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Democrats and Republicans Take Aim at Guns in Legislative Session

Meredith Geddings
Florida House of Representatives

Battle lines are being drawn in Florida over a perennially thorny issue: Guns.  State lawmakers have filed over a dozen bills seeking changes to existing gun laws. 

Sarasota Republican Senator Greg Steube is leading the NRA-backed effort to loosen gun restrictions. He is the sponsor of 10 such bills. Among them are proposals to allow concealed weapons-permit holders to carry guns onto college campuses, into airport terminals and in courthouses. Steube also wants to pass a bill allowing guns to be openly carried.  Similar measures previously failed, but Steube believes his proposals will ultimately make Floridians safer.                     

“I’ve been trying to do this for four years and none of the bills have passed. We passed the House, but not the Senate. I think if they do pass it, it will make Florida safer," Steube says. "It certainly will allow concealed weapons permit holders the ability to defend themselves. And I think that’s what’s most important.”

He isn’t alone. Ocala Republican Senator Dennis Baxley filed another bill that would eliminate gun-free zones. These are 15 locations where concealed weapons are banned under state law, such as polling places and public K-12 schools. Republicans say that "law-abiding citizens" should be allowed to carry guns in more places so they can defend themselves in the event of a mass shooting.

However, many Democrats and gun-control advocates are drawing a line in the sand. They argue that tougher gun laws are needed to keep people safe. This year’s battle over guns comes in the wake of high profile shootings in Florida – At Fort Lauderdale airport and Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.

Maria Wright lost her son Jerry in the mass shooting at Pulse. Recently at the Capitol, she implored lawmakers to pass "common-sense gun laws" to prevent more gun violence.

Credit Joseph Zeballos-Roig for WFSU News
Fred and Maria Wright speak to gun-safety activists at the Florida Capitol on Feb. 21, 2017.

“We’re just asking our legislators, ‘please.’ We need common sense. We don’t need more gun violence victims. Our son was 31-years-old," Wright says. "What happened to him was terrible. But we’re having too much gun violence. More guns in more places in more hands is not the way to solve this issue.”

Democrats and gun-control supporters face an uphill battle. In a Legislature dominated by Republicans, they don’t wield significant influence. But they are hopeful there’s a chance to make it harder for dangerous people to own a gun.

Orlando Democratic Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith has filed bills that would ban assault-weapons and repeal a controversial law forbidding doctors from asking patients if they are gun owners. Though he concedes his proposal for an assault-weapons ban is not likely to pass, Smith says Democrats are playing a crucial role in reshaping the overall gun debate.

Credit Carlos Guillermo Smith
Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith.

I think we’ve already done a lot of work towards changing the conversation. But make no mistake, we’ll have several opportunities when any of these gun bills move – especially if any of the bad gun bills move," Smith says. "To make amendments in the process, to ask all of the right questions, to demand accountability of the other side. And I think that’s really what’s going to help change the dialogue this session.”

As a gay Latino man who represents the Orlando area, Smith was shaken by the massacre at Pulse, in which 49 people were killed, some of whom he knew. He says lawmakers have “a moral obligation” to address gun violence and do more to curb the influence of the NRA. Smith has been wearing a rainbow ribbon on his lapel, to remind him of the lives lost at Pulse. He doesn’t intend to take it off anytime soon.