A week after 17 students and teachers were killed at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the wave of emotion, anger and determination on gun control may have reached a high Wednesday night.
There was Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, facing a hostile audience of students, teachers and parents on CNN, saying he’d be open to legislation raising the minimum age of those able to buy guns. President Donald Trump had already said he could support a more vigorous background check system and even a ban on “bump stocks,” attachments that make semi-automatic weapons fully automatic. Florida lawmakers put two gun-related measures backed by Second Amendment advocates on hold while Douglas High students were in the state Capitol pressuring for gun-control legislation. Republicans elsewhere had even broached the possibility of lifting the ban that prohibits the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence as a public health threat.
And then came Thursday.
The National Rifle Association, perhaps the most potent single-issue interest group in the country, began firing back.
NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre railed against the post-Parkland call for more gun control, telling audience members of the Conservative Political Action Conference: “What they want is more restrictions on the law-abiding.”
LaPierre’s comments – and the might of the NRA – represent the wall that students, teachers and parents must scale if they are to turn their passion into policy.
The country, and Florida, has been at this point before. Many, many, many times before. Each time, the NRA has waited out the wails, seeded supporters like Rubio and Trump with political contributions and stiff-armed any push for more gun control.
Thursday evening’s development — that an armed school resource officer at Douglas could have but did not engage the shooter — adds a new wrinkle to the gun control debate. The NRA and Republicans who support it in Congress have long argued that the best way to stop a “bad guy with a gun” is to have a “good guy with a gun.”
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said a deputy assigned to the school should have “went in, addressed the killer, killed the killer.”
It remains to be seen how the denting of the “good guy with a gun” premise will change a debate whose intensity rises with a new mass shooting and then falls when coverage of the massacre subsides.
There were calls for more gun control in 2016, when a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Those calls were renewed in January of 2017, when five more people were killed in a mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Last week’s massacre inspired student walk-outs, marches and Wednesday’s town hall meeting with Rubio, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, on Thursday, joined the quest for answers, announcing that he is convening a grand jury that will propose a set of recommendations for school safety and preparedness.
“Aronberg said that the Grand Jury will evaluate the current system of protecting Palm Beach County students from school violence and examine a wide array of proposals, from developing effective early warning systems and enhancing school security to limitations on assault weapons, more effective background checks and mental health reforms,” a statement released by Aronberg’s office read.
After reviewing active shooter protocols, gun and mental health laws, the 21-person grand jury is expected to release findings and recommendations in June.
Aronberg said it’s his hope that the panel’s findings will be received in a manner similar to those of a grand jury he impaneled in 2016 to discuss the issue of sober homes, and that the school board, county commissioners and law enforcement might change school security and gun control policies to reflect the recommendations of the grand jury.
With the 2016 panel’s findings in mind, state law was changed on sober homes.
Aronberg said he knows changing gun laws could be a taller order.
“I realize that everything to do with guns is a politically sensitive subject,” he said. “That’s why I think a grand jury is the proper vehicle to use here. It is a cross-section of the county. It is a reflection of the county. A grand jury is insulated from outside pressure. It meets in secret.”
Despite the anguished cries for action in the wake of mass shootings, gun control efforts have not gained traction in Washington or in Tallahassee.
Trump held a round-table discussion Thursday in Washington to discuss school safety with local and state officials, including Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
It’s not clear what, if any, gun control proposals will emerge from the discussion, but Trump did intensify his call for arming and training teachers in an effort to fortify schools against mass shootings, a concept that has been promoted by the NRA. Teachers who were qualified to handle a weapon could receive “a little bit of a bonus,” Trump suggested.
No gun control legislation has been passed in the wake of other recent mass shootings.
On Dec. 3, 2015, two days after a pair of shooters in San Bernardino, Calif., killed 14 people, the Senate rejected an amendment expanding background checks during gun sales.
The amendment failed by a vote of 48-50. Rubio, who has accepted $3.3 million in contributions from the NRA, voted against it. Had he backed the amendment, the vote would have been a tie that could have been broken in favor of passage by then-Vice President Joe Biden.
Wednesday night, Rubio stood by his acceptance of money from the NRA.
“The influence of these groups comes not from money,” Rubio said during CNN’s town hall meeting. “The influence comes from the millions of people that agree with the agenda, the millions of Americans that support the NRA.”
With Douglas High students on their way to Tallahassee Tuesday, the Republican controlled Florida House voted against even debating gun control legislation. By a largely party-line 2-1 vote, the chamber decided not to bring to the floor a bill (HB 219) that would ban the sale of assault weapons like the one used by Nikolas Cruz in the Parkland shooting. A Senate version of the bill (SB 196) has been filed by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, for three years running and never received a committee hearing.
State Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and fellow Republican Gov. Rick Scott were invited to attend Wednesday’s town hall meeting with Parkland students, parents and teachers, but both men declined the invitation.
Nelson, expected to face a challenge for re-election from Scott, ripped the governor for not participating in the town hall meeting.
“Two years ago, when 49 lives were taken in the Pulse nightclub, and nothing was done — not in Washington, not in Tallahassee, not one thing offered by the administration in Tallahassee,” Nelson said during the CNN broadcast. “And here we are, going through this again. And it’s going to unfortunately very possibly continue unless we get some common-sense laws on the book.”
A spokesman for Scott said Nelson was using the Parkland shooting for political gain.
“Not shocking that Senator Nelson wants to exploit this tragedy and make it into a political stump speech,”Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for Scott, told CNN. “I’ll leave Senator Nelson to his politicking during this tragedy. Governor Scott has spent the week attending funerals, meeting with parents, students, law enforcement, etc. to make sure this does not happen again. No room for politics today.”
Scott has promised to deliver a package of proposals in response, based on three workshops he convened Tuesday in Tallahassee of education, law enforcement and mental health officials.
On Thursday, Scott released a statement chiding the FBI for not releasing any additional details on its failure to investigate a Jan. 5 tip it received regarding Cruz’s gun ownership, social media posts and the potential of him conducting a school shooting. And Scott’s office announced he had directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to seek $1 million in emergency money from the federal government to help pay local police overtime for the Parkland shooting investigation.