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Two Republican lawmakers are pivotal in Legislature's gun debate

Florida Senators Rene Garcia and Anitere Flores talk on the floor of the Florida Senate on March 8, 2017.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Florida Senators Rene Garcia and Anitere Flores talk on the floor of the Florida Senate on March 8, 2017.

TALLAHASSEE — Two Miami-Dade Republican senators are positioned to be the deciding factors this year in the perennial debate the Florida Legislature has over controversial proposals to expand gun-owners' rights in Florida.

One of those senators — Anitere Flores of Miami — already has the gun lobby up in arms in the first week of the 2017 session over fears she might single-handedly halt such measures as one former Miami-Dade senator did the past two years.

Indeed, she and Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, both could wield that power this year if they choose.

Because they are among five Republicans on the nine-member Senate Judiciary Committee, it would take just one of them to kill a bill if the committee's four Democrats vote together.

However, both senators told the Times/Herald that while there might be some ideas that are off the table, there is no all-out opposition from either of them when it comes to pro-gun bills.

"I think every issue should be debated individually and on its merits," Flores said Wednesday. "It doesn't mean a blanket 'no' to everything; it doesn't mean a blanket 'yes' to everything. It means that I'm open to debating the issues."

However, when Flores spoke broadly about gun bills during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Tuesday, some — including the powerful NRA and its ally Florida Carry — took her comments to mean she would halt all gun legislation before it even got off the ground.

When senators considered a proposal to let concealed-weapons permit-holders store their guns when visiting courthouses, Flores pressed Judiciary chairman Greg Steube — a Sarasota Republican who has filed most of the controversial gun bills this year — to pledge that that particular bill would not be expanded beyond its initial scope as it moved through the legislative process. (He agreed to not let it.)

Flores called that bill "a very limited situation" she could support, but in explaining her position, she said she'd be wary to vote for most other pro-gun bills this year.

"He (Steube) and I do not see eye to eye on probably any of the other gun bills," Flores said. "I do not support guns on campus; I don't support having guns in airports; I don't support having guns in school zones. I don't support these things."

However, Flores — who is the No. 2 Republican in the Florida Senate behind President Joe Negron, of Stuart — did not rule out supporting other future gun bills.

For instance, she told the Times/Herald she's open to considering bills related to letting concealed-weapons permit-holders openly carry their guns — depending on what exactly is being proposed.

"With open-carry, if there's a problem and a problem is being identified that there are inadvertent (incidents) — people who have a concealed-weapon permit and the gun is inadvertently shown — that they shouldn't be charged with a crime, I think that's reasonable," she said. "We should have a debate on that issue specifically."

"But on some of these other things, with the safety of individuals — that's where we start to talk about guns on campus and in schools," she said. "From a safety point of view, people get concerned."

That measured approach is consistent with Flores' record on guns, but it's also a reflection of the Democratic-leaning district the Republican now represents, which spans western and southern Miami-Dade County and Monroe County, including the Florida Keys.

Despite voicing opposition to some of the more controversial gun reforms, Flores has had a 100 percent rating with the NRA and has supported pro-gun bills, including some this year. Aside from the courthouse bill, an NRA-backed measure to shift the burden of proof in "Stand Your Ground" cases twice got her favorable vote in committees.

Nonetheless, following her comments in committee on Tuesday, Florida Carry in an email blast to its supporters branded Flores a "turncoat" for her "betrayal" to Second Amendment supporters and for "publicly questioning the true intent" of Steube's courthouse bill. Similarly, Marion Hammer, the NRA's Tallahassee lobbyist, also alerted the group's members to Flores' "anti-gun" comments.

Meanwhile, Michelle Gajda, the Florida volunteer director for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, heralded Flores as "Florida's new gun-sense champion."

Proving the influence Flores and García do have this year, Steube indicated to reporters that his "campus-carry" bill to let concealed guns on public college and university campuses likely won't go anywhere this session, because he said both Flores and García are against it.

"All you have to do is count the votes on this committee and see where people are on that," Steube said. But he added that it won't necessarily deter him from considering such bills, anyway. "It doesn't mean that we can't hear the bills. ... We have plenty of time to see how the process moves."

Speaking to the Times/Herald, García wouldn't commit to opposing or supporting any of the gun bills, including campus-carry.

"The devils in the details. It's always in the details," García said. "It depends on how it's structured, what's presented to us. And it's hard for me to say where I'll be until I have a piece of legislation before us. You can talk about open carry, but what does open carry entail?"

However, García has a caveat if sponsors of pro-gun bills, like Steube, want his vote. "I can't find myself voting for any bill that does not have a mental health component to it," he said. "Making sure that we invest more money into the system, making sure that people have access and treatment abilities. That is my main focus."

Both Flores and García said they wouldn't have supported Steube's initial approach to proposed gun reform this year — a sweeping bill that called for open carry and eliminating several "gun-free zones" where concealed weapons are banned, such as in schools, universities, airports and government meetings.

"There was no way I could vote for that first bill," García said.

Steube was forced to postpone a vote on it earlier this year, because he lacked Flores' and García's support. Instead, he broke up that proposal into several narrow bills.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at kclark@miamiherald.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark

Two Republican lawmakers are pivotal in Legislature's gun debate 03/10/17 [Last modified: Friday, March 10, 2017 11:34am]
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