Gov. Scott: 'You just can't imagine this happening'

Florida reels from Orlando massacre.

By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott visited a memorial at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts where a community vigil was also held Monday night to mourn the victims of Sunday's terror attack. (Photo courtesy: Governor's Press Office)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Terrorism hit home this week.

Floridians woke up Sunday morning to the unthinkable. On Saturday night, young people crowded into an Orlando club for music, dancing and the simple joys of being with friends. Hours later, 49 clubgoers were dead and dozens more were wounded.

Mayor Buddy Dyer described Sunday as "probably the most difficult day in the history of Orlando." For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Floridians, it carried the extra weight of knowing that a gay club had been targeted.

Orlando police were hailed as heroes for going into the Pulse nightclub and ultimately killing the shooter, who claimed to support the Islamic State terrorist group. State, federal and local officials also converged during the week to lend support to the family members of victims.

Florida, however, won't ever be the same. Omar Mateen was a virtual nobody from St. Lucie County. But he was able to carry out the worst mass shooting in U.S. history --- and make Floridians feel vulnerable.

'Grief … Beyond description'

Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and U.S. Sens Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio quickly joined authorities Sunday in Orlando to try to sort out what had happened and to help oversee assistance for the reeling community.

"Clearly, this is an act of terrorism. You just can't imagine this happening in any community," Scott said. "My heart goes out to every family member that's been impacted. … This state is going to be defined as a state of generosity, a state of love. We are a resilient state. We love people in our state and we are going to continue to do that."

Rubio, R-Fla., said Sunday that the attack "could happen anywhere in the world."

"Unfortunately, today was Orlando's turn," he said. "We know that there's hate in the world. We know that some of it is inspired by warped ideology. … I hope they see today they won't terrorize America. They won't terrorize Floridians. We stand with all Americans … irrespective of their sexual orientation."

While Rubio raised the issue of sexual orientation, some gay activists said in the days after the attack that they thought the LGBT community was being ignored.

"I think it's pretty much gone viral that our political leaders not only in Florida but throughout the country need to say the words that this was an attack on our gay community," said Christian Ulvert, a Florida Democratic political consultant who is gay. "You have to say those words."

Speaking to reporters at the White House on Sunday, Obama called the massacre "an act of terror and an act of hate" that was "especially heartbreaking for all of our friends … who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender."

On Thursday, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Orlando to comfort the family members of victims and survivors.

"Their grief is beyond description," Obama said after he and Biden spent two hours at the Amway Center, meeting privately with people who lost loved ones in the attack. "These families could be our families. In fact, they are our family. … And today the vice president and I told them, on behalf of the American people, that our hearts are broken, too."

Gun debates renewed

Debates about gun rights and gun control never go away. But after a tragedy like the Orlando killings, the debates get ratcheted up.

Mateen, a security guard, passed all of the legally required background checks for his weapons.

"He held a 'D' license, as well as a 'G' license, which means that he is a security guard and a security guard who is permitted to carry a firearm," state Agriculture Commission Adam Putnam, whose agency oversees weapon permits in Florida, told reporters on Monday.

"All of the information related to his application to receive those licenses was in order," Putnam added. "He was fingerprinted. He successfully completed the application, had a criminal background check. There is nothing in that record that would have disqualified this individual, who was a U.S. citizen, who had a clean criminal record, who underwent a background check and mental-health screening."

That doesn't mean, however, the debates will go away. Democratic lawmakers held a news conference Wednesday in Orlando and called for a special legislative session to address gun-control measures.

"I don't think there is anyone here who opposes a person's right to defend themselves," Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said. "But what do you need for self-defense? Do you need a bazooka? Do you need a flame thrower? Do you need a rocket launcher? Do you need an assault-style weapon? It is those kinds of things we want to examine in the special session."

Republican legislative leaders, however, said they didn't see a need for a special session. Marion Hammer, the longtime Tallahassee lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, said in an email that the special session request by "these ultraliberal, gun hating Democrats" is "political grandstanding."

"They are attempting to exploit a tragedy for political gain," Hammer said in the email.

Meanwhile, GOP political consultant Rick Wilson gave a bottom-line analysis of why the terrorist attack will not spur the Republican-dominated Legislature to pass gun-control measures.

"Democrats say this is all about gun control, and Republicans say this is all about Muslims. Now, the important thing to remember is that our society has largely made up its mind on guns. A tragedy like this, just speaking in cold political terms, doesn't move the needle," he said. "If people look at this as a competition between security versus gun control, security wins every time."

Political fallout

Quickly after the shootings, elected officials and political candidates started flooding social media and inboxes with messages about issues such as gun control and cracking down on terrorists.

But with the November elections less than five months away, the political ramifications of the shootings remained somewhat murky this week.

Wilson, for example, suggested that the attack might have little impact on the elections.

"As horrifying as this is, as terrible as this is, human grief has sort of a span of time where it affects people," he said. "It doesn't diminish the horror of this thing to note that, as a country, we have a short attention span. We always have."

But others said anger and grief about the massacre won't go away before the Aug. 30 primary elections or the November elections. Some said the mass murder certainly won't fade away for LGBT people or Hispanics, who made up many of the victims at the club.

"It's going to be a wake-up call," said Carlos Guillermo Smith, a state House candidate who is governmental affairs director for the advocacy group Equality Florida.

Probably the most tangible political result this week was that Rubio, in light of the tragedy, indicated he might be reconsidering his decision not to seek re-election.

"Obviously, I take very seriously everything that's going on --- not just Orlando, but in our country,” Rubio told reporters, according to The Hill, a Washington-based publication. "I enjoy my service here a lot. So I'll go home later this week, and I'll have some time with my family, and then if there's been a change in our status I'll be sure to let everyone know."

But Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a longtime Rubio friend who has been running for the Senate seat, said he would step aside if Rubio wants to get into the race.

"As friends for 20 years, this race is so much bigger than the two of us, and, as you have heard me say on the trail, this race isn't about an individual, this race is about Florida and the future of our country," Lopez-Cantera said in an email to supporters Wednesday. "I am still in this race and nothing has changed. However, if Marco decides to enter this race, I will not be filing the paperwork to run for the U.S. Senate."

News Service of Florida