TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. The Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A Sebring bank. A yoga studio in Tallahassee. A naval air base in Pensacola.
At least 81 people have been killed in mass shootings scattered throughout Florida since 2016, and the death toll keeps rising from other gun violence that, in some pockets of the state, has become almost the norm.
As state lawmakers prepare for Tuesday’s start of the 60-day legislative session, Republicans are split on how -- or even if -- to address one of the nation’s most divisive political and policy issues: guns.
Two years ago, the Republican-dominated Legislature passed gun-control laws for the first time in decades. The hastily approved measures came just weeks after the horrific 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students and faculty members dead and another 17 people injured.
Now, Senate President Bill Galvano, who played a major role in crafting the 2018 legislation, wants to go further and shut down what he and many other people consider loopholes in state laws regarding background checks and gun sales.
“There are myriad things in play, but the background checks are very much being looked at,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, told The News Service of Florida in a recent interview.
Galvano pointed to what is known as the “gun-show loophole,” which allows people who buy firearms to avoid the three-day waiting period and background check required when guns are purchased from federally licensed dealers.
“I think we need to really take a look at that,” he said.
The Senate also could consider “some modifications” to the “red flag law,” which was part of the legislation spurred by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
The law allows guns to be removed from people found to pose a threat to themselves or others. Under the statute, law enforcement officials can seize weapons after obtaining “risk protection” orders from judges.
Some states allow family members, school administrators or health care professionals to directly petition courts to remove guns from people who pose a threat.
According to the Office of the State Courts Administrator, Florida’s red-flag law has been used more than 2,400 times since it went into effect in mid-2018. Judges overwhelmingly have approved the requests, according to court filings.
But while Galvano might back enhancements to the red-flag law or other gun-control measures, the House is likely to thwart any efforts perceived as anti-gun, especially in an election year.
“They (House members) are very pro-Second Amendment and they’re going to be very hostile towards gun control or gun restrictions because they know that gun control and gun restrictions aren’t the answer,” state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, told the News Service in a telephone interview.
Such restrictions “don’t actually decrease crime, anywhere,” he added.
Sabatini is sponsoring two controversial gun measures. The first would allow people to openly carry guns without concealed-weapons licenses. The second would allow individuals to bring guns onto college campuses.
“There’s no rational relationship” between gun violence and gun-control laws, Sabatini said, expressing an opinion shared by many of his House Republican colleagues.
“It’s what I call a red herring,” Sabatini, a lawyer, said.
Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican and attorney who specializes in Second Amendment law, said Florida, like other states, has plenty of statutes governing firearms.
“Most of the time when we pass new gun legislation, because there’s a ton of law already on the books, it ends up infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens,” Byrd told the News Service. “The criminals by definition are going to break the law anyway.”
Byrd, whose clients includes people fighting risk protection orders, said Florida’s red-flag law has “got problems.”
“It needs to be fixed. It does not need to be expanded,” he said. “It’s ruined people’s lives. People have lost jobs. I’m not saying we don’t need a mechanism in place, but the mechanism we have now needs to be improved.
Byrd also said expanding background checks for gun sales -- which he said results in litigation that comprises the bulk of his work -- isn’t the solution, either.
The background checks “are only as good as the data” in the state and national databases used to conduct the screenings, Byrd said.
“There are a lot of people that have to hire an attorney to get mistakes that are in the background system fixed,” he said. “It sounds good, but time after time after time in these shootings these are people that have passed the background check.”
Galvano’s not only facing resistance from the House.
Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s longtime Florida lobbyist, scoffed when asked if the gun-show loophole should be addressed.
“There is no gun show loophole. That term is nothing more than a stalking horse for imposing a myriad of gun-control measures that deny due process to law-abiding citizens for the convenience of government,” Hammer, a former national president of the NRA, said in a telephone interview. “The gun-show loophole term is used to apply to anything that people who hate guns want to do connected to background checks.”
Echoing Byrd, Hammer said officials are failing to enforce laws that are already on the books.
For example, she said it is a federal felony for people to sell a gun or give a gun to a person they know or reasonably should know is not eligible to purchase or possess a firearm.
“So any private citizen who sells a gun to a person they don’t know is an idiot,” Hammer said. “So the name of the game is enforce the laws you have. Quit passing more laws that won’t be enforced because they’re only put on the books for political eyewash or to deny law-abiding citizens their constitutional rights.”
Byrd suggested Florida lawmakers could consider addressing what he called “stranger-to-stranger” gun sales, but also stopped short of advocating for broader background checks.
“I caution people, be very, very careful when you sell your firearms,” he said.
Galvano, also an attorney, acknowledged that gun-related legislation “is a balance, legally, constitutionally, and frankly, politically.”
In Florida, disparaged as the “Gunshine State” by critics, passing measures that would restrict gun rights will be a heavy lift, conceded the Senate president, who is entering his final session at the podium.
“As a practical lawmaker who wants to have solutions and solve problems, I also am very much aware of what the political dynamics are and would rather pursue solutions that actually have a chance of becoming law and that can be applied, as opposed to just making political statements,” he said.