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February 21, 2018

Another gun bill, allowing weapons in churches at schools, is delayed

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala

With students from Stoneman Douglas High School watching, the Florida Senate postponed a bill today that would allow concealed weapons in churches that are on school grounds.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, is mostly symbolic, but favored by the National Rifle Association.

Florida law does not prohibit churches, synagogues and other houses of worship from allowing concealed weapons, but Baxley's bill would expand it for churches that worship at schools, where  concealed weapons are not normally allowed.

If the church does not own the school, the church has to get permission from the owner - say, from a public school district - for people to carry guns. The bill would not apply to public colleges or universities.

State Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, asked whether the bill was being postponed permanently or just today.

"We have a lot of people in the audience who have traveled a long way, particularly for one issue, and that's to have an open and frank and broad discussion on the issue of firearms" Farmer said.

"And we will have the opportunity for that," Senate President Joe Negron interrupted, saying that other bills will be heard in other committees in the future.

"But for today, that bill is temporarily postponed," Negron said.

Afterward, Baxley said he thought the bill had broad support, but Farmer filed three gun-related amendments to the bill on Tuesday that would have to be debated on the Senate floor today.

"Out of respect, I don’t want to do all that until we have consideration of all the things we’re looking at," he said.

Since a shooter at Stoneman Douglas High School killed 17 people last week, legislators have been postponing or refusing to hear bills that are favored by the NRA and gun rights activists.

Today, dozens of students from Stoneman Douglas High School are meeting with lawmakers and watching the Senate and House sessions from the galleries.

How they voted: Roll call on assault weapons ban debate

Republicans in the Florida House rejected a motion by Democrats Tuesday to debate legislation to prevent the sale and possession of semi-automatic rifles and extended magazines in Florida.

The vote was 71 to 36, with 10 lawmakers not voting. Three seats are vacant in the 120-member House.

The sponsor of the assault weapons ban is Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat. The bill (HB 219) was referred months ago to the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. Ross Spano, a Republican from Dover and candidate for attorney general.

The bill, like thousands of others filed each session, was never scheduled for a hearing. Democrats argued Tuesday that last week's massacre of 14 high school students and three faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland demanded that the Legislature give the issue its full attention. IMG_0322

Governor Scott: 'My goal is to move the needle'

Gov. Rick Scott on Friday will propose a detailed response to last week's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

Scott met for 90 minutes Tuesday evening with experts in law enforcement, education and mental health, and was flanked by Attorney General Pam Bondi and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. He told reporters afterward: "We're going to come to a solution here … Everything is on the table."

Repeatedly pressed as to whether he will propose new gun restrictions, Scott fixed his eyes on a reporter and said: "Everything is on the table … Let's make sure we are doing the things that make a difference."

Scott, who has attended the funerals of several Parkland victims, described people approaching him in churches and synagogues with suggestions. He seems grimly aware that he is facing his most serious challenge as Florida governor, at a time when many students are fearful of going to school and the state is at the center of a national discussion of gun violence.

"My goal is to move the needle and make people feel more comfortable that their kids are going to go to a safe school," Scott said.

During Scott's seven years as governor, he has signed a series of new laws to relax gun restrictions. The amount of money the state spends on school safety has remained flat, even as school enrollment has continued to grow every year.

Scott's office said he has asked the Legislature to approve increases in the Safe Schools fund each year, including $10 million more next year.

The governor led a wide-ranging discussion on the Baker Act, school resource officers, active shooter drills and other issues. Noticeably absent was any talk of limiting access to semi-automatic rifles and extended magazines like the type used by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who has confessed to killing 17 people at the school.

Reports, not yet confirmed, circulated Tuesday night that state leaders have tentatively agreed to allocate $100 million for mental health programs and $100 million to improve security at schools, in addition to a new five-day waiting period for the purchase of an assault weapon in Florida.

February 20, 2018

Some Florida Republicans begin push for stricter gun measures


@katieglueck @alextdaugherty

In what could signal the start of a shift in Republican politics, some GOP donors and officials in Florida are urging their political networks to consider some gun control measures and buck their party's longstanding refusal to even engage in the debate.

