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Florida Gov. Rick Scott backs raising age for rifle purchases to 21

Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) outlines his proposed changes to gun control in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. (Video: Reuters)

Florida Gov. Rick Scott joined a growing list of Republican lawmakers Friday to endorse raising the minimum age for purchasing rifles to 21 years old, marking his first major break from the policy priorities of the National Rifle Association.

The GOP leadership of the Florida House and Senate quickly stood with Scott in backing a broad package of legislative initiatives, including funding for increased school security and setting up a new process to take guns out of the hands of those deemed to pose a danger. The proposals have come in response to the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.

Any new regulation of firearms represents a dramatic shift in position for the state’s Republican leaders, who have spent decades easing the regulation of guns and giving legal protection to those who use firearms in self-defense. The split with the powerful NRA also underscores the potency of a growing movement led by teenage survivors of the attack that is demanding tighter gun restrictions.

Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) would rather increase law enforcement presence in schools as opposed to arming teachers with firearms. (Video: Reuters)

“I’m an NRA member, a supporter of the Second Amendment, and the First Amendment, and the entire Bill of Rights for that matter. I’m also a father, and a grandfather, and a governor,” Scott said. “We all have a difficult task in front of us balancing our individual rights with our obvious need for public safety.”

Republicans from outside the state, including President Trump, have separately called for a new federal age limit, which has become a focus after 17 students and faculty members in Parkland were fatally shot, allegedly by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who is accused of carrying out the attack with a semiautomatic rifle he legally purchased.

Federal law sets the minimum age for handgun purchases from licensed dealers at 21, while the minimum age for rifles and shotguns is 18. The federal age limits for unlicensed sales, including at gun shows, is 18 for handguns and any age for long guns.

Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) says state laws must change because "we can't trust the federal process." (Video: Reuters)

Other Republicans have called for more regulation of guns. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Rep. John Faso (R-N.Y.) have argued for raising the purchase age to 21. “Certainly nobody under 21 should have an AR-15,” Roberts told reporters in Topeka on Thursday, referring to the type of weapon Cruz is accused of using. Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), an Army veteran who lost both legs while deployed in Afghanistan, announced Friday that he supported a ban on all assault rifles, a central demand of surviving students at Stoneman Douglas.

But Republican leaders in Tallahassee continue to oppose such a move, all but ensuring that it will remain an issue for this year’s midterm elections. “Banning specific weapons and punishing law-abiding citizens is not going to fix this,” said Scott, who is planning a campaign for the U.S. Senate this year.

Republican leaders in Florida have until March 9 to approve the new bills under the state’s compressed legislative calender. They will also seek a ban on “bump stocks,” which are used to make semiautomatic weapons mimic automatic weapons in rate of fire; more money to harden school campuses; and funding for ­mental-health initiatives and to provide trained school security officers.

The governor said he would seek to strengthen state laws to prevent the purchase or possession of weapons by any adult “when either a family member, community welfare expert or law enforcement officer files a sworn request and presents evidence to the court of a threat of violence involving firearms or other weapons.”

State lawmakers passed no restrictions on guns after the fatal shooting of 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub in 2016 and the mass shooting that killed five at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2017.

Several gun rights groups have said they will oppose the new age limit as an infringement on the rights of adults. “Passing a law that makes it illegal for a 20-year-old to purchase a shotgun for hunting or an adult single mother from purchasing the most effective self-defense rifle on the market punishes law-abiding citizens for the evil acts of criminals,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said in a statement this week.

NRA goes on the offensive after Parkland shooting, assailing media and calling for more armed school security

On other regulatory questions, Florida Republicans are not yet in agreement. Leaders of the House and Senate want to require a three-day waiting period for taking possession of long guns purchased in the state, while the governor said he did not support that change. Florida’s current waiting period applies only to handguns.

Scott also said he opposed allowing teachers to carry firearms in schools, another proposal that Trump has been promoting. The legislative leaders, by contrast, said they would allow local sheriffs’ offices and police departments to deputize teachers as armed “school marshals” if they completed 132 hours of training and passed background checks.

“It’s just a question of working out the details,” said state Sen. Bill Galvano (R), the next president of the Florida Senate, about the differences in the proposals.

‘We have to harden our schools’: Trump makes arming teachers his top safety goal

The Republican age-limit proposal in Florida would provide exceptions for active-duty and reserve military personnel and their spouses, National Guard members and law enforcement officers over the age of 18.

Galvano, a supporter of the NRA’s legislative priorities in the past, said Thursday that the group’s opposition to raising the minimum age for purchases of semiautomatic rifles was not a major issue. “I think the desire to act and do something meaningful right now seems to be what’s going to win the day,” he said.

The Florida Education Association, a teachers union particularly influential with Democratic lawmakers, opposes any effort to arm teachers. In a statement Wednesday, the group’s leaders said the carriage of firearms on school campuses should be limited “to highly professional law enforcement personnel.”

But the Republican measures are likely to earn Democratic support when they come to a vote. Several Democratic lawmakers from Broward County, where the shooting occurred, have been working closely with Republicans to develop the legislative response, and they are likely to embrace the proposals.

“At the end of the day I’m not voting against a bill that is going to take guns out of the hands of 18-year-olds,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat from Broward County. “If Democrats want to complain that the NRA is a special interest and say Republicans kowtow to the NRA, then we should look internally at our special interests.”

In fact, the broad outlines of the legislative packages were drafted during tours of the crime scene in the 48 hours after the shooting, when Democratic lawmakers invited Republican leaders from Tallahassee to walk the school’s bloodstained hallways and speak with local officials.

The bills proposed Friday by lawmakers would also create exemptions from the state’s ­public-records law to protect the privacy of victims and provide money to raze and reconstruct the building where the shooting occurred.

The Broward County school board has requested $28.5 million for that task, including $450,000 for a memorial to the students and faculty members killed in the attack.