On guns, Florida’s Republican legislature overtakes Democratic Congress

Florida has done more to end gun violence after a school shooting than Congress is likely to do after more than two decades of school shootings and gun slaughter across the country.

The bipartisan framework that emerged from post-Uvalde Senate negotiations would allocate funds for more mental health services. This would slightly tighten background checks for under-21s looking to purchase military-style rifles. It would encourage states — by offering federal money — to pass red flag laws. This would eliminate the “boyfriend loophole” for gun purchases, possibly preventing all domestic abusers – not just husbands – from owning guns.

That’s it.

The legislation would not expand background checks to fill sales gaps at gun shows and online, despite strong bipartisan support to do so. It would not ban the sale of high capacity magazines – more than 10 rounds – which have been used in so many mass shootings.

More importantly, it would not ban the sale of these military-style weapons to those under 21, even though 18-year-olds used them in the Buffalo and Uvalde massacres. Daniel Défense, manufacturer of the Uvalde weapon, marketed it to young people.

Few state legislatures have genuflected to the National Rifle Association quite like Florida’s. Thirty-five years ago, Tallahassee leapfrogged gun regulation to the state. Florida has become the first state to pass a “stand your ground” law. Marion Hammer, the Second Amendment fanatic and NRA lobbyist who recently announced her retirement, is in the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.

Yet in 2018, after the shooting of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the legislature banned the sale of military-style rifles to those under 21, with exemptions for law enforcement and active-duty military. Shooter Stoneman Douglas used such a weapon.

In addition, the legislature approved a red flag law. It allows judges to prevent the possession or purchase of firearms by those whom law enforcement considers a danger to themselves or others.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., was one of the lead negotiators on the Senate proposal. “Florida law,” Murphy said, “is good law, and it’s a signal of what’s possible.” Law enforcement has used it about 5,000 times.

Then-Governor. Rick Scott, now a junior senator from Florida, signed that bill. Scott did this even though he had given Hammer and the NRA every other favor they wanted, such as expanding “hold your ground” to a degree that even many Republican prosecutors opposed.

But the passion of Stoneman Douglas students and the families of the victims who demanded action overcame that allegiance to the NRA. The massacre of 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook School in 2012 was not enough to motivate Republicans in Congress, including Marco Rubio. The massacre of 17 high school students was enough to motivate Republicans in Tallahassee.

Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, backed the current proposal, which has yet to be put into a bill. He called it a “beginning”, adding: “It can and will make our country safer.”

He’s right about the second part, but only because Congress hasn’t done anything about gun violence prevention since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. Let’s be clear about the policy.

Any proposal would have to overcome a filibuster from the Senate. It takes 10 Republicans to get along. And they won’t agree unless Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agrees.

McConnell supports this proposal. So McConnell thinks the deal goes far enough to pretend Republicans care about public safety, but not enough in an election year to anger tough Second Amendment cases in the party’s base who see violence as a acceptable form of political protest.

Of the 10 Republican senators who participated in the discussions, four are retiring. North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer likely mirrored the general attitude of the GOP caucus when he said Republicans were more interested in a “red wave” — a November success — than “red flags.” They want to talk about everything except the weapons without which this carnage could not take place.

Unfortunately, even if Congress reacted like Florida, the NRA could win in the end. The NRA challenged the state’s 2018 law and lost at trial. But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments in March, is packed with Trump appointees. The NRA says “well-armed” Second Amendment militia language allows 18-year-olds to arm themselves with battlefield weapons.

We don’t often say that the Florida legislature is a good model for the country. On child protection, however, Congress will be far from Tallahassee.

The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board is comprised of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Editorial Page Associate Editor Dan Sweeney, and Managing Editor Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board of Directors and written by one of its members or a designated person. To contact us, write to [email protected].