"I already have impressed upon people I talk to, the way the law is now is incorrect, it's wrong, it's a moral obligation to make certain changes to the law," said Ronald Krongold, a Miami-based board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, speaking with McClatchy several days after a gunman in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people in a school shooting. The interview also came hours before President Donald Trump moved to ban "bump stocks," which make semi-automatic weapons shoot much more rapidly.

Krongold said he's not issuing ultimatums, but that “this issue could influence who I support and who I don’t."

Major GOP donor Al Hoffman Jr., also of Florida, went further over the weekend, indicating to top GOP officials there that he would not support candidates or organizations that didn't back a new assault weapons ban, The New York Times reported.

Those remarks come as the Florida legislature scrambles to respond to last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that resulted in the deaths of 14 students and three faculty members over the course of six minutes. While there appears to be little GOP appetite for banning high-powered assault weapons —on Tuesday, the Florida House voted down a measure to even consider a bill that would ban them — incoming Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, is promoting a slate of other ideas. Those include a "gun violence restraining order" which could keep certain at-risk individuals from accessing firearms, as well as raising the age for purchasing and possessing semi-automatic firearms, and banning bump stocks. On the last measure, he has an ally in Trump, who announced Tuesday that he has asked the Justice Department to pursue regulations that would ban bump stocks.

Read more here.

Where South Floridians in Congress stand on gun legislation



The pressure is building in Washington.

Students are meeting with President Donald Trump, organizing protests outside the White House and planning a mass demonstration in March with the aim of getting Congress to do something to prevent another mass school shooting. after the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week.

In response, Trump has indicated he’s considering support of a narrowly tailored bill that would ensure federal and state authorities accurately report relevant criminal-history records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and penalize federal agencies that fail to upload relevant records. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, also has the blessing of the National Rifle Association and Republicans from South Florida, though Murphy tweeted that “no one should pretend this bill alone is an adequate response to this epidemic.”

Trump also directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday to craft regulations to ban “bump stocks” and other devices that turn semi-automatic firearms into automatic weapons.

But where does South Florida’s congressional delegation stand on various federal bills that could limit access to guns and firearm accessories if passed into law?

Below is a list of relevant recent congressional legislation related to guns, and where South Florida’s two U.S. senators and eight U.S. representatives stand on such proposals, including campaign contributions from the NRA.


▪ Assault weapons ban: Congress passed a ban on certain semi-automatic “assault style” firearms like the AR-15 used in the Parkland shooting in 1994, though the ban expired in 2004 and wasn’t renewed. A bill to reinstate the ban in 2013 after the Sandy Hook school shooting failed in the U.S. Senate.

▪ Raising the age to legally own semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 from 18 to 21. The 19-year old Parkland shooter suspect legally purchased an AR-15 rifle after he turned 18 old. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce legislation that would raise the age requirements.

▪ Bump stock ban: Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo introduced a bill after the Las Vegas shooting in October that would ban “bump stocks,” or legal modifications to semiautomatic weapons that allow them to fire like automatic weapons. So far, there haven’t been any votes on Curbelo’s bill.

▪ Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act: This bill would allow concealed carry permits obtained in one state to be valid in another state, essentially transforming concealed carry permits into transferable documents like driver’s licenses. The bill passed the House and awaits consideration in the U.S. Senate.

▪ Purchasing guns while on the terror watch list: Feinstein introduced legislation after the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016 that would prevent U.S. citizens under investigation for suspected terrorist activity from purchasing a gun, while Cornyn countered with legislation that would have installed a review period for people on the terror watch list wishing to purchase guns. Both measures failed in the U.S. Senate; the House didn’t vote on them.

Read more here.

Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen cosponsor bill to allow federal gun violence research



Rep. Stephanie Murphy's bill to repeal a ban on federal government gun violence research is now getting support from Miami Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen after the deadliest high school shooting in the nation's history in Parkland, Florida. 

Murphy, D-Winter Park, already has 122 Democrats signed on to the bill that ends the prohibition on the Department of Health and Human Services using federal funds to advocate or promote gun control. The issue has received attention from Republicans in recent days as a potential area for compromise in Congress, though some Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio have stopped short of fully endorsing the idea. 

