weapons permits, giving residents the right to privately pack unless they were felons or otherwise specifically forbidden to own firearms.

After Republicans won control of the Florida Legislature and, then, the governor’s mansion with Jeb Bush’s election in 1998, the NRA’s successes grew. The passage of the 2005 Stand Your Ground self-defense law allowed for the use of more deadly force; in 2011 under Scott, Florida lawmakers passed a law fining any politician $ 5,000 for violating the prohibition on local government firearm legislation.

Lawmakers also prohibited local governments from enacting their own firearms legislation, prohibited police from assembling gun lists with pawn shop gun lists, limited environmental regulations for shooting ranges and allowed workers to bring firearms locked in their cars to workplace parking lots. Under Scott, the state made concealed weapons permits less expensive and banned pediatricians from inquiring about firearms in the home. The law was later ruled unconstitutional.

But for all of its wins, the gun lobby has been unable to pass two signature bills: One that would allow concealed-weapons permit holders to bring guns on public college campuses and another that would give more people the right to openly carry firearms.

Democrats have gone on offense after Parkland, having spent years running from Republicans and the NRA over guns.

President Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images

Former Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine on Tuesday announced that his political committee would spend $ 725,000 on a gun-control TV ad that echoed similar proposals from his fellow Democrats running for governor, former Rep. Gwen Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Orlando businessman Chris King.

“Here in Florida, despite 14 school shootings in 8 years, we still have some of the weakest gun laws in the nation,” Levine says in the ad, which his campaign says will run in all of Florida’s 10 major media markets. “The tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High is a wakeup call we can’t ignore. We need reasonable gun regulations, better background checks, and a permanent ban on assault rifles.”

Levine also suggested he would spearhead a proposed state constitutional amendment by saying “if the legislature won’t do it, we will.”

One of the Florida Legislature’s staunchest gun-rights supporters, Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, said he’s trying to keep an open mind about the latest push for gun control.

But Baxley, who authored Stand Your Ground, said he’s skeptical about the effectiveness of limiting gun rights.

“We’ve been respectful of people’s grief over what happened and I’m withholding judgment until I see what’s proposed,” Baxley said. “But once the Second Amendment community gets involved, this could get real messy.”

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