TALLAHASSEE — A mass-shooter murders 49 people in Orlando in 2016, and Florida lawmakers do nothing.
Another man with a gun murders 17 more people outside Fort Lauderdale in 2018 — but this time, protests erupt and Florida Republicans, for the first time in modern memory, propose limited gun control measures.
Many lawmakers — particularly those who represent gay and minority communities — say Tallahassee’s disparate responses to the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando aren’t coincidental, and speak to the intersection of race, privilege, sexual orientation and the priorities of the GOP-led Legislature in the nation's third-largest state.
Put simply: The Parkland high school students hailed from a heavily white and affluent community. The Pulse victims didn’t.
“The majority of the Pulse victims, the 49 people who lost their lives at Pulse, they were mostly LGBTQ people of color. Didn’t their