Florida Republicans Face Mounting Pressure to Act on Gun Control

One hundred Marjory Stoneman Douglas students traveled to Tallahassee to advocate for gun control. Survivors spoke to legislators while supporters protested across the country.

TALLAHASSEE — Seven days after the killing of 17 students and school staff members in Florida, Republican state leaders are facing pressure unlike any they have experienced before to pass legislation addressing gun violence.

On Wednesday, swarms of student protesters carrying signs and boxes of petitions stormed the Florida Capitol, pleading with lawmakers to pass tougher gun control in the wake of the deadly shooting at a Broward County school last week.

On one floor, they crowded the doorway of the office of Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican and an ardent supporter of gun rights, shouting, “Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!” On an upper floor, they gathered outside the office of the powerful speaker of the Florida House, Richard Corcoran. “Face us down! Face us down! Face us down!”

And on the House floor, Alondra Gittelson, who survived the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, confronted Mr. Corcoran, a Republican, demanding to know why “such a destructive gun” — the AR-15 rifle — is widely accessible.

“How is an individual in society able to acquire such a gun?” Ms. Gittelson, 16, asked Mr. Corcoran.

Mr. Corcoran replied that he saw the rifle as a legitimate hunting weapon and did not believe a ban would help matters. “I’ll just be honest with you,” he said. “Me, personally — I don’t believe that’s the solution.”

With about two weeks left in the legislative session, Republicans led by Mr. Scott have concluded that it would be politically catastrophic if they failed to do something to address the growing outcry. But they appear likely to pursue legislation narrower than what students are demanding, avoiding a ban on assault weapons.

In the Florida House and Senate, lawmakers said they were involved in bipartisan efforts to craft gun-related legislative proposals that could be introduced Friday or earlier.

State Senator Bill Galvano, a Republican, said in an interview that the Senate proposal would likely involve raising the age to purchase semiautomatic rifles to 21 from 18; introducing a three-day waiting period to purchase such guns; banning “bump stocks,” an attachment that enables a semiautomatic rifle to fire faster; and expanding the power of law enforcement to restrict the actions of mentally ill people under Florida’s Baker Act.

“Nothing about this is par for the course,” Mr. Galvano said. “We’ve had one too many horrific incidents in this country and really around the world. And to have this tragedy occur here in the State of Florida has in some ways been very sobering.”

He added that there was a “true commitment in the Senate and the House to try to address issues that would prevent something this devastating from ever happening again.”

Credit...Colin Hackley/Reuters

In addition to the students amassing in Tallahassee, Democrats in Florida have vowed to make gun control a central campaign issue in 2018, and a national gun-control group is already targeting Mr. Scott with television ads that say he neglected public safety.

The developing clash over firearms has the potential to define Florida politics in a critical election year, thrusting the state into the center of a stalemated national debate around gun violence and the Second Amendment. In a politically divided state where the National Rifle Association has held broad influence for decades — every governor for 20 years has been an ally of the group — even fierce supporters of gun rights now believe Republicans cannot afford to seem passive in response to gruesome scenes of violence.

The arrival of the student protesters from Stoneman Douglas, who traveled hundreds of miles by bus to the state capital, drastically raised the political stakes for Florida’s long-ruling Republicans. Having reached Tallahassee overnight, the young activists quickly set about advocating for sweeping new gun restrictions, included expanded background checks for gun purchases and an outright ban on the sale of military-style firearms.

Inside the Capitol, the students divided into groups of 10. Senator Lauren Book, a Democrat, had helped the students arrange meetings with lawmakers in both parties, and the groups planned to meet with some 70 elected officials.

Throughout the day, the Stoneman Douglas students moved through the labyrinthine building, and met for 20 or 30 minutes at a time with lawmakers in their offices. They crowded around small conference tables and packed onto leather couches or sat cross-legged on nubby carpets.

Some lawmakers asked for photographs they could use for promotional materials. At least one, a Democrat, pulled students into a picture before even introducing himself.

Group No. 6 crammed into the elevator with two parent chaperones. They met with Representative Patricia H. Williams, a Democrat, and Senator Debbie Mayfield, a Republican. Ms. Mayfield said that changes were needed, perhaps including raising the minimum age to buy powerful weapons, but she rebuffed criticism from a student, Daniel Bishop, 16, that such a change would not actually prevent deaths.

