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Florida just did something extremely rare for a Republican-controlled state: Pass a bill limiting people’s access to guns

March 8, 2018 at 10:09 AM

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Florida state lawmakers gave final passage on March 7 to a gun safety package that raises the legal age for buying rifles and imposes a three-day waiting period for most purchases of long guns, while also allowing the arming of some public school personnel. (Reuters)

Florida lawmakers, spurred by last month’s deadly high school shooting, on Wednesday passed a bill to raise the legal age for buying rifles, impose a three-day waiting period on all gun sales and allow the arming of some school employees.

It's not unheard of for a Republican-controlled state to pass modest laws limiting some people's access to guns. But it is unheard of for a Republican-controlled state to do what Florida lawmakers just did: pass a bill that limits the general population's access to guns.

Florida is the first Republican-controlled state in years to pass such a bill, and this is the first time in 20 years that the state has taken these kinds of measures on gun control. Since 2015, half a dozen states with a Republican-controlled legislature and a Republican governor have passed modest gun laws that mostly deal with a growing consensus on guns: that domestic abusers shouldn’t have access to them.

Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and North Dakota have all prohibited convicted domestic abusers from getting guns, according to Laura Cutilletta with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control group that tracks state legislation. The last Republican-controlled state to pass a gun-control law was Louisiana. In 2016, lawmakers there passed a law requiring agencies to send mental-health records to the FBI for its background check.

And that has been as far as Republican-controlled states have been willing to go on gun control. Last year, gun-control advocates celebrated their victories in how many bills they stopped in GOP states to expand access to guns, in places such as universities and churches.

But on Wednesday night, the Florida legislature changed all that by passing a bill that brings it more in line with legislatures in California and Illinois. It voted to raise the age limit to purchase rifles, from 18 to 21. The bill also mandates a three-day waiting period for rifle and shotgun sales. It authorizes police to temporarily remove a gun from someone deemed a public risk. And it bans bump stocks, an attachment that can make a semiautomatic weapon fire more like an outlawed machine gun.

This is even more remarkable, given Florida has some of the loosest gun laws in the nation, according to a ranking by the Giffords Law Center. Earlier this year, the state was considering allowing guns in churches.

Florida state Rep. Jose Oliva (R) is hugged by House members as the gun and school safety bill passed the Florida House on Wednesday. Oliva shepherded the bill through the House. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times/AP)

The impetus was a February massacre at a high school that seized the nation’s attention, and lawmakers were able to draw a direct connection to legislation that could have stopped it. The suspect bought his assault rifle legally under the old Florida state law. He was 19 when he bought it. Under this bill now heading to Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) desk, he wouldn’t have been able to purchase it.

Republican champions of the bill pitched it as common-sense restrictions that can coexist with the Second Amendment.

“This is not an infringement upon your right to bear arms,” said state Rep. Jose Oliva, the Republican sponsor of this bill, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “This is a judgment call about how old you should be before you can exercise that right.”

This bill scrambled the traditional partisan lines on gun control. Most House Democrats voted against Florida's first gun-control law in two decades because they say it doesn't go far enough. These lawmakers want to ban assault weapons, which can fire bullets more rapidly than a traditional hand gun. “From this product, I don’t see how we prevent another mass shooting,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D) on the House floor.

Banning assault weapons is also the No. 1 demand of the Parkland community where the shooting took place. But that's a step too far for Florida Republican lawmakers: With students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School watching in the risers, the Florida state Senate voted down such a ban on party lines.

Another reason this legislation passed in such a gun-friendly state is because there’s a big concession to gun-rights supporters. The bill also sets up a program to arm some teachers. That’s a proposal supported by only the most extreme in the gun rights debate, like National Rifle Association chief Wayne La Pierre and, depending on the day, President Trump.

Whether this gun-control package becomes law is an open question, largely because of the arming teachers provision. Scott, like most Republicans in Congress, doesn’t support the idea.

But by getting a gun-restriction bill through the state legislature, Florida has just gone much further than any of its fellow Republican states have been willing to on gun control.

Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.

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