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72 posts from February 2018

February 19, 2018

Parkland did it: Legislators to consider age limits and waiting periods on assault weapons

0073+Gun+Protest+Fed+Courthouse+Day+4+021718After visits to Parkland left them horrified at the ease with which a gunman could kill 17 people in six minutes, Florida legislators in both the House and Senate are doing something they have resisted for years: drafting legislation to limit access to semi-automatic rifles.

“We owe it to victims of families on what I now consider the absolute most important issue of the session,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who will become the next Senate president, who has taken the lead in putting together a wide-ranging Senate proposal.

But while the measures are moving quickly in the aftermath of the shooting, they also fall far short of the assault weapons ban called for by the grieving students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Story here. 

Rick Scott's A+ NRA rating, and what it means now

As a candidate for re-election four years ago, Florida Gov. Rick Scott won an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association for his record on guns.

A 2014 mailer from NRA's national headquarters told Florida voters that "Scott will stop the gun control extremists from pushing their agenda to restrict your rights in Florida."

Only Scott "will protect your rights from the Obama/(Michael) Bloomberg gun control agenda," said the mailer, which featured a photo of a smiling Scott and a big "A+."

Scott NRA v2

That June, Scott signed five pro-gun bills into law  in what the NRA said was historic.

One bill fast-tracked applications for concealed weapons licenses; another, the so-called "Pop-Tart" bill, protected students from being punished if they fashioned pastry into fake guns, "to avoid traumatizing innocent children," the NRA's mailer said.

As governor, Scott earlier signed laws blocking cities and counties from passing more restrictive gun laws than the state and allowing people to carry firearms during emergencies such as hurricane evacuations.

Now he says he will lead "a real conversation" about school safety after the horror at Parkland, where a teenage former student with a troubled past and an AR-15-style assault rifle is charged with killing 14 students and three adults on Valentine's Day.

A group of determined students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who are going to Tallahassee this week, wants a very different  conversation. It's about guns and the NRA and the politicians who support the gun lobby and have benefited from it.

"These people who are being funded by the NRA are not going to be allowed to remain in office when midterm elections roll around," student Emma Gonzalez said on NBC's Meet the Press with Chuck Todd on Sunday. "They're going to be voted out of office."

With three weeks left in the 2018 session, Scott and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature have little time to respond to the Parkland tragedy.

And Scott, who may want to be Florida's next U.S. senator, is listed as an invited speaker at the NRA's annual meeting in Dallas in May, according to the NRA's website. It's an event the NRA says is "a must stop for candidates seeking the highest levels of elective office."

— With reporting by Lawrence Mower

February 18, 2018

Al Hoffman to Rick Scott: support an assault weapons ban or no endorsement -- and no money

Al Hoffman Florida TrendFor decades Florida real estate developer Al Hoffman has used his clout to elect conservative Republicans to office but the gun tragedy in Parkland has prompted him to add a new condition to that support: he refuses to back any candidate, including Republican Gov. Rick Scott, unless he actively works to pass a national ban on assault weapons. 

In a letter to Republican party donors on Saturday, Hoffman laid out his ultimatum which was first reported in the New York Times. He asked them to support the cause and, in an interview on CNN late Sunday afternoon, he said he was getting some response. 

"I have heard from a couple of them already and they are endorsing the concept totally and I am waiting to hear back from the others,'' he said. "But I believe we can achieve a movement consensus here and achieve our objective."

Hoffman, who was a leading fund-raiser for George W. Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, said he raised over $600 million in those years for conservative Republican issues. But, he said, the tragedy at Parkland hit home.

"I was so blown away,'' he told CNN. His development company, WCI, had a "very close affinity with Parkland,'' where they built thousands of homes, golf courses, clubs and retirement communities in the middle to upper middle class community.

"I watched as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School start construction, get finished, opened and dedicated,'' he said. "So I've developed a personal affinity with the students."

When he heard of the tragedy, he said, "I felt my heart just drop. I felt like I was holding my heart in my hands."

He said he realized then that his efforts trying to persuaded elected officials to support "better guns laws" wasn't working and it was time to organize a movement of political donors. 

To gun rights advocates, who say the problem is not what kind of weapon but who is using the weapon, he was dismissive. 

"That was a totally preventable catastrophe,'' he said. "That gun massacre could have been avoided. That gun would not have been sold to that kid if he had gone through a background check and the authorities had the ability to take that gun away and take him into custody for examination."

Scott told CNN last week that "everything is on the table" and he will "look at every way that we can make sure our kids are safe."

But Hoffman said he is not interpreting that as support for an assault weapons ban.

"I love Rick Scott. I want him to run for Senate,'' he said. "I believe he is the best Republican that we could vote into office and I'm going to ask him to support that principle of banning assault weapons. That's the litmus test.

"If he does, I would be glad to support him and continue to raise money for him. If he doesn't, in all good conscience I don't see how I could vote for him. That's just the way it is. I hope he changes his mind."

As for the National Rifle Association and its political clout, he said, "I don't care about the NRA.''

He said he is an owner of a concealed weapon and believes in the Second Amendment but, "the NRA is not my party."  

