State Watch

Gun debate shows signs of change in Florida

The high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead may be changing the debate over mass shootings and guns.

An all-too-common sequence of outrage spurring empty pledges from politicians before a return to the status quo has become routine, but things may be coming to a head — especially in Florida, where a likely clash between political heavyweights could center on gun issues.

Gov. Rick Scott (R), a darling of the National Rifle Association (NRA), is considering challenging Sen. Bill Nelson (D), a longtime advocate of stricter gun laws, in what would likely be the most expensive race for a Senate seat in the nation’s history.

The stalemated status quo has continued for so long, many observers say, because of an asymmetry in the gun debate.

The most fervent gun rights advocates are almost certain to turn out every year, and guns are the issue that drives them. While a huge majority of Americans support specific gun control measures, those issues rarely drive voters.

“There are more of them, them being the pro-gun control people, than there are NRA members. The historical difference is the NRA members are so committed, and they go to the polls, and they vote,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican lobbyist in Tallahassee. “If the other side can get the people who don’t usually go to the polls to go, then they win.” {mosads}

“The people that want reform, it’s never been a driving issue,” added Steve Schale, a Democratic operative in Tallahassee.

In a state as narrowly divided as Florida, converting anger in February to votes in November may make the difference.

Scott won each of his two runs for governor by less than 1.5 percentage points; President Trump carried the state by 1.2 percentage points in 2016 (Nelson has won by larger margins in recent years, albeit against opponents far weaker and less well-funded than the multimillionaire Scott).

To gun control advocates, the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who arrived in Tallahassee to lobby state lawmakers are evidence that a new generation of political activists may be more driven by gun issues than previous generations.

“They’ve got this voice, this singular, united voice, and it’s clearly accelerated what little progress we’ve begun to make. We’ve been primarily on the defensive,” said Jamie Ito, a Tallahassee lawyer who is a member of the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, a gun control advocacy group. “These students bring this passion and truth and this demand that I don’t think lawmakers can ignore.”

While legislation backed by the students failed in the legislature this week, there are signs that they are truly affecting the political debate.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) this week said that some of his positions on guns are evolving, while Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), who faces a competitive reelection race, announced he would support a ban on assault rifles.

Even the famously pro-gun Scott has been moved by the students’ appeals. On Friday, he rolled out a package of proposals to bolster gun laws and improve school safety — including a call to raise the age requirement for purchasing a rifle from 18 to 21, something the NRA does not favor.

In a press conference in Tallahassee, Scott himself admitted to the cross-pressures he faces. 

“Some will say it’s too much, and some will say it’s not enough,” Scott said of his proposals. But, he said, “I know there are some who are advocating a mass takeaway of Second Amendment rights for all Americans. That is not the answer.”

Nelson, who has favored a ban on assault weapons dating back to his 1990 bid for governor, took several swipes at Scott during a CNN town hall debate on gun control earlier this week. Nelson criticized financial incentives that Scott’s office granted to companies that produce both the AR-15, the weapon used in the Parkland massacre, and the Sig Sauer MCX, the weapon used in the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando last year. 

That both weapons are manufactured in plants in Florida underscores the state’s long history as a gun culture. More than 1.3 million Floridians — or one in 10 adults living in the state — have a concealed carry permit.

“There are probably somewhere between 2 and 3 million guns in the state, and nothing has changed the political calculus yet,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist in Tallahassee. “These things tend to revert back to the mean, when it’s not 24-hour news coverage, banging away on constant and painful reminders to people.”

While Scott’s proposals on Friday highlight tensions over guns within the GOP, there are also divides among the state’s Democrats.

Those who represent urban areas back substantial gun reform measures, but those who represent suburban, exurban or rural areas are more reticent to join the chorus — especially at a moment when Democrats appear headed toward substantial victories in November’s midterm elections.

“The Democrats have a unique chance, probably the best chance in 20 years to pick up a real number of seats in the state House and Senate,” Wilson said. “Blowing themselves up on this? It’s not going to make their voters any more likely to vote for them, but it’s going to make Republican voters more likely to come out and vote against them.”

If anything is to truly change the conversation on guns, activists said it would be a younger generation — embodied by those Parkland students who showed up in Tallahassee and on cable news networks this week — moved to action by the crisis. 

A survey of 18-29 year olds conducted by Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics in the fall found 61 percent of those voters want stricter gun control laws, while just 9 percent want less strict controls.

“As awful and terrible as Newtown was, those were first-graders that couldn’t advocate for themselves. It’s different having lawmakers listening to parents than listening to the actual kids who were there, teenagers who went through this and who are so angry and so motivated,” Ito said.

As those students reach voting age, and as their generation engages more significantly in politics, the political calculus may change under their influence.

“It’s kids basically getting their parents where they need to be,” Schale said. “When folks view voting against suburban moms who have kids in high school as a bigger threat than voting against the NRA, that’s when the conversation has changed.” 

Tags Bill Nelson Brian Mast Donald Trump Florida Gun control Gun rights Marco Rubio

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