Some Florida Republicans Push for More Gun Control

by | February 21, 2018

By Katie Glueck and Alex Daugherty

In what could signal the start of a shift in Republican politics, some GOP donors and officials in Florida are urging their political networks to consider some gun control measures and buck their party's longstanding refusal to even engage in the debate.

"I already have impressed upon people I talk to, the way the law is now is incorrect, it's wrong, it's a moral obligation to make certain changes to the law," said Ronald Krongold, a Miami-based board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, speaking with McClatchy several days after a gunman in Parkland, Fla., killed 17 people in a school shooting. The interview also came hours before President Donald Trump moved to ban "bump stocks," which make semiautomatic weapons shoot much more rapidly.

Krongold said he's not issuing ultimatums, but that "this issue could influence who I support and who I don't."

Major GOP donor Al Hoffman Jr., also of Florida, went further over the weekend, indicating to top GOP officials there that he would not support candidates or organizations that didn't back a new assault weapons ban, The New York Times reported.

Those remarks come as the Florida Legislature scrambles to respond to last week's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that resulted in the deaths of 14 students and three faculty members over the course of six minutes.

While there appears to be little GOP appetite for banning high-powered assault weapons _ on Tuesday, the Florida House voted down a measure to even consider a bill that would ban them _ incoming Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, is promoting a slate of other ideas.

Those include a "gun violence restraining order" which could keep certain at-risk individuals from accessing firearms, as well as raising the age for purchasing and possessing semiautomatic firearms, and banning bump stocks. On the last measure, he has an ally in Trump, who announced Tuesday that he has asked the Justice Department to pursue regulations that would ban bump stocks.

"The Parkland shooting seems to be a change moment in terms of the way Republicans view gun control measures," said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican lobbyist and operative. Pointing to Galvano's proposals, he said, "None of these are necessarily earth-shaking, but all of them, at least in recent times, are unprecedented in the Florida Legislature."

Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo co-introduced a bill in October that would ban bump stocks after a mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert _ an effort that stalled despite widespread support. He said that he hopes more Republicans nationally will have "political courage" to push for votes on gun legislation after the Parkland shooting.

"Almost everyone in this building, the Capitol, agrees that bump stocks should be banned," Curbelo said in an interview in Washington. "The reason we're not being allowed to legislate is because of special interest groups, not just one but others too, and that's just wrong."

Curbelo, who faces re-election in a Democratic-leaning Miami-to-Key West district, expressed hope that younger Republicans like him (he's 37) can change the conversation on guns.

"There is a very healthy middle ground where we can protect and even enhance Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens while strengthening laws and regulations to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of those whose intention it is to kill and hurt innocent people," Curbelo said. "There are a lot of younger Republicans who are moving in this direction."

Added former Florida Republican Rep. David Jolly, "You're hearing Republicans talk at least a little more than they have in the past. In the past, it's been relative silence."

The National Rifle Association, influential with conservatives both in Tallahassee and nationally, is reserving judgment on the proposed Florida measures, as the statehouse prepares to release legislation on Thursday.

If history is any guide, the deep-pocketed organization will oppose virtually any effort to restrict access to firearms, and that will affect how the debate plays out nationally, and even on the state level. Staunch defense of the Second Amendment remains one of the most animating issues on the right, and the NRA is a major player in key congressional races, while even many moderate GOP donors are still more focused on things like foreign policy or the economy than on gun control.

But in Florida in recent years, there have also been deadly shootings at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and at Orlando's Pulse nightclub. And after Parkland, some calculations appear to be changing.

"I do get a sense that we've kind of hit a tipping point here with Florida _ whether, as a party, the prior failure to act is something that's sustainable," said one major national GOP donor. "My sense is, it's not."

Krongold said he has been worrying about this issue for awhile, pointing to mass shootings not just in Florida but also in Las Vegas and Newtown, Conn., and describing them as "terrible, terrible, terrible" tragedies. Parkland was even more personal.

"This happened in Florida less than 40 miles away from me, so of course I feel the reaction much stronger. It affected people we know," he said.

Asked whether it will be a turning point, he replied, "I hope it is."

But Al Cardenas, the former chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former chair of the Florida GOP, said that it would take more than a handful of Republicans speaking out to move the dial.

"I don't think most people who support the NRA are going to stop doing so because one or two major donors feel strongly about the issue," he said. "Now, if it's 50 or 100 major donors, that might be a different story."

(c)2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau