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Florida Republicans still mum on a response to Newtown shooting

TALLAHASSEE – How Florida Republicans, who control the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, were going to respond to the Newtown, Conn. shooting, was still unknown as of Wednesday.

In California, where Democrats are in control, bills have been introduced that would require background checks and one-year permits for those purchasing ammunition. In Michigan, where Republicans are in control, the governor vetoed a bill that would allow concealed weapons in schools. In Ohio, where the GOP rules, the governor signed into law a bill that allows people to keep guns in their cars at the Capitol garage. In South Carolina, a bill has been introduced allowing guns on school grounds.

In Florida, Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, filed Senate Bill 136 that would make some significant changes to the state’s self-defense law known as “Stand Your Ground”. It would eliminate automatic immunity for those who defend themselves by the use of force and would require the state to track all Stand Your Ground cases. But this effort was prompted by the February shooting of Trayvon Martin and shows little promise among Republicans who still generally support the law.

Meanwhile, Republicans refused to talk about what they would do in response to Friday’s shooting.

“It’s far too early to be talking about this,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. “We need to stay away from responding to this with a knee-jerk reaction.”

This is the slow season for the Legislature. Session, the three-month period where bills get passed, doesn’t begin until March. Committees meet beginning Jan. 14 to discuss pending bills.

“That’s when we’ll start discussing it,” Latvala said. “There’s nothing we can do about it in the newspaper and nothing we can do about it during Christmas week.”

In the House, Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has issued one statement on the shooting.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Newtown, CT,” Weatherford tweeted Friday. “Can’t imagine the grief the parents of the victims feel today.”

He’s referred all questions about possible legislation to Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the chair of the House’s judiciary committee, which would review any gun reform legislation. Baxley has said the absence of guns at schools have made them a target for mass shootings, but said he won’t offer any bills because he chairs the committee that would review them.

So far, no bills have been proposed.

“The last thing we want is a knee-jerk reaction,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. “It wouldn’t serve anyone well.”

Gaetz chairs the House subcommittee on Criminal Justice, which would be where any bills addressing the shooting would start. He said he won’t comment on possible bills until he sees them, but like Baxley, talked up school safety as a solution.

Gov. Rick Scott, Gaetz said, “got the ball rolling when he asked the school districts to review their school safety plans.” Gaetz said. While professing his love for the Second Amendment, Scott told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien on Wednesday: “My approach on things like this is to, one, respect the families, mourn their losses, make sure our schools are safe and then start the conversation and then listen to the Floridians.”

Republicans could be waiting for a more clear direction from the NRA, which has helped write much of the pro-gun legislation that has passed in the last few years. The national headquarters of the organization broke its silence yesterday with a short press release.

“Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting,” it said. “The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”

Marion Hammer, Florida’s NRA lobbyist, said she won’t comment until after an NRA news conference on Friday.

“Until they release a statement on Friday, we have no comment on those issues,” Hammer said.