Would Other States' Gun Laws Have Prevented the Orlando Shooting?

Florida's gun control laws are relatively lax, but most states also lack the laws that may have stopped Omar Mateen from getting his hands on deadly weapons.
by | June 13, 2016
Terry DeCarlo, executive director of the LGBT Center of Central Florida, center, is comforted by Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, right, after the shooting. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Sunday's early morning mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., has once again stirred up a national debate about gun laws, which differ from state to state.

Could laws in any state have prevented Omar Mateen from killing at least 49 people and wounding at least 53 others?

In some parts of the country, Mateen couldn't have purchased his weapons legally and conceivably might have been forced to give up his guns before the massacre. But in Florida, which ranks high in protecting gun owners' rights, Mateen was able to acquire a rapid-firing assault-style weapon outfitted to draw on extra rounds of ammunition without breaking any laws.

Semi-automatic rifles like the one Mateen used are illegal in seven states and the District of Columbia. High-capacity ammunition magazines are illegal in eight states and D.C. But both Mateen's weapon and the magazines are legal in Florida.

Compared with the rest of the nation, Florida has relatively lax gun laws.

Guns & Ammo magazine last year ranked Florida the 12th best state in the country for gun owners. The rankings took into account the state's laws affirming the right to carry concealed handguns and its absence of restrictions on semi-automatic assault-style rifles. (Every state allows concealed handguns, but Florida is among a subset of "shall issue" states that further limit government's discretion to deny conceal-carry permit applications.) The high ranking also reflects the state's preemption of local gun regulation: Like 42 other states, Florida law prohibits cities in the state from enacting ordinances that deal with the ownership or sale of guns.

The magazine, however, did dock the state some points for failing to pass legislation that would have explicitly allowed Floridians with concealed-carry permits to bring guns onto college campuses -- something that nine states already allow.

Also last year, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave Florida an “F” for its gun laws. Unlike eight states and D.C., Florida doesn’t require criminal background checks for all private firearm sales (online and at gun shows). It doesn’t have a ban on certain kinds of especially lethal guns, such as semi-automatic assault-style rifles. It doesn’t have a ban on large-capacity magazines. Some states have enacted laws to prevent people from buying guns while they have a domestic violence restraining order against them, but again, Florida isn’t among them.

Whether any of these laws would have prevented the Orlando shooting is, of course, impossible to know. If Florida did have tighter gun restrictions, Mateen might simply have bought his weapons in a neighboring state with more permissive laws. And stricter gun controls certainly don't protect against all shootings. California, after all, has the nation's toughest gun restrictions, according to the Law Center, but that didn't prevent last December's mass shooting in San Bernardino, in which 14 people were killed and 22 injured.

But there is one California law that advocates say could have helped stop Mateen. It's the only state in the nation where mental health professionals, law enforcement, friends and family members can petition a judge to issue a court order removing guns from a potentially dangerous person. If Florida had such a law, Mateen might have fit the bill: He reportedly had a history of spousal abuse and claimed in 2013 to have ties to terrorist organizations.

“If anyone had gotten wind that this person was armed and dangerous to himself or others, that would be a way to disarm someone like him,” said Laura Cutilletta, a managing attorney at the Law Center. “That law was contemplated for exactly for that kind of thing.”

Even if the state did have such a law in place, though, it's impossible to say whether Mateen's ex-wife or his coworkers at the security firm -- to whom he reportedly bragged about his terrorist affiliations -- would have taken advantage of it.

In the wake of the nightclub shooting, Florida state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, who represents the Orlando area, said she hopes to speak with Gov. Rick Scott about gun reform.

“I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment. I think, however, there ought to be limits,” she said. “Why should a private individual need so many rounds of ammunition?”

But state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, the Senate's Democratic minority leader, said any bill relating to restricting gun rights would be "dead in the water" with the Republican-led legislature. After the mass shooting in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., Joyner introduced a bill that would ban semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines in Florida. But it didn't get a committee hearing. This year, she filed a bill that would have required criminal background checks for private sales at gun shows. It also didn't get a hearing.

"We had a chance to change something to prevent another Sandy Hook," said Joyner. "This thing is devastating. It hurts everybody."

Amber Tong contributed to the reporting of this story.