Florida lawmakers tackle gun-related issues

Proposed legislation could either limit or expand firearms in Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As the 2019 legislative session gets underway next month at the Florida Capitol, several state lawmakers have filed bills to expand gun ownership in Florida, while others are attempting to place additional restrictions on firearms possession, including assault-style rifles.

In addition, some legislators are asking their colleagues to reconsider several new gun control measures signed into law following last year's deadly school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Lawmaker seeks repeal of gun restrictions passed after Parkland shooting

Just three weeks after a gunman killed 17 students and staff members at a high school in Parkland last February, former Gov. Rick Scott signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act into law.

The comprehensive legislation provided funding for additional school resource officers, campus security improvements and mental health programs.

The act also created the school guardian program to allow certain trained school personnel to carry guns on campus.

In addition, the new law implemented several new gun control measures, such as raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm, banning bump stocks and giving judges and law enforcement the power to seize guns from Floridians who pose a danger to themselves or others.

"I was shocked. I was shocked the governor did sign it," said newly-elected state Rep. Mike Hill. "I didn't think (the bill) was properly vetted."

Hill, a Republican who represents Pensacola and parts of Northwest Florida, said he campaigned for office in part on a promise to repeal those parts of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act he believes are unconstitutional.

"Every time I said that, I got a standing ovation," Hill told News 6. "When I saw this infringement upon the Second Amendment of our Constitution, I was duty-bound, I was obligated to file legislation to repeal that."

The legislation, also known as SB 7026, narrowly passed the Florida Senate by a vote 20-18. The state House of Representatives later voted 67-50 in favor of the measure.

Hill has filed a bill that would repeal or change several aspects of that new law, including a provision that raised the minimum age to 21 years old to purchase a rifle or shotgun.  

Previously, Florida limited those sales to people older than 18. Federal law prohibits licensed dealers from selling handguns to anyone younger than 21.

"We have young people, 18 years old, going off to the military fighting our battles," said Hill, a retired Air Force captain. "And now you're telling me they cannot purchase a weapon?"

Under existing Florida law, active service members may purchase a rifle or shotgun if they're 18 or older.

Hill is also seeking to repeal the state's ban on bump stocks, which state law defines as a "device used to alter the rate of fire of a firearm to mimic automatic weapon fire."

In 2017, a gunman used a bump stock to kill 58 people and injure more than 800 others during a music festival in Las Vegas, authorities said.

Hill claims the definition of a bump stock is too broad under the new Florida law.

"Let's say you want to get a new trigger, so you change the trigger. That's a bump stock," Hill said. "It's making your weapon able to fire easier or faster."

The bill filed by Hill seeks to repeal the bump stock ban rather than redefine it.

Hill is also seeking to repeal the new law allowing judges to issue risk protection orders to seize weapons from gun owners for up to 12 months if law enforcement presents "clear and convincing evidence" that they pose a danger to themselves or others.

"The weapon itself does not cause the danger or cause the harm. It's the person holding that weapon," Hill told News 6. "We know we have issues here. There are people who, through substance abuse or poor family conditions, where perhaps their mental capacity or ability isn't where it needs to be. We need to treat that."

Hill expresed concern that military veterans, in particular, could be harmed by such risk protection orders.

"Many of our fighting men and women who come back from over in a war zone are diagnosed with (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)," said Hill.  "Someone may construe them as not having the mental capacity to be able to have a firearm."

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith doubts his fellow Democrats will support such a repeal.

"I think the risk protection order provision in the bill had the most impact on gun violence prevention," Smith said. "We are looking for ways to expand these risk protection orders, these red flag programs, to make sure guns are not in the hands of people who should not have them."

Smith, who represents parts of Orlando, voted against SB 7026 because the legislation allows certain school personnel to carry guns on campus.

"For my constituents, it was a bridge too far," he said.

Even so, Smith tells News 6 he supports the gun control measures contained in the bill and vows to fight any repeal of them.

"The Second Amendment, just like any amendment to the United States Constitution, is not unlimited," he said.

Bills filed to ban assault weapons, large capacity magazines

For the third year in a row, Smith has re-filed a bill that would ban many types of semiautomatic firearms, often described as assault weapons, which are similar to the kind used by a gunman to murder 49 people at Orlando's Pulse nightclub in 2016.

Smith's bill would outlaw more than 70 specific firearms, including all AK and AR series rifles.

The proposed legislation would also ban magazines capable of carrying 10 or more rounds of ammunition.

"The only reason someone should have a military-style assault weapon is if they are serving in the military," Smith said. "These are weapons of war. They were made for war. They are the gold standard for mass shootings. They should be off the streets."

Smith's fellow Democrat, State Sen. Linda Stewart, has also filed a bill that would ban assault weapons.  However, her proposal is limited to only four types of firearms she believes are the most commonly sold.

Stewart believes such a narrowly-tailored bill may have a better chance of passage by the Republican-controlled state Legislature. 

"We're just sick and tired of these weapons being out there on the street and use it just because they get angry about something or they're disturbed about something," Stewart told News 6. "Yes, we need more mental health funding. But right now, what we need is to ban these weapons that are very popular."

Lawmaker seeks to close 'loophole' allowing sales without background checks

To ensure most Floridians who purchase guns undergo a criminal background check, Smith has co-sponsored a bill requiring most firearms transfers to be handled by a federally-licensed dealer.

The proposed law would not apply to spouses or children who inherit a weapon after the owner's death or to gun owners who temporarily lend their firearms to someone for lawful purposes such as hunting.

"We're going to close the loophole that currently exists in Florida law that allows you to buy a firearm without a background check (by purchasing it) online, through private transfer or at a gun show," Smith said.

Proposal would allow guns on college campuses

Florida law currently prohibits anyone from carrying a concealed firearm onto any college or university facility.

Hill is hoping to change that restriction by sponsoring a bill that would allow students, faculty and other campus visitors to bring their weapons onto school property.

"Why should that person not be able to protect themselves?" asked Hill, who pointed out that his daughter once attended night classes at the University of West Florida. "I would want her to know that she is safe when she gets out of her car and she's walking to that building or coming back."

Hill dismissed suggestions that some college-aged students may not be responsible enough to handle firearms in a campus setting.

"They're intelligent people," Hill said.  "A 10-year-old knows not to go shoot someone."

Lawmakers to consider other gun laws

In recent weeks, state lawmakers have filed other firearms-related bills that could be considered during the legislative session that begins March 5:

  • A bill that would change the standard of proof under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law.
  • Bills allowing concealed weapons to be carried during religious services, even if the property houses a school.
  • Bills to ban guns in child care facilities, theaters and performing arts centers.
  • A bill allowing certain tactical medical professionals to carry firearms.
  • A bill that would transfer concealed weapons permitting from Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Hill questions whether he and his fellow state lawmakers have the ability to prevent gun-related injuries and deaths. 

"I'm not sure that simply taking weapons away is reducing gun violence," Hill said. "It's a condition of the heart. We have a commandment from the Lord that says, 'Thou shalt not kill'. And it happens. So if God can't stop it, what makes someone think I can stop it?"

Smith believes the state Legislature does have the power to curb the violence.

If elected leaders won't act, Smith suggests Floridians bypass the Legislature and change Florida's constitution through a citizen-led petition.

"There is already an effort underway to collect signatures to put the question before voters in 2020 to ban assault weapons in the state of Florida," Smith said.

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.