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'Assault Weapon Ban' Or 'Defense Rifle Confiscation'? Fla. Lawmakers Debate Gun Control

Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images

The national gun-control debate is echoing in the committee rooms of the Florida Legislature this week. Since Wednesday, three bills relating to firearms have passed House committees, two of them after intense debates.

On the same day President Obama is pushing tighter gun control at the White House, the Florida House Judiciary Committee has passed a memorial, or an official legislative memo, with its own message for the president.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar), one of the memorial’s 57 Republican cosponsors, said, “In Florida I think it’s a great source of pride that we believe in the Second Amendment, that we believe that the Second Amendment makes our citizens safer.”

If the full Legislature passes the document, it would serve as a notice to the federal government, saying, Florida will resist and legally challenge any measure that encroaches on the constitutional right to bear arms.

Obama is pushing for several things, including universal background checks for gun buyers. He also wants to reinstate a federal ban on so-called assault weapons, the semiautomatic kind used to kill 20 first-graders and six women in Connecticut three months ago.

But Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) said, Florida needs to stand up for gun owners’ rights.

Baxley said, “I’ve often wondered, why aren’t we talking about a ‘defense rifle confiscation’ instead of an ‘assault weapon ban’? Those are just perspectives. And maybe it is important that we let the people of Florida and the people in Washington know where we stand.”

But some opponents say, mounting lawsuits against federal laws is often a huge waste of taxpayer money. Minority ranking member on the committee Rep. Elaine Schwartz (D-Hollywood) said, the state should learn a lesson from recent history.

“Challenging Obamacare wound up putting us behind the eight ball without having prepared sufficiently for the contingency that it might be OK,” she said.

And Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Coral Springs) said, while he believes in the Second Amendment, courts have shown that no right is unconditional.

Moskowitz asked memorial sponsor Neil Combee (R-Auburndale), “You are aware that the Supreme Court has found exceptions to the Second Amendment?”

Combee replied, “I’m not an attorney, and I’m not an expert on what the Supreme Court has or has not found.”

The committee was the final stop for the memorial, which now heads to the House floor.

Also this week, a bill that would let designated employees carry guns at Florida schools received overwhelming approval, after another emotionally charged debate. Sponsoring Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) told the House K-12 Subcommittee, the measure appeals especially to school principals in rural areas.

“The principals wanted to designate themselves because their school is 30-to-40 minutes from any city location. And it would take law enforcement 40-to-45 minutes to get to their school to respond to anything,” Steube said.

The school shooting in Newtown, Conn., took all of five minutes, according to documents the state’s attorney released on Thursday.

Steube’s measure would allow but not require school principals to choose someone who could carry a firearm, as long as that person goes through the same training required for armed guards.

But school boards have pushed back against the measure, saying districts are very concerned about liability. And executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, Wayne Blanton, said, arming school employees sends the wrong message to children.

“So they go back into the community and say, ‘Hey, it’s ok. Coach is carrying a gun. Principal’s carrying a gun. Teacher’s carrying a gun. Why can’t I carry a gun?’” Blanton said.

And finally, one more gun-related bill passed committee this week. This one, sponsored by Barbara Watson (D-Miami Gardens) got unanimous approval. Under current law, if someone is examined for mental illness under the Baker Act, they can still purchase guns, if they voluntarily checked into a mental hospital. The measure would close that loophole and extend the gun-buying ban to all Baker Act patients.