GOP takes breather on gun laws; Dems seek changes

Published On: Feb 27 2013 11:02:46 AM EST   Updated On: Feb 27 2013 12:02:37 PM EST
Gun laws
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

For a gun-friendly state like Florida, there's a lack of gun-friendly bills that will be considered in this year's legislative session.

Instead, Democrats are trying to control the gun agenda with a slew of bills that mostly try to undo or change what Republicans have done in the past. Other bills would allow local governments the right to ban guns at certain events.

Good luck with that.

While the Trayvon Martin shooting, the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting and President Barack Obama have created a lot of buzz about gun-control issues, don't expect the Republican-dominated Legislature to suddenly advocate for tighter gun laws during the 60-day session, which begins March 5. This year, though, don't expect a push for broader gun rights laws either.

"We're in a very highly emotionally charged atmosphere in these cases," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who sponsored the "stand your ground" bill. "Let's keep our eye on the ball about building good policy and let's don't overreact to what the atmosphere is. This might not be the best time to make some good (gun) policy decisions."

Even the state's top gun lobbyist isn't asking for any new laws, though she says it was a decision that was made before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and Obama's call for stricter gun laws.

"We decided that there were important issues facing the state and we just want to take a breather," said Marion Hammer, who represents the National Rifle Association and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida and is considered one of the most influential lobbyists in the state.

There is a bunch she'll be fighting, however. Democrats have filed six bills seeking to either repeal or rewrite the "stand your ground" law that says people can use deadly force if they feel threatened with no requirement to retreat if possible. They were filed in response to Martin's shooting death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in February 2012, a case that has drawn national attention. Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder, but is expected to argue that Martin, 17, attacked him and that he should be acquitted under the "stand your ground" law.

Democrats have also filed bills that would allow local governments to ban concealed weapons and ammunition from public events held in public facilities. Other bills would require gun owners to turn their weapons over to school principals or police officers to avoid being charged with carrying a concealed weapon in a school safety zone. Other bills would repeal a law that Republicans passed two years ago that restricts doctors from asking patients if they own guns.

"We intend to oppose these bills," Hammer said. "It would be a difficult road for any of these bills to travel."

That's putting it mildly. And Democrats know that it will be difficult passing bills when their outnumbered nearly 2-to-1 by Republicans who tend to support a pro-gun agenda. But their hope is to start a dialogue and at least get a vote.

"I'm in firm agreement with the president. Like he said, if they deserve a vote at the congressional level, they deserve a vote at the House and Senate level throughout all the chambers throughout the country," said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, who is sponsoring a bill to repeal the "state your ground" law.

It's not about taking away gun rights, he said.

"How can we make our communities safer ... while at the same time protecting our Second Amendment rights and also protecting the ability defend ourselves within our homes and on our property," Williams said. "I think all of that can be accomplished."

Senate President Don Gaetz said he is not interested in retreating on gun laws.

"I'm an NRA member. I have been for longer than I have been in politics. I've been carrying a shotgun since I was 11 years old, shooting pheasants and ducks. My grandmother gave me my first shotgun and taught me how to shoot it," said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican.

He said the state has made significant gains in supporting gun rights in recent years and it's appropriate to take a break given the circumstances.

"The environment right now from Washington is a gun-control environment. I would understand why Marion Hammer and the NRA would want to secure and protect the Second Amendment as opposed to making any initiatives right now," Gaetz said.

Instead, Republicans want to send a message.

Rep. Neil Combee has filed what's called a House memorial that urges the president and Congress to protect gun rights. It's a way of allowing a vote and debate without actually passing a bill. Combee, R-Auburndale, said he realizes gun-control advocates are getting most of the attention right now.

"Just because you're hearing more from them doesn't mean there aren't a good number of folks that are rightly concerned about their ability to keep and bear arms," said Combee, who has 47 co-sponsors.