Photo credit: Florida Trend

 

 

Florida is afraid of its prison system. Senators have ideas to fix it but can they get them through the House?

Inmates at Wakulla CorrectionalLobbyist Barney Bishop stood up before a Senate committee Wednesday and wrote the direct mail campaign ad every legislator fears.

“You’re helping drug traffickers,” he said of the bill before the Senate Justice Appropriations Subcommittee that will give judges discretion when sentencing non-violent drug offenders to prison. “Do you know how much pot you’ve got to have to meet the trafficking minimum for this bill? You have to have 25 pounds. That’s 25 backpacks.”

It is exactly the kind of out-of-context rhetoric that worries lawmakers as they consider legislation aimed at shrinking something else that scares them: Florida’s expensive prison system. The idea behind the package of reforms is to slow the prison revolving door by diverting non-violent drug felons from prison to local jails, and treating those with mental illness and addiction while they are locked up. The savings from prisons is used to pay for the programs.

Similar reforms have been successfully adopted in dozens of other states, fueled by a rare coalition of conservative and liberal activists, yet Florida remains an outlier.

Several bills that make small but powerful changes to state law are inching towards passage in the Florida Senate with bi-partisan support and little fanfare but, as has been the case for years, progress is slow if not non-existent in the Florida House. House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes is considering a run for governor and wants to avoid antagonizing the more conservative factions of his party. Story here. 

Florida is afraid of its prison system. Senators have ideas to fix it but can they get them through the House?

Inmates at Wakulla CorrectionalLobbyist Barney Bishop stood up before a Senate committee Wednesday and wrote the direct mail campaign ad every legislator fears.

“You’re helping drug traffickers,” he said of the bill before the Senate Justice Appropriations Subcommittee that will give judges discretion when sentencing non-violent drug offenders to prison. “Do you know how much pot you’ve got to have to meet the trafficking minimum for this bill? You have to have 25 pounds. That’s 25 backpacks.”

It is exactly the kind of out-of-context rhetoric that worries lawmakers as they consider legislation aimed at shrinking something else that scares them: Florida’s expensive prison system. The idea behind the package of reforms is to slow the prison revolving door by diverting non-violent drug felons from prison to local jails, and treating those with mental illness and addiction while they are locked up. The savings from prisons is used to pay for the programs.

Similar reforms have been successfully adopted in dozens of other states, fueled by a rare coalition of conservative and liberal activists, yet Florida remains an outlier.

Several bills that make small but powerful changes to state law are inching towards passage in the Florida Senate with bi-partisan support and little fanfare but, as has been the case for years, progress is slow if not non-existent in the Florida House. House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes is considering a run for governor and wants to avoid antagonizing the more conservative factions of his party. Story here. 

Parkland students want to turn tragedy to traction and demand change for gun laws in Tallahassee

0073+Gun+Protest+Fed+Courthouse+Day+4+021718One hundred students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will travel to Tallahassee for a Wednesday march on the state Capitol in the first organized protest of their #NeverAgain movement.

Their demand: that Florida legislators use the remaining three weeks of the annual session to revise state mental health and gun laws to forestall a repeat of the Parkland school shooting that left 17 dead.

“It really needs to be recognized that they need to stop fighting each other and starting working together,’’ said Jaclyn Corin, 17, junior class president and a survivor of the shooting, who conceived the idea for the two-day trip. “This has to be the last school this happens to.”

The students and about 15 parent chaperones will travel to Tallahassee by bus on Tuesday in advance of small-group meetings with legislators that are planned for Wednesday, then return later that day. They leave following a Tuesday morning funeral of Carmen Schentrup, 16, who was killed when their former classmate, Nikolas Cruz, killed students and teachers with an AR-15 on Valentine’s Day. Story here. 

February 17, 2018

Legislators describe haunting visit to Parkland high school after massacre

Douglas High first responders Sun SentinelThe images haunt Wilton Simpson.

The state senator, developer and egg farmer from Trilby came to Building 12 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Thursday with a small entourage of legislators. They wanted to get a firsthand look at what happened when 17 students and faculty were gunned down by a former student at the school in Parkland.

“It could have been a killing field,” recalled Simpson, the Senate Republican leader in an interview with the Herald/Times. He recalled how detectives described the movements of killer Nikolas Cruz as he shot his way through the freshman building. 

Blood spattered the hallways, bullet holes pierced the walls. Books and papers were strewn everywhere. Textbooks sat open on the desks. And in the midst of it all were the bullet casings. Story here. 

Photo:  Medical personnel tended to shooting victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Wednesday, by John McCall Sun Sentinel

After visit to Parkland High, legislators say: ‘This building has to come down’

Douglas High Getty imagesStudents will never be returning to Building 12 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School again.

Florida legislators said Thursday they will provide the resources to help the Broward School District tear down Building 12, the site of the massacre that killed 17 students and teachers. They want to build a new classroom space and replace the site of the murders with a memorial to honor the victims and their families.

“This building has to come down,” Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told the Miami Herald on Friday after visiting the school the day before. He said the horror was palpable. Story here. 

February 16, 2018

Florida Carry wants lawmakers to allow guns in classrooms

Florida Carry, a statewide group that advocates for the rights of gun owners, wants the Florida Legislature to eliminate "gun-free zones" across the state and allow teachers who have concealed weapons licenses to carry guns in classrooms.

Reacting to the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland that killed 17 students and faculty, the group sent a letter Friday to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

"Despite the repeated failure of so-called 'gun free zones,' the Florida Legislature has taken no steps over the past seven years to protect our children," wrote Eric Friday, Florida Carry's general counsel, in a letter that was released to news outlets.  "While the responsibility for Wednesday's events rests solely with the actions of the evil person who committed this act, it is the Legislature that has enabled such tragedies to occur."

As relatives and friends organized the first funerals for the victims of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the organization called on the Legislature to pass emergency legislation creating gun free zones for law-abiding concealed carry licensees and to appropriate $1 million to county sheriffs and school boards to implement a safety program.

"Evil will not respect gun-free zones," Friday wrote.

Firearms are not allowed on school grounds in Florida. The Senate Judiciary Committee next Tuesday is scheduled to take up a bill (SB 1236) that would allow teachers who hold concealed weapons licenses to have firearms in school. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

The Judiciary panel is chaired by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, a vocal supporter of Second Amendment rights.

Other Republicans on the panel include Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto, Rob Bradley, Anitere Flores, Rene Garcia and Debbie Mayfield. The Democrats are Randolph Bracy, Audrey Gibson, Bobby Powell and Perry Thurston.

Florida Carry has long advocated a "campus carry" law, or allowing licensees to carry concealed weapons on college and university campuses. But legislation that would allow it has repeatedly been blocked by the state Senate amid opposition from university presidents and police chiefs.

The group also helped to create a controversial legislative proposal that would require the state to issue concealed weapons licenses to applicants even in cases where information is missing from applications because of a lack of cooperation by other states.

That change is included in a Senate bill (SB 740) that Senate Appropriations Chairman Bradley, R-Fleming Island, refused to consider at a Thursday hearing. The House version (HB 553) is ready for a floor vote by the full House next week.

February 15, 2018

A rattled Florida Legislature concedes it should do more to address mental health after Parkland school shooting

SP_410739_KEEL_14_FLGOV
SCOTT KEELER | Times Senate President Joe Negron and Senator Rob Bradley talk to reporters during the last week of the 2017 Florida Legislative session.

@mahoneysthename @elizabethrkoh


In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, Florida lawmakers vowed to push harder on an issue they acknowledged they had failed: mental health in schools.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on PreK-12 Education, filed a mental health pilot program in schools early this year, which sets aside $40 million to connect students to community programs for mental health treatment and trains teachers to identify students who are "at risk of having mental illness."

Yet when asked about her own bill in its current form, she was blunt: "It's not enough."

Money is scarce for the students who need it most, she said, like those who deal with abuse or drug addiction in their homes. "They all bring it to school … which is the only place that they have that's safe. Well, not anymore."

Passidomo said she had originally asked for $180 million for mental health resources in schools, but settled on $40 million as a starting point.

Although Republican lawmakers hesitated to discuss restricting certain weapons or high-capacity magazines, many were more eager to advocate for beefing up mental health services.

High-ranking Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, suggested doubling Passidomo's $40 million mental health allowance, plus adding $60 million to up school security and add more armed officers.

"We need to pay more attention to mental health screening, training and treatment,'' Galvano told the Times/Herald as he boarded a charter flight to Parkland with other lawmakers.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said that he's spoken to other senators who are ready to put more money behind Passidomo's proposals.
He, along with other prominent Republicans including Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Gov. Rick Scott, also said there needs to be a way to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

State law currently calls for background checks to review if a buyer has been deemed "mentally defective" or committed to a mental institution. The Parkland shooter — 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz — received treatment from a mental health clinic for about a year until last fall but purchased his weapon legally, authorities said.

The state has struggled for years with funding mental health initiatives, said Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island. She sponsored a successful bill in 2016 which erected more centers for mental health and substance abuse treatment and restructured how patients can access them, though state funding was slashed last year by more than 40 percent.

"We're not even close on what we should do with mental health," Peters said.

Supporters of increased funding have said Florida ranks last among the 50 states in funding mental health, though the ranking does not account for Medicaid funds which the state administers differently from others.

But Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, countered that the state funds mental health services to those on Medicaid and invests additional millions in various community mental health programs.

"But that requires that an individual would seek help themselves or someone else identifies that they need help and calls someone," added Brodeur, who chairs the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.

Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, has focused on programs to address mental illnesses and substance abuse, but said Wednesday's shooting showed that the problem is bigger than mental health. He is writing a letter to Negron asking for a "task force" including advocates from several related fields to come up with solutions.

"It's just more than one issue," he said. "We have to take a holistic approach and we all have to give. It can't just be the NRA, just be anti-gun folks, it can't be the school-hardening folks where they want to put more (school security), we have to all have this conversation. However uncomfortable and hard it may be, we can't allow this to happen anymore."