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Dems Force Legislative Poll On Post-Pulse Special Session

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Tom Urban/News Service of Florida
The Florida Channel
Signed petitions are delivered to the Department of State on Tuesday.

Florida Democrats had little trouble rounding up enough members to call for a vote on whether to hold a special session dealing with gun control as a reaction to last month's mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

However, it may be nearly impossible over the next week to gather enough Republican lawmakers willing to make the trek to humid Tallahassee in an election year to discuss a proposed prohibition on gun sales to people on federal terrorism watch lists.

Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday submitted 46 letters from House and Senate members -- more than the 32 required -- to demand Secretary of State Ken Detzner poll all 160 legislators in the next week on the special session request.

"The key is we've requested at the very least (that) we review reforms we all support, such as banning people ... who are on the terrorist FBI watch list" from buying guns, said state Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat who is running for a Central Florida congressional seat. Soto and state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, led a press conference Tuesday outside the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando to repeat the call for the extra session.

"Right now in Florida," Soto continued, "there's nothing stopping individuals on these lists from purchasing firearms and letting this happen again."

The push for the special session comes in the wake of the June 12 massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub, during which a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 50 others before he was killed by police. The attack is the worst mass shooting in the nation's history.

Rep. Janet Cruz of Tampa, set to lead House Democrats after the November elections, said the legislation can't wait until the next regular session in March.

"The welfare of our people is at stake," Cruz said.

Support to call the session is required from three-fifths of the members of each chamber of the Legislature, something that will be extremely difficult with the current Republican majorities.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli issued a statement Tuesday encouraging each member to "follow their conscience," while quickly saying he won't vote for a session "motivated by partisan politics."

"I know I speak for representatives of both parties when I say that if there was a meaningful, constitutional, and implementable state law to prevent future terrorist attacks, we would certainly pass it," said Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. "I strongly support a ban on terrorists' ability to purchase firearms. Since the list is maintained at the federal level, the state cannot pass an effective or constitutional law implementing such a ban."

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, added he wouldn't vote to turn "the Senate floor into a campaign stop for those seeking higher office."

"The fact remains that absent federal action, Florida cannot pass a law to require the federal government to turn over sensitive information regarding investigations of terrorism," Gardiner said in a statement. "I too am frustrated with the partisan bickering that so often paralyzes Washington, but the fact remains that a special session of the Florida Legislature cannot take the place of leadership in Washington."

In a column appearing Monday in the Northwest Daily News, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, wrote that a special session was "peddled off the back of campaign bandwagons."

"Huddling up a bunch of breathless legislators in Tallahassee to snap-pass laws banning guns won't stop some terrorism-inspired human tool from building a bomb out of fertilizer or shopping the robust weapons black markets that inevitably exist in places where law-abiding citizens are disarmed," wrote Gaetz, a former Senate president who is leaving office this year because of term limits.

Influential National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer said Tuesday that Democrats are "exploiting a tragedy for political gain" and may not want to actually hold the special session.

"I have not heard a single Republican say that they were interested in spending the taxpayer's money for a special session that would achieve nothing but more publicity for Democrats," Hammer said.

Asked if she has advised lawmakers not to vote for the session, Hammer replied: "No, we don't do that."

Such advice may not be needed.

Last Friday, Gov. Rick Scott bypassed a bid by Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, to be a circuit judge, selecting an applicant who hadn't drawn the ire of the NRA and other gun-rights. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, McBurney angered Hammer and other advocates by refusing to move forward with a change to the state's self-defense laws.

McBurney said Friday that Hammer sent a message to other lawmakers by opposing his nomination.

"The message she is sending is really to the legislators, that even if an issue doesn't concern the Second Amendment, and even if you leave the Legislature, if you disagree with me at all, I'm coming after you," McBurney said on Friday.

This isn't the first time Democrats have tried to use the Secretary of State polling route outlined in state law to call for the session.

Three years ago, Democrats fell well short of the minimum 96 lawmaker support needed when seeking a special session on the state's "stand your ground" self-defense law.

The 2013 effort stemmed from a sit-in protest at the Capitol by a group called the Dream Defenders. The group protested against the "stand your ground" law after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford.

The final tally by Detzner in that case was 47 votes for the extra session and 108 against, including seven House Democrats.

Among the House Democrats opposed to a session in 2013 were Reps. Katie Edwards of Plantation and Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Tallahassee.

Edwards and Rehwinkel Vasilinda also weren't among the Democrats signing the petition for a special session this year. Other Democrats who didn't sign the current petition include Reps. Reggie Fullwood of Jacksonville, Daphne Campbell of Miami, Kionne McGhee of Miami, Cynthia Stafford of Miami and Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey