Florida, the state with some of the strongest Second Amendment protections in the country, may be facing the reality of voters putting a full-on assault weapons ban into the Florida Constitution — bypassing a Republican-controlled Legislature that has resisted any such moves even after last year’s Parkland school massacre.
Gail Schwartz, the aunt of one of the students killed a year ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, held a press conference Monday to announce a petition drive she is spearheading to put a constitutional amendment on the Florida ballot in 2020 that would ban “assault weapons.” Her group is forthrightly named Ban Assault Weapons Now.
The language of the proposed amendment defines an assault weapon as “semi-automatic rifles and shotguns capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition at once, either in fixed or detachable magazine, or any other ammunition-feeding device.” Such a broad ban could presumably capture everything down to a revolver, as it has an “ammunition-feeding device.”
“Try explaining to your children that they’re never going to see their cousin again,” Schwartz said, hitting the emotional buttons that are essential to restricting Second Amendment rights. “That’s not a conversation that anyone should ever have to make.”
Schwartz said that she believes her nephew — 14-year-old Alex Schachter — might be alive today if Nikolas Cruz did not have access to such a deadly weapon. Cruz killed 17 students and teachers at Parkland as an on-campus Broward County deputy hid outside. Schachter was one of the very first victims of Cruz, so it seems unlikely his life would have been spared if Cruz only had access to non-semi-automatic weapons.
Each mass shooting is used to evoke the necessity of getting guns out of the hands of Americans. A ban on what the media frequently calls “military-style” semi-automatic rifles — which basically means scary looking guns, regardless of relative lethality — has been a goal of gun control advocates nationally since a temporary federal ban expired in 2004.
In Florida, the push has been particularly fierce since the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were killed in 2016. But school shootings elicit the most emotional response for obvious reasons.
So Florida Democrats have been pushing hard for an assault weapons ban. But they are a minority in the Republican-controlled Legislature and their efforts go nowhere.
Last year Democrats tried to attach an assault weapons ban to the larger school safety bill that was ultimately passed in response to the Parkland shooting, which included armed security on school campuses. But the amendment failed, gaining only two Republican votes.
In fact, Florida Republicans annually consider the opposite direction, proposing bills to allow conceal-carry permit holders to carry on college campuses.
However, a direct-to-voters constitutional amendment bypasses the Legislature. Florida now has a 60 percent threshold for amendments to make it into the state constitution. But last November, all but one proposed amendment met that, and that one had 58 percent. Given the media coverage and the number of mass shootings in the state, it would be foolish to think that such an amendment could not pass.
“I think there is a better chance of getting a citizens initiative on the ballot than getting the current Legislature to seriously entertain an assault weapons ban,” said Florida League of Women Voters President Patricia Brigham. Naturally, the “nonpartisan” League supports the ban.
She is right.
Possibly the larger hurdle is actually getting the proposed amendment on the ballot. That means gathering 766,200 legal signatures, which requires spending several million dollars to paid signature-gathering organizations.
The assault weapons ban campaign collected $439,888 as of the last filing date on Dec. 31. It will take a lot more and the question politically is whether Democrat organizations actually want to ban assault weapons, or whether they prefer to run on the issue of assault weapons so they can keep forcing Republicans to defend assault weapons used in mass shootings.
Polling on the issue in Florida is heavily dependent on the length of time between mass shootings. Right after the Parkland shooting, a Florida Atlantic University poll found that nearly 70 percent of Floridians support an assault weapons ban. But the same poll six months later found only 51 percent favored. How it would fare in the midst of a presidential election during heavy voter turnout is the question.
We may find out.