Florida Republicans Face Mounting Pressure to Act on Gun Control - The New York Times


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 alarm and horror 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. Democrats and activists responded with fury to a vote in the Florida House on Tuesday against considering a ban on assault weapons, and Gwen Graham, a leading candidate for governor, said in an interview that the vote showed "the gun lobby is in control of Tallahassee."

All four Democrats running for governor in 2018 have called for an assault weapons ban, and members of Florida's congressional delegation have pushed for a broad reassessment of gun regulations at the federal level.

Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat who represents the Orlando area, said voters in her largely suburban district had reached a breaking point on the gun issue. Ms. Murphy, who has introduced legislation to authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to study gun violence, said the government had failed to keep pace with regular people's concerns about mass killings.

"People are angry and they're outraged and they're motivated," said Ms. Murphy, who defeated an N.R.A.-backed Republican in 2016. "We were affected by Pulse less than two years ago, and here's another mass shooting."

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 the state. President Trump narrowly defeated the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016. But since then, Republicans have experienced several setbacks in special elections, as traditionally Republican-leaning voters have deserted the party in heavily suburban and Hispanic districts. In 2018, control of Florida's governorship, the State Senate, several congressional seats and a United States Senate seat are expected to be intensely contested.



The gun issue could drive an even deeper wedge between rural parts of the state, where Mr. Trump remains popular, and its cities and suburbs. In other states like New York and Colorado, Democrats have campaigned confidently on gun control in more densely populated and diverse areas and pushed for the passage of gun laws, only to see rural voters swing hard against the party in response.

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 previous mass shootings, no state wholly controlled by Republicans has enacted legislation even on the comparatively modest scale currently contemplated in Florida.

As a matter of electoral politics, the Republican with the most at stake may be Mr. Scott, an ally of Second Amendment groups who has signed a number of laws easing access to firearms. A former hospital executive, Mr. Scott has been moving toward a challenge to Senator Bill Nelson, a long-serving Democrat who supports gun control. Mr. Scott has signaled to lawmakers this week that he is eager to embrace some form of a public-safety package, and his political allies believe passing such legislation could be essential to his prospects as a Senate candidate.

Mr. Scott has given little indication that he will entertain more aggressive forms of gun control, and allies of Mr. Nelson said on Tuesday that they are preparing to wage a scathing campaign against Mr. Scott's gun record. The Giffords gun-control group unveiled a commercial blasting Mr. Scott for rejecting "policies that could keep Florida children safe."

Peter Ambler, the group's executive director, said opposing Mr. Scott was an urgent priority for the well-funded organization. The legislative activity by Republicans so far, he said, amounts to an effort to do something minimal until the sense of urgency on guns goes away.

"Rick Scott can't be a United States senator," Mr. Ambler said, pledging the Giffords group would "make sure that every single voter in Florida is informed about the decline in public and community school safety that the governor is responsible for."

But with a strongly conservative Florida House, Mr. Scott is likely to have ample company in his skepticism of new gun laws. And it is still uncertain whether even a modest gun-violence package can clear the state's Legislature. State Representative Matt Caldwell, a Republican, said he believed it would be a mistake to treat the "availability of guns" as a threat, rather than more general mental health and security concerns. Mr. Caldwell said he had spoken privately with Mr. Scott and believed the two of them were on the same page.

"He wants to do something that is going to be effective," Mr. Caldwell said. "We can't be doing something that just makes us feel good."