In Florida, Extraordinary Obstacles for Changes to Gun Laws

A protest for stricter gun laws in Coral Springs, Fla., after the shooting last week at a high school in Parkland.

In the wake of Florida’s latest shooting massacre, and calls to tighten its relaxed gun laws, Gov. Rick Scott declared that now, everything was on the table.

Yet the governor sidestepped whether he would explicitly support new gun restrictions. And he emphasized he would never “trample” on anyone’s constitutional rights.

In Florida — where a troubled teenager used a legally purchased military-style semiautomatic rifle to kill 17 people at a high school this past week — extraordinary political obstacles would have to be overcome before any real changes in gun laws could occur.

A strong case can be made that the state has been the most important laboratory for pioneering far-reaching, pro-gun regulatory blueprints later adopted throughout the nation, profoundly changing how guns are regulated across the United States.

And Florida’s gun lobby continues to instill fear in lawmakers. It is led by Marion Hammer, 78, who grew up shooting rabbits, reportedly packs a pistol in her purse and seeks political vengeance on legislators who disappoint her.

Though Florida is a purple state, Mr. Scott, a favorite of gun lobbyists, and other Republicans control state government, and they have steadfastly opposed new restrictions. For gun-control advocates, victories of late have included steps like defeating legislation to allow some people to carry guns into airport terminals.

Gun owners are now a major constituency, too: Nearly two million residents have permits to carry concealed weapons, far more than any other state.

Florida, however, cannot be called the place with the most permissive gun regulations. Some states, for example, do not require permits to carry concealed weapons. While Florida gets an “F” rating, the lowest, from one major gun-control group, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 24 other states also share that ranking.

The state’s more significant pro-gun legacy has been spearheading two influential changes in gun regulations that became models for many other states: Laws that essentially require the authorities to issue permits for carrying concealed guns to residents who pass a simple protocol.

And “Stand Your Ground” laws that give protections to people who use deadly force in public if they argue that they felt they were in imminent danger. Critics call them “shoot first” laws and say they encourage escalations in violence and make it harder to punish some wrongdoers.

Most states now have Stand Your Ground laws as well as permissive rules allowing the carrying of concealed weapons.

Florida’s pro-gun approach came under scrutiny after mass shootings in Orlando in 2016 and in Fort Lauderdale last year. But, little changed in the Statehouse; bills to limit assault weapons, for example, did not get a hearing.

Even after the massacre in Parkland last week, the only movement on gun bills dealt with proposals to expand where guns could be carried, not to restrict them.

State Senator Dennis Baxley, a Republican who wrote the Stand Your Ground law in 2005 and is a major gun-rights backer, doubts gun-control proposals will gain traction.

“I don’t see any interest here on that,” said Mr. Baxley, who represents parts of Sumter, Marion and Lake Counties. “We’re pretty comfortable that freedom works.”

Mr. Baxley likens gun restrictions to imposing limits on forks and spoons to reduce obesity. He argued the focus needs to be on school safety.

Just after the Parkland shooting, a move to try to advance another of Mr. Baxley’s bills — allowing officials to permit certain adults to carry guns at schools if they pass a screening — prompted anger from critics. Mr. Baxley said the bill would deter shootings, but critics called it the latest effort to chip away at prohibitions on guns in schools.

In any case, Mr. Baxley said lawmakers later decided to take the proposal off this week’s agenda. “I don’t think we’re ready for that discussion yet,” he said.

More to the point for gun-control advocates is whether fury over the Parkland massacre might make a difference among Republican legislators who did not tighten gun laws after the killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando two years ago.

“They didn’t do anything after Pulse, but these are 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds getting slaughtered,” said State Senator Linda Stewart, a Democrat who represents part of Orange County. Ms. Stewart said her legislation banning assault weapons after the Orlando massacre had not even been assigned to a committee.

“This is going to be harder to ignore,” she said.

At the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, hundreds of people gathered for a rally promoting gun reform in what one official called the “gunshine state.” The day’s speakers shouted into a microphone until their voices were hoarse and children barely out of diapers gripped giant signs. “Enough is enough,” read one.

Changing Florida’s gun laws could come down to two things: Whether Ms. Hammer can keep legislators from breaking ranks. And, the ambitions of Mr. Scott, who is increasingly expected to challenge Bill Nelson, the state’s incumbent Democratic senator this year.

Ms. Hammer, who stands barely 5 feet tall, has been the state’s chief gun lobbyist for decades and was the first woman to serve as national N.R.A. president. The state’s Stand Your Ground and concealed-carry laws were largely her initiatives.

Legislators, especially Republicans, fear her ability to marshal angry emails from thousands of gun owners in every pocket of the state, destroying ambitions of even onetime allies.

“She can be pretty hard on people who aren’t coming around,” Mr. Baxley said. “She has a long memory when you cross her.”

Many point to Charles McBurney, a former Republican state representative and N.R.A. ally, who two years ago sided with prosecutors and blocked one of Ms. Hammer’s favored bills. Facing term limits, Mr. McBurney was considered a very strong choice for a gubernatorial appointment to a judgeship in Jacksonville, his hometown.

But Mr. Scott passed him over after Ms. Hammer began a ferocious email campaign demanding he not be selected. A spokeswoman for Mr. Scott denied that the gun lobby influenced the decision.

Mr. Baxley isn’t so sure. He said the governor had to be thinking, “Why would I cross all these N.R.A. members?”

Mr. McBurney declined to comment. Ms. Hammer did not respond to a request for comment sent through the N.R.A.’s national office.

Another wild card, conceivably, is Mr. Scott, who Ms. Hammer once praised for having signed more pro-gun bills in one term than any Florida governor in history.

After the Orlando massacre — where the killer also used a military-style semiautomatic rifle — the governor said that “the Second Amendment didn’t kill anybody.”

But after CNN’s Wolf Blitzer repeatedly pressed him last week about what he would do to prevent another massacre, Mr. Scott said, “Everything’s on the table, all right? I’m going to look at every way that we can make sure our kids are safe.”

Some suggested this revealed a new openness for regulation, now that he may face a hard-fought campaign against Mr. Nelson.

Asked for clarification on whether the governor might back new gun restrictions, his spokeswoman said she hoped to have more information this week, after he meets with other leaders to discuss “ways to keep Florida students safe, including school safety improvements and keeping guns away from individuals struggling with mental illness.”

Some critics call the focus on mental health a subterfuge. Federal law already bars people who have been adjudicated mentally ill or committed to institutions from buying firearms. Despite their rhetoric, state Republican leaders have not proposed expanding mental-health restrictions inside Florida, critics say.

It also deflects attention from other issues, like making sure powerful assault weapons and hundreds of rounds of high-velocity ammunition cannot be bought in short order by teenagers, said Patricia Brigham, a chair of the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. “It’s the typical bait-and-switch argument,” she said.

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