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Gun Control Could Become Key Issue In November

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

An aversion to gun-rights restrictions has been a bedrock of Republican campaigns in Florida —  a testing ground for model NRA-backed legislation — for years.

But a 19-year-old killer, armed with a semiautomatic rifle he purchased legally and used to fatally gun down 14 students and three faculty members at a Broward County high school, may have changed that.

Major political donors on both sides of the aisle say they plan to use support for what one called “common-sense” legislation as a litmus test for candidates during the 2018 midterm elections, and possibly beyond.

The metamorphosis comes less than a week after gunman Nikolas Cruz shot dead 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Al Hoffman, a prominent Republican donor and former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, has pledged to shut off the money spigot for Republicans who don’t support laws restricting access to semiautomatic rifles like the one Cruz used — and purchased legally a year before, with no waiting period — in Wednesday’s shooting spree.

“I hope it becomes a wedge issue,” Hoffman, who founded WCI Communities, a company that built much of Parkland, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Monday.

Hoffman, whose two teenage children attend high school, says he asked other GOP donors to join his effort to shut down contributions to candidates who don’t support a ban on assault-style rifles, the weapon of choice for mass shooters in Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, and, now, Parkland. At least one, Jacksonville’s Peter Rummell, has reportedly signed on.

“That’s all I know to do. What else are we going to do? How do we create a movement? How do we create a wedge issue for these candidates who are going to run in November?” says Hoffman, who lives in North Palm Beach. “Get rid of these assault weapons. They’re military design, military use, and now they’ve been adapted into our society for fun, but they’re not.”

State lawmakers aren’t considering a flat-out ban on the weapons.

But a proposal rolled out Monday by state Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who has served more than a decade in the Legislature, includes gun control measures that even a week ago would have been taboo, at least for the GOP.

Galvano, who will take over as Senate president after the November elections, is floating a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons to people under the age of 18, as well as a potential three-day waiting period before the weapons can be purchased, two things now required before people can buy handguns in Florida. The Senate leader also wants to ban the sale of “bump stocks” and is exploring loopholes in the current background screening process.

Galvano said his plan, which also includes elements focused on mental health services, school security and law enforcement, isn’t motivated by this fall’s elections.

Instead, the Parkland massacre has become an “enough is enough” moment for politicians in Florida — who ignored demands for gun control in the wake of other mass shootings — as well as their critics.

“You mention other incidents that have taken place. While there is significant motivation to revisit all aspects of school and human security in the wake of Parkland, it’s also a result of the aggregate of these types of events are occurring on a far too regular basis. That is drawing our attention back to issues that in the past didn’t get attention,” Galvano said. “We never want to see this type of violence occur in another school anywhere, let alone in the state of Florida.”

Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political consultant, called the Parkland disaster “a wakeup call for the state and the nation.”

“I think this time is different,” Ulvert, an adviser to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine, said in an interview. “When you hear prominent Republican donors like Mr. Hoffman lay down a firm position on where he’s going to be in supporting future candidates, it says that we’re finally making a breakthrough. It’s not only Democrats asking for swift change, it’s also Republicans. And in this case, it’s a Republican putting his money where his mouth is.”

Florida, which gun-control advocates have disparaged as the “The Gunshine State,” has been a stronghold for the National Rifle Association. The NRA’s Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, a former president of the national organization, pushed the country’s first “stand your ground” law in 2005. Also, more than 1.84 million Floridians have concealed-weapons licenses.

Republican legislators covet the “A-plus” grades given by Hammer on an annual report card that evaluates lawmakers’ performances and is distributed to the organization’s members. Most Democratic members consider a failing grade a badge of honor.

Hammer, long viewed as one of the Capitol’s most-powerful lobbyists, declined to comment when asked for an interview Monday.

Gov. Rick Scott, who demanded last week that FBI Director Christopher Wray resign after the federal agency admitted it had not followed up on a tip that Cruz posed a threat to the community, has organized workshops Tuesday to hear from law-enforcement, mental-health and education leaders regarding possible solutions.

Scott and lawmakers have just less than three weeks to address the issue before the legislative session ends on March 9.

Mike Moskowitz, a major Democratic donor who lives in Parkland, predicted politicians will face “monumental public pressure at the voter’s booth” later this year if they don’t accomplish something, and quickly.

“That is a nonpartisan statement. Forget about Democrat and Republican. I know that people like to portray this as a Democratic or Republican issue. Forget it,” Moskowitz, whose son, Jared, serves in the state House, told the News Service.  

In his last term as governor, Scott is mulling a run against veteran U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who is among Democrats demanding that a lapsed federal ban on assault weapons be reinstated.

“If Scott does not support reasonable and fair gun legislation, right now in the Legislature, right now, he can kiss his chances goodbye,” Moskowitz said.

Brian Ballard, a powerful lobbyist who was a major fundraiser for President Donald Trump’s campaign and is close to Trump and Scott, downplayed the impact of the shooting — and potential legislation — on the elections.

But he admitted politicians are under pressure to act.

“These things seem to have a moment in time and then things fade,” he says. “It’s always easy to throw out the gun issue if you want to demagogue. I do think politicians are going to be in trouble if they don’t react to make sure schools are safe and to make sure our criminal justice authorities are talking to each other.”

Busloads of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are headed to Tallahassee to meet with legislators Wednesday and to hold a rally. Many of the students became overnight media sensations following their eloquent and impassioned pleas for gun-control legislation.

The young people could make the difference for candidates in November, Ulvert predicted.

“If they’re going to ignore the cries of students, that’s going to be a campaign issue. And we’re not going to make it a campaign issue. It’s going to be 17- and 18-year-olds who had to flee for their lives who will make it a campaign issue,” he says.

The shooting in Parkland, an affluent enclave in heavily Democratic Broward County, could help drive to the polls Democrats, whose turnout rates drop off in midterm elections.

“It’s going to boost turnout in South Florida as a whole, and it’s going to motivate people to put their sneakers on and to go into districts and to advocate against the person who won’t discuss fair and reasonable legislation and for the person who will,” Moskowitz said. “These kids … are going to put their sneakers on and make their voices heard with their feet.