Florida Gov. Rick Scott broke with President Trump over the question of gun-toting educators. He’s ticked off the NRA. Suddenly, he’s in good graces with the state teacher’s union, his longtime adversary.
Scott’s reaction to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting is making Democrats wonder if they’re witnessing a broader general-election makeover — one that could make him a far more potent challenger to Sen. Bill Nelson.
“That’s something I’m sure the Nelson people are worried about,” said Allison Tant, the former Florida Democratic Party chair and a Nelson fundraiser and ally.
“Rick Scott is trying to erase the memories of everybody on the stances he’s taken on guns for the past eight years. But it took not just one mass shootings in Florida, but two to get him to act. And he’s not doing much,” Tant said, referencing the Pulse nightclub slaughter that happened during Scott’s term in 2016.
In his broad, $500 million proposal in reaction to the shooting, Scott — a governor who once signed every NRA gun bill he could — advocated for a gun-control measure that particularly stoked the powerful lobby’s ire: a requirement that buyers of rifles and shotguns be 21 years old. It’s a requirement that could have arguably stopped the Valentine’s Day shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who was 18 when he bought his AR-15.
The legislature is on track to send him a gun bill days before the March 9 end of session, so Scott will have yet another chance to carve out his public position on guns. The timing is fortuitous: the governor has long said he’ll announce whether he’s running for Senate at the end of the session.
When it comes to gun control, the Florida House and Senate have gone further than Scott by also proposing a three-day waiting period for purchasing rifles and shotguns, thereby making state regulations on buying long guns the same as handguns.
Lawmakers are also proposing a “marshal” program to arm teachers or school personnel, which Scott says he opposes and which the NRA and President Trump support. The Florida House and Senate bills, which barely differ, could pass the chambers by week’s end.
“I’m disappointed,” said NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer. “Taking away the rights of law-abiding citizens due to the criminal acts of a deranged person is not a solution.”
As for whether Scott will pay a political price from the NRA, which has given him an A-rating over the years because of his support for gun rights, Hammer said she’s focused only on stopping the legislation. Accustomed to never seeing gun control efforts from Tallahassee Republicans, Hammer acknowledged she was “surprised” that the legislature and Scott were going this far.
Scott, in a Fox News Sunday interview, said the NRA should accept the regulations.
“You know, I'm an NRA member. I believe in Second Amendment,” Scott said. “I think most members in the NRA agree with me, this is logical. I'm sure there's going to be some that disagree. But I'm a dad. I'm a granddad and I'm a governor. I want my state to be safe. I want every child to be in a safe environment when they're trying to be educated.”
While the NRA criticized Scott, the Florida Education Association teachers union praised his bill, in large part because it didn’t include the “marshal” program to arm teachers. In triangulating between the NRA and the teachers union, Scott, who first campaigned in 2010 as a tea partier, is playing on Nelson’s turf with a more centrist appeal.
Earlier this year, Scott tried to move to Nelson’s left on banning offshore oil drilling. He also proposed the biggest-ever state budget, $87 billion, a marked departure for a Republican who once criticized government spending,
“Do I think a conservative can pick up general election votes by moving a bit on gun control? Sure I do,” said state Rep. Jamie Grant, a Tampa Republican. “He can generate more Democrat votes than zero.”
The reality is that Scott hasn’t actually moved very far on the issue of gun rights. The governor, who claimed after the shooting that “everything is on the table,” never seriously considered an assault weapons ban. When such a ban was proposed Monday — Nelson and every major Democrat running for governor has called for it — it lost on a 7-6 vote in the Florida Senate Rules Committee. Scott still has a political link in common with the NRA: his political consultant, OnMessage, also does media work for the NRA.
Still, when Scott unveiled his proposal Friday, he was greeted with Reuters headlines like this one that ran in the Huffington Post: “Rick Scott Breaks With Trump, NRA With New Gun Control Proposals”
“Rick Scott gets a great headline but he isn’t giving up very much,” said Republican consultant Roger Stone, who lives a few miles from the school in Broward County.
“Bill Nelson did nothing but pander to the people he already has,” Stone said. “If people have a choice between this minor move by Rick Scott or a guy who’s anti-gun, it’s relatively safe.”
Nelson agrees with Stone on one point: the relatively minor impact of raising the age limit for buying a long gun.
"The governor's plan doesn't do one thing to ensure comprehensive criminal background checks or ban assault rifles, like the AR-15," Nelson said in a written statement. "His leadership is weak and by recommending raising the age to 21 he is doing the bare minimum."
When asked about an assault weapons ban on Sunday, Scott told FOX that “I'm not into banning, you know, specific weapons. I think what you need to do is ban specific people from having weapons. Focus on the problem. We've got to focus on solutions that work — banning the people that are going to potentially cause the problems. So it's all these things together.”
In anticipation of Scott attempting to downplay his position on guns, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee made sure to email reporters a fact sheet about the governor’s record on firearms.
“Here are the facts,” the DSCC email said. “Scott ‘signed a bill that barred doctors from asking patients whether they had access to guns;’ ‘did not propose new gun laws or seek significant mental health funding increases after the Pulse nightclub massacre;‘ slashed millions in funding for school safety; ended $20 million in funding for mental health care despite Florida already ranking at the bottom of the nation for mental health funding; has ‘long resisted gun control efforts‘ including refusing to support expanded background checks and a ban on assault weapons; and under Scott Florida has ‘some of weakest gun laws in nation.’”
Democratic state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, who graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and served as a Parkland city commissioner, said he suspected that Scott, knowing what the legislature is likely to deliver to him, is poised to wring a public-relations victory out of signing the legislation even if it includes armed teachers and a three-day waiting period for tactical rifle purchases.
“If you already know the process is moving along and that bill is going to be on your desk and you’re going to sign it, it makes your decision and what you say a lot easier,” Moskowitz said.