U.S. Rep. Brian Mast announced support Friday for a series of gun control measures, breaking with the National Rifle Association and underscoring the political impact of the Parkland school killings last week.
Mast, R-Palm City, whose race for re-election this fall is expected to be one of the most closely watched in the nation, had been considered a staunch opponent of gun control. A 2016 campaign video quoted him expressing support for the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants Americans the right to bear arms, and saying recent mass shootings “all could have been prevented were there people present who were prepared to defend themselves.”
He added: “I don’t want to live in a country where criminals are the only ones that have access to guns.”
In an opinion piece published in The New York Times on Friday, however, Mast said he supports a ban on assault weapons, expanding background checks for gun sales and raising the minimum age of gun purchasers. He also said he opposes modifications, called “bump stocks,” that turn semi-automatic rifles into fully automatic ones.
Mast said he opposes allowing those barred from flying because of terrorism concerns from purchasing guns, and he backs lifting the ban on federal research into gun violence as a public health threat.
The congressman, a U.S. Army veteran who lost both legs and a finger during an explosion in Afghanistan, pointed to the extensive military training he received with a weapon similar to the one used in the Parkland killings in arguing against giving civilians access “to the best killing tool the Army could put in my hands.”
He wrote: “I cannot support the primary weapon I used to defend our people being used to kill children I swore to defend.”
Mast said he continues to believe the Second Amendment is “unimpeachable.”
“I accept, however, that it does not guarantee that every civilian can bear any and all arms,” he said.
The NRA has opposed all of the gun control measures Mast backed Friday, and the organization has doled out millions in campaign contributions to members of Congress.
Mast, who has accepted $5,950 from the group, said the NRA could seek to rescind his membership or ask for its contributions to be returned. In a Times podcast, he said he is “hopeful” the NRA will work with state and federal officials to address the issue of gun violence.
Both of Mast’s would-be opponents, Democrats Pam Keith and Lauren Baer, were critical of the congressman Friday.
Keith rejected the contention that Mast’s positions represent a principled change or evolution undertaken in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre.
“Anybody who takes that much money from the NRA can’t sell me on this being a principled change of heart,” Keith said. “There’s nothing special about this shooting. It’s not different than Newtown or Las Vegas or Orlando. Brian Mast can say he supports an assault weapons ban because he knows the GOP will never back him up on this.”
Mast spokesman Brad Stewart defended the congressman’s position, saying, “It’s disappointing to see this politicized.”
Baer said she remains skeptical about Mast’s commitment to gun control.
“After nearly a week of outrage and anguish from our community, Congressman Mast has finally indicated his willingness to be open to a debate on common-sense gun safety measures," Baer said. "I will believe that Congressman Mast is genuinely committed to ending gun violence when his actions in Washington match his words in Florida.”
Mast, whose congressional term began in January 2017, has not voted on an assault weapons ban or on raising the age of gun purchasers. But he has joined his fellow Republicans in voting against some legislation backed by gun control advocates.
He voted for legislation that allowed the holder of a concealed weapons permit to carry a concealed weapon into another state that allows the carrying of concealed weapons. He voted against the establishment of a select congressional committee on gun violence prevention. And he voted against a pair of bills aimed at making it more difficult for the mentally ill to obtain guns.
It’s not clear what, if any, political price Mast will pay for his support for gun control policies.
He wrote in The Times that, as a soldier, he was unafraid of becoming a casualty.
“Now, as a Republican congressman from Florida, I don’t fear becoming a political casualty, either,” he said.
Mast’s support for gun control measures indicates just how much the ground has shifted on the gun control debate.
The NRA now finds Republicans, its principal backers in Congress and in state houses across the country, bucking the organization’s uniform opposition to gun control measures.
Gov. Rick Scott and Republicans in the Florida Legislature have announced support for a series of gun control measures, and President Donald Trump — the beneficiary of more than $30 million in NRA spending during the 2016 election — has said he’s open to legislation that would expand background checks and raise the minimum age for gun purchasers.
For his part, Mast wrote that the Parkland killings have had an impact on him. He noted that he once lived in Parkland and knew one of the victims.
“The president, House of Representatives, Senate, every state legislature, sheriffs, police officers, school boards, students and parents must unite with one mission: that no one will ever be murdered in school again,” he wrote.