Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Politics

Miami lawmaker's leadership and 'gun-bill fatigue' disarm Legislature

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TALLAHASSEE — When Anitere Flores declared, unprompted, a month ago there were a lot of controversial gun-rights measures she wouldn't support this year, the Miami Republican state senator truly set the tone for the Legislature's gun debate in 2017.

With the session now half over, only a handful of the two dozen pieces of gun-related legislation proposed this year have been considered at all, and of those, only a couple have a viable path at actually becoming law.

The House approved three such bills last week — two of which could likely be enacted this year, including highly divisive changes to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law — but lawmakers in both chambers and from both parties predict those measures will be the only ones on the table for this session.

Several attribute Flores — who is No. 2 in the Senate behind President Joe Negron, R-Stuart — as the reason.

"Sen. Flores, I applaud her for her leadership and her courage because without her, we might be dealing with a lot of really extreme proposals," said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.

The Legislature's conversation around gun bills this spring is quite tame compared to 2016, when debates raged — and stretched throughout most of the session — particularly over proposed laws that would have allowed concealed guns on college and university campuses or to be carried openly in public places throughout Florida.

Those same proposals were filed again this year — campus carry in both chambers, open carry just in the Senate — but they haven't been taken up at all. Nor have several other controversial proposals to expand gun-owners' rights, such as plans to eliminate some or all "gun-free zones" in the state.

"I think the members — not just myself, but some others — we're a little gun-bill fatigued," Flores told the Times/Herald in late March.

Longwood Republican Rep. Scott Plakon, who sponsored the House's campus-carry bill this year, called Flores' comment "more of a political answer than a policy answer."

"I don't understand 'bill fatigue,' " he said. "I think we should focus on the policy and, if it's good, we should bring it up."

When told Thursday of the credit that many lawmakers were giving her for the demise of this year's gun bills, Flores, who represents a more moderate constituency this year, said: "This is not about getting credit. This is really just about reflecting the people who elected me, doing what I think is the right public policy."

Fellow committee member and Hialeah Republican Sen. René García has also voiced opposition to campus carry, as well as reluctance about other controversial gun bills. Together, García's and Flores' positions have given them a lot of sway over which gun bills might actually advance in the Senate, since most are assigned to Judiciary first.

That power has thwarted chairman Greg Steube from successfully moving all but one of his 10 gun bills through his committee, which has five Republicans and four Democrats.

Steube, a conservative Sarasota Republican who campaigned prominently on Second Amendment rights, has twice had to postpone one of his other bills; it primarily would change the penalties permit-holders face if they accidentally open carry or display a concealed gun. (A scaled-down version of that same bill passed the House on Wednesday mostly along party-lines, while Steube's bill hasn't moved.)

"It's just the way the make-up of the committee is; Sen. Flores made it pretty clear where she is," Steube said. "But that doesn't mean we can't have a hearing and get the opportunity for it to be heard."

Even though he'll most likely lack the favorable votes, Steube told the Times/Herald he plans to schedule hearings for some of the bills that would eliminate "gun-free zones" during what will be Judiciary's final committee hearing of the session the week of April 17.

Flores said she'd be "a little surprised" if Steube did that. "I'm hoping that before a bill like that would come up, he'd count the votes," she said.

In the House, several members blame the Senate's lack of interest as the reason the gun bills are stalling this session.

"A lot of it has to do with bill management more than anything else," House Judiciary chairman Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said of the House's decision not to hear most of its gun bills this year. "If there's lack of movement in the other chamber on the bills, we try to minimize the amount of time we spend in committee on things that might not have a chance of success."

However, the Senate's different legislative priorities haven't stopped the House in other cases from advancing bills its Republican majority wants enacted that the Senate doesn't.

As most of the more controversial pro-gun legislation hasn't been heard this year, neither have any of the dozen gun-control measures Democrats had sought — particularly in the wake of mass shootings at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in January and at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last June.

"I was hopeful that we'd at least get a hearing on those bills," said Broward County Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, who co-sponsored a bill seeking an assault-weapons ban and filed two other gun-safety bills, including one strengthening background check requirements.

"These are good policies, and it is frustrating when one interest group can flex its muscle and keep us from having an open and fair debate on those issues," Farmer, of Lighthouse Point, said in reference to the NRA.

Marion Hammer, the NRA's influential longtime Tallahassee lobbyist, did not return voicemail or text messages seeking comment for this story.

The two gun bills that seem to have the best chance at passing both chambers this year are: One that would be a first-of-its-kind-in-the-nation law that shifts the burden of proof to prosecutors in "Stand Your Ground" pretrial hearings, and another that would let private K-12 schools with religious institutions on site decide if they want to allow concealed weapons on their property.

Versions of the "Stand Your Ground" changes have passed both chambers. House and Senate leaders must now compromise on the exact language — which could prove more difficult than expected.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at kclark@miamiherald.com or (850) 222-3095. Follow @ByKristenMClark

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