“We can’t stop crazies,” she told the group.

Afterward, Amanda De La Cruz, 16, looked distraught. “I want the ban on semiautomatic weapons,” she said. “I don’t care about the crazies.”

Will Weatherford, a former speaker of the Florida House, said on Tuesday that the ferocious public response to the Parkland shooting exposed pent-up feelings of horror and fear that have mounted over time. Mr. Weatherford, a conservative Republican, said legislators might be able to move quickly on a few tailored proposals, such as raising the legal age for possessing assault rifles.

“With Pulse, with what took place in Las Vegas, there’s been an aggregate effect,” Mr. Weatherford said, referring to the mass killings in 2016 and 2017 at an Orlando nightclub and an outdoor concert in Las Vegas. “All of it is adding up and there’s a lot of frustration that’s boiling over.”

Mr. Weatherford said he expected the Legislature to take action of some kind, but cautioned: “It’s hard to write a thoughtful policy in three weeks.”

Proponents of stricter gun control, however, seem unlikely to be appeased by what they perceive as half-measures. Students at the Capitol Wednesday denounced the Legislature for having voted down a proposal on Tuesday to consider banning assault weapons. “The people around us failed us,” declared Delaney Tarr, a student at Stoneman Douglas. “And if they continue to fail us, then they will no longer be in office because soon we will have the ability to vote, and we will vote them out.”

The mood in the Capitol grew progressively more contentious throughout the day, as respectful disagreements between students and lawmakers gave way to blunt expressions of indignation by frustrated activists. By the afternoon, the Stoneman Douglas students had been joined by thousands of other Floridians, including college students, who had come to voice their support for changes to gun laws.

The revival of gun regulation as a political issue comes at a precarious moment in Florida politics, as a polarizing president warps traditional political boundaries in a state he narrowly won in 2016. Republicans in Florida have experienced several setbacks recently in special elections, as traditionally Republican-friendly voters have deserted the party in heavily suburban and Hispanic areas. Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat from the Orlando area, said voters in her largely suburban district had reached a breaking point.

“People are angry and they’re outraged and they’re motivated,” said Ms. Murphy, who defeated an N.R.A.-backed candidate after the Pulse shooting in 2016.

This year, control of Florida’s governorship, the State Senate, several congressional seats and a United States Senate seat are expected to be intensely contested.

The growing pressure on Florida Republicans may reflect the changing national contours of the gun debate, which for years has been shaped chiefly by ardent supporters of the Second Amendment who vote in force. While several Democratic-leaning states, like Connecticut and Colorado, passed ambitious gun-violence laws after mass shootings, no state wholly controlled by Republicans has enacted legislation even on the comparatively modest scale currently being contemplated in Florida.

As a matter of electoral politics, the Republican with the most at stake may be Mr. Scott, a wealthy former hospital executive who is closely aligned with the N.R.A. Mr. Scott has been moving to challenge Senator Bill Nelson, a long-serving Democrat who supports gun control, and the governor’s political allies believe passing some form of public-safety legislation is essential to his prospects in the race.

A commercial blasting Mr. Scott for rejecting “policies that could keep Florida children safe” was released this week by Giffords, a gun control group founded by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot outside an Arizona supermarket in 2011, and her husband, the astronaut Mark Kelly.

The Stoneman Douglas students saved their final meeting on Wednesday — a two-hour sit-down to which the press was not invited — with Mr. Scott. Afterward, one student, Piero Guerra, 15, said the governor had been “kind of neutral” on their proposal to ban semiautomatic rifles but had been “adamant” in support of mental health reforms.

The meeting with the governor ended after dark, and Mr. Guerra and his classmates headed for the three buses that would take them some eight hours home to Parkland.

Lindsey Salomone, 15, said that after a day speaking with lawmakers — she sat next to the governor during their meeting — she was ready to go home and do the real work: grieve.

“I was in the building; my friends were shot in my class,” she said. “So emotionally, I’m pretty much in shock. I’m not feeling anything, actually.”

She added, “But everybody is telling me: It will come.”

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