Curbelo and Ros-Lehtinen are generally more moderate on guns than many of their Republican counterparts. They were part of just over a dozen House Republicans who voted against a bill that would allow concealed carry permits to be valid across state lines last year.

Gun bill that would have allowed teachers to carry guns is postponed

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala

State Sen. Dennis Baxley's gun bill, which would allow some people to carry concealed weapons on school campuses, was postponed on Tuesday as the legislature was swarmed with student survivors of last week's shooting at a Broward County high school.

The bill was controversially revived last week, added to a Senate committee calendar after 17 people were shot and killed by a gunman at Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday.

The bill would allow teachers who hold concealed weapons licenses to have firearms in school.

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, made the motion to postpone the bill. Baxley, R-Ocala, was not present when the decision was made.

Baxley afterward did not appear upset that it was delayed.

"All I know is that we're not ready for that discussion, and we want to look at all the alternatives," he said.

Parkland shooting weighs heavy on Florida education debate, influencing major school choice package HB 7055

Senate ed
Students from Broward County, including from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, sat in on the Senate Education Committee hearing. Emily L. Mahoney | Times


The Florida Senate Education Committee unanimously passed the House's mega school choice package bill on Tuesday, but not before it made some major changes influenced by the Parkland shooting that left 17 people dead less than one week ago.

The shooting loomed over even seemingly unrelated issues like teachers' unions, showing that nearly every aspect of the education conversation in Tallahassee has been altered by last week's tragedy.

The committee adopted an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Perry Thurston, Jr., D-Lauderhill, that would require schools or districts to have a program for armed officers on campus to receive training from local law enforcement to prepare for a school shooting. Shortly before the vote, several lawmakers said the amendment was superfluous because Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Majority Leader Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, are working on a more comprehensive school safety package to be unveiled Thursday.

Then, a group of about 15 Broward students, some from Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, filed into the committee room.

"In the spirit of bipartisanship and collaboration that we need to develop here pretty quick .... and in light of the fact that these young people are here form the school, I think it is the proper thing to do to go ahead and send a message," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa.

Freshman Melissa Camilo, 15, said it "feels amazing" that their physical presence is making change in the Florida Capitol. Her geography teacher, Scott Beigel, was among those killed. She had just had class with him that morning.

"We're children," she said. "It's surprising to see those kids and when you actually see them, up there, up front, you can see the pain in our eyes, and they saw that something needs to be done."

The committee also squeaked through a different Thurston amendment to remove the highly controversial measure that would impose new requirements on teachers' unions to be recertified. He said the rules unfairly called out teachers because the rules would not apply to any other union.

"One of those students told me a story about one of the teachers who was trying to protect them and jumped in front of the gunmen," he said through tears. "These are the people we are targeting."

The Senate's version also contains the provisions from Sen. Kathleen Passidomo's Senate Bill 1434 that creates a comprehensive mental health program for schools to be able to offer better counseling services to students in need, as well as refer them to outside help. Many lawmakers see improving the state's mental health services as a way to help troubled teens before they turn to violence.

The Parkland shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, was a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Passidomo, a Republican from Naples, said she is expecting more funding from Galvano and Simpson's package, and will expand the program accordingly. Her initial pitch had $40 million behind it.

"One of the things we wanted to fund was for education and for basically any personnel in a school that touches a student, from a janitor to a principal, should have training to identify students that are in crisis and that way they can be directed to whomever will provide the services," she said outside the committee meeting. "There are a lot of other things that can be done with a little more money."

Finally, the Senate also stayed firm on their version of the Hope Scholarship program, requiring claims of bullying to be substantiated before a victim is offered a school voucher.

HB 7055 is next scheduled for the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, where each amendment will have to be voted on again because of special rules for House bills being heard in the Senate.

Sheriffs: Expand Baker Act, tighten 'background checks'

Florida sheriffs on Tuesday called for more school resource officers, better background checks of gun buyers and giving police power to temporarily seize firearms from people committed under the Baker Act.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said a Florida resident can be involuntarily committed "15 times within the last month" and can still legally purchase a semi-automatic assault rifle like the one used in last week's massacre at a Broward high school.

Gualtieri said it's "wrong, it's erroneous, it's false" that if confessed mass murderer Nicolas Cruz had been Baker Acted, he couldn't get a gun. Those weapons should be confiscated by police while safeguarding a patient's due process rights, he said.

The sheriff also said there's no such thing as a background check on Florida gun buyers. Gun shops check for two things: a buyer's qualifying felony or a court adjudication that the buyer is mentally ill.

"It's not a background check. It's very limited and narrow in scope," Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri also voiced frustration with legislators not  seriously considering allowing principals to designate some teachers as able to carry a concealed weapon on campus.

"This isn't new," Gualtieri said. Referring to the Legislature, he said: "Nobody's willing to get off the dime and do something about it."

Sheriffs and police chiefs from more than a dozen cities and counties met in Tallahassee at the direction of Gov. Rick Scott after the mass shooting six days ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where a gunman confessed to killing 14 students and three faculty members.

The changes sought by the sheriffs all have one thing in common: They cost a lot of money, and the Legislature has not increased money for safe schools for nearly a decade.

"Safe school appropriations have to increase," Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley said.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said he has 37 school resource officers to cover 92 schools. At a minimum, sheriffs said, the Legislature must spend enough money to pay for a school resource officer in every school.

Coconut Creek Police Chief Albert "Butch" Arenal, the only Broward official at the workshop, said he lives blocks from the scene of last week's shooting and that his wife is afraid to send their child back to school.

"Something has to be done right now so that people feel comfortable sending their kids back to school," Arenal said.

Former House Speaker Allan Bense: I'm an NRA supporter and I support raising age limits for assault weapons


Allan Bense Florida MemoryFormer House Speaker Allan Bense said in an email to the Herald/Times Tuesday that although he has been a devoted supporter of the National Rifle Association, "a very difficult question to answer, for me, is why any civilian should be allowed to own an AR-15 or military-style semi-automatic weapon."

His conclusion: "at the very least, we should all be able to agree that raising the age to 21 for legal possession of a semi-automatic rifle makes sense. 

Bense, a Panama City Republican who was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives from 2004 to 2006, agreed to have the  email published. "Yes, it's time'' he said.

Here it is:

Hi Mary Ellen -- 

I hope all is well with you. I know it must be very difficult reporting the news out of Broward County recently. However, it is important that we all know what happened and that our lawmakers have all the facts with which to make some very important decisions over the next few weeks. I’m glad you and your colleagues are getting that truth out.

As you know, I live and represented the most " pro-gun” part of Florida and I’ve always been an ardent supporter of protecting our individual liberties and freedoms, including our Second Amendment rights. In fact, as you may recall, I sponsored a major bill that protected gun manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits. My support for gun owners and their rights hasn’t changed, but I do believe there are some actions we must take immediately in order to keep Floridians as safe as possible."

I like some of the options being discussed by leaders like Senator Rubio and former Governor Bush. Allowing family members and law enforcement to raise a red flag when someone shows warning signs of violence makes a lot of sense and would empower families to keep guns away from dangerous individuals. Obviously, improving background checks and improved funding for our mental health system are a must - immediately. Also, giving our mental health professionals more leeway to cooperate with law enforcement proactively, rather than reactively makes a lot of sense.

A very difficult question to answer, for me, is why any civilian should be allowed to own an AR-15 or military-style semi-automatic weapon. I am sure there are many arguments on both sides, which should be debated, but I think, at the very least, we should all be able to agree that raising the age to 21 for legal possession of a semi-automatic rifle makes sense. It is the law for handguns, and should be the law for semi-automatic rifles as well, in my opinion.

In the aftermath of the horrific events in Parkland, all options should be on the table and, over the next few weeks of session, our lawmakers must have a full and complete discussion about how we can best keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Most importantly, they must take action - every action upon which they can reach a consensus - our safety, and our children’s safety, is just too important for any more delay.

Best regards, 

Allan Bense