Defying N.R.A., Florida Lawmakers Back Raising Age Limits on Assault Rifles
Gov. Rick Scott and top state lawmakers proposed on Friday the most significant move toward gun control in Florida in decades, backing new limits that defy the National Rifle Association but fall short of demands from survivors of last week’s school shooting.
Faced with massive protests, the Republican governor announced a plan to raise the minimum age to buy any firearm, including semiautomatic rifles, from 18 to 21. Mr. Scott also vowed to strengthen rules to keep weapons away from people who have mental health problems or injunctions against them for stalking or domestic violence.
“I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who has mental issues to use a gun,” said Mr. Scott, who is widely expected to run for a United States Senate seat this year. “I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who is a danger to themselves or others to use a gun.”
Student protesters who rallied at the State Capitol on Wednesday had demanded a complete ban on military-style assault rifles. On Friday, students said they were disappointed, if unsurprised, that Mr. Scott had stopped short of a ban, but vowed to keep pushing for one.
Sofie Whitney, 18, who survived last week’s shooting in Parkland, Fla., and traveled to Tallahassee to lobby lawmakers for stricter gun laws, watched Mr. Scott’s news conference and started texting other survivors as it ended.
“What he’s doing is at least a start,” Ms. Whitney said. “We’re glad that we’ve made progress in such a short time, which is obviously an accomplishment, and we’re more determined to talk to more people to get more things done.”
The move from Republicans demonstrated how quickly the politics around guns had shifted in Tallahassee, where the N.R.A. has wielded enormous influence for years. After mass shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 and in Fort Lauderdale last year, the state’s leaders resisted demands to respond with stricter gun laws.
Over seven years as governor, Mr. Scott has earned an “A+” rating from the N.R.A. He has opposed stricter background checks and pushed for lowering the cost to get a concealed weapon license. The N.R.A., in turn, flooded voters’ inboxes with pro-Scott mailers during his re-election campaign four years ago.
“I’m an N.R.A. member, I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment, and the First Amendment, and the entire Bill of Rights for that matter,” Mr. Scott said on Friday. “I’m also a father, and a grandfather, and a governor. We all have a difficult task in front of us: balancing our individual rights with our obvious need for public safety.”
Senator Bill Nelson, the Democrat the governor might challenge in November, denounced Mr. Scott’s proposals, saying they failed to ensure comprehensive criminal background checks or ban assault rifles.
“Students, parents and teachers across our state are demanding action — but instead of listening to them, it’s clear the governor is once again choosing to listen only to the N.R.A.,” Mr. Nelson said in a statement. “His leadership is weak and by recommending raising the age to 21 he is doing the bare minimum.”
Republicans faced mounting pressure this week to act, as student survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 dead, emerged as powerful voices in the national gun control debate.
Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old shooting suspect, was able to legally purchase an AR-15 under Florida’s law allowing 18-year-olds to purchase semiautomatic rifles. By comparison, a person must be at least 21 to buy a handgun. Mr. Scott’s proposed rule, which Senator Marco Rubio also supports, would make 21 the minimum age across the board for all gun purchases.
President Trump and the N.R.A. have endorsed putting more armed educators in schools, but Mr. Scott and state Republican legislators did not follow their lead.
Instead, Mr. Scott’s plan, which has largely been endorsed by Florida House and Senate leaders, would mandate at least one armed police officer for every 1,000 students at public schools.
“I disagree with arming teachers,” Mr. Scott said. “My focus is on bringing in law enforcement. I think you need to have individuals who are trained, well trained.”
Mr. Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron said they would also push to ban “bump stocks,” which enable semiautomatic rifles to fire faster. Bump stocks were used in the Las Vegas mass shooting last year, but not in Parkland.
Passage of any legislation would require Republican lawmakers to buck the N.R.A., which says the focus after the shooting should be on keeping “violent criminals and the dangerously mentally ill” from acquiring guns.
“Legislative proposals that prevent law-abiding adults aged 18-20 years old from acquiring rifles and shotguns effectively prohibits them from purchasing any firearm, thus depriving them of their constitutional right to self-protection,” Jennifer Baker, an N.R.A. spokeswoman, said in a statement on Thursday.
After mass shootings, Republicans have frequently tried to direct attention to the mental health of the gunmen and not the weapons that were used. Experts say that mental illness is not the root cause of most cases of gun violence.
On Friday, Mr. Scott proposed spending $50 million to bolster the state’s mental health resources. He said he wanted to expand access to counseling for young adults with serious mental illnesses and hire dedicated mental health counselors at schools.
Going further than the governor’s plan, lawmakers said they would seek to impose a three-day waiting period on all firearms purchases, which now exists only for handguns. They also would create a statewide commission to investigate the school shooting in Parkland, including a number of failures by the authorities.
“Government has failed on multiple levels,” said Mr. Corcoran, a likely candidate for governor. “That can never happen again.”
The only armed security guard at Stoneman Douglas High, Deputy Scot Peterson, failed to rush into the building as the shooting took place, Sheriff Scott Israel of Broward County revealed on Thursday, a few hours after the deputy had resigned. On Friday, Mr. Trump said the deputy “certainly did a poor job.”
Since the shooting, Sheriff Israel has ordered deputies to carry rifles on school grounds.
A joint legislative announcement on Friday by Mr. Corcoran and Mr. Negron, about an hour after Mr. Scott’s, indicated that a gun control package has a good chance of passing, even though the annual lawmaking session ends soon, on March 9. It would normally take lawmakers much longer than two weeks to vet and approve major legislation.
Senate Democrats have vowed to attach an assault-weapons ban as an amendment to any Republican gun bill, but they are comfortably outnumbered in both chambers. A procedural maneuver by House Democrats on Tuesday to bring a ban to the floor for consideration failed by a party-line vote.
The student protesters, who had returned to South Florida early Thursday morning after their trip to Tallahassee, parsed Mr. Scott’s proposals, looking for signs of a shift in the political winds and hints that their activism had swayed the state’s Republican lawmakers.
Melanie Weber, 16, said she was not impressed by the governor’s proposal to raise the age to buy firearms from 18 to 21. “The shooter in Las Vegas was in his 50s and the Pulse shooter was 29,” she said, rattling off a grim list of previous mass shootings. But she said Mr. Scott’s mental health proposals were a small step in the right direction.
“If we had laws like that before everything happened,” Ms. Weber said, “it probably would never have happened in the first place.”
The students said they were looking to the midterm elections, when they hope voters will elect more lawmakers who support a ban on assault weapons and other gun control measures.
“It just makes me want to keep fighting even more,” Julia Bishop, 18, said. “I really don’t want my classmates to die in vain, that’s the biggest thing.”