By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
The mass shootings in an Orlando nightclub this week have fueled the already-polarizing issues of gun rights and gun control, with the debate expected to return on multiple fronts during Florida’s 2017 legislative session.
Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday called for a special session to halt gun sales to people on federal watch lists and to impose new requirements for becoming a security guard. Republican legislative leaders say a special session isn’t needed.
Instead, lawmakers next spring are expected to revisit measures that failed during the 2016 session, such as proposals to allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to openly carry handguns in most public places and to be able to bring their side arms onto university and college campuses.
Lawmakers could also consider eliminating “gun-free zones,” which are places, including nightclubs, where people with concealed-weapons licenses are not allowed to tote weapons.
“Time and time again we’ve seen that gun-free zones don’t protect anybody but the terrorist,” said state Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican who has played a leading role in supporting gun-rights legislation. “There is nothing you can do if you’re on the inside, and you have no firearm in which to engage a shooter, but hide behind a desk or hide behind wherever and wait until the police arrive. And I don’t believe that should be the public policy of the state of Florida.”
Such proposals in the past would have exempted courthouses and businesses, such as Disney World, where people have to go through security checkpoints.
“You know that no one is walking in with a gun because there is security and a metal detector,” said Steube, who is running for the Senate this year.
Under a proposal rolled out Wednesday by a group of Central Florida Democrats, a special session would be held to consider legislation that would prohibit anyone on a federal watch list or no-fly list — due to suspicion of terrorist ties or activities — from purchasing firearms in Florida. Those no longer on the list would be able to buy guns, but after a more “extensive background check” by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, called the proposal a tactical measure to prevent future tragedies.
Soto was joined at a press conference outside the Orange County Courthouse by Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, and Reps. John Cortes of Kissimmee and Randolph Bracy of Orlando.
Thompson, who along with Soto is running for Congress and will not be part of the Legislature in 2017, said the state needs to tighten policies on who can obtain guns.
“We’ve got to look at our background check to make sure people cannot buy guns at gun shows without a background checks, that they cannot buy guns from private individuals without a background check,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to look at our rules here in the state of Florida as to who can be licensed as a security guard.”
Thompson also said the state and federal government need to review how much firepower people need for self-protection.
“I don’t think there is anyone here who opposes a person’s right to defend themselves,” Thompson said. “But what do you need for self-defense? Do you need a bazooka? Do you need a flame thrower? Do you need a rocket launcher? Do you need an assault-style weapon? It is those kinds of things we want to examine in the special session.”
Cortes said only law enforcement should have assault rifles similar to the one used Sunday in the attack at the Orlando nightclub Pulse. St. Lucie County resident Omar Mateen, 29, killed 49 people and wounded dozens of others before he was shot dead by police.
Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said he “is not aware of any specific proposed legislation that would necessitate a special session.”
Marion Hammer, the longtime Tallahassee lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, said in an email that the special session request by “these ultraliberal, gun hating Democrats” is “political grandstanding.”
“They are attempting to exploit a tragedy for political gain,” Hammer said in the email.
The request for the special session came as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Orlando, filed federal legislation Wednesday that would allow the FBI to enter the names of people who are or have been investigated for possible ties to terrorism into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which gun-shop owners use to run background checks on prospective gun buyers.
The bill wouldn’t bar people from buying guns but would flag them for the FBI when background checks are conducted.
“We’re not saying: don’t sell guns to someone just because they were investigated,” Nelson said in a prepared statement. “But having a system in place that alerts the FBI if someone they once investigated is suddenly trying to purchase multiple assault weapons is just common sense.”
The gunman in Orlando, who reportedly had no criminal history and cleared background checks to become a security guard, had been on a terrorism watch list in 2013 and 2014. However, FBI Director James Comey told reporters Monday that “once an investigation is closed, there is then no notification of any sort that is triggered by that person then attempting to purchase a firearm when the cases were closed as inconclusive.”
The NRA released a statement Wednesday that maintained its opposition to barring “law-abiding” people from buying guns.
“Anyone on a terror watch list who tries to buy a gun should be thoroughly investigated by the FBI and the sale delayed while the investigation is ongoing,” Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action executive director, said in a release. “If an investigation uncovers evidence of terrorist activity or involvement, the government should be allowed to immediately go to court, block the sale, and arrest the terrorist. At the same time, due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watch list to be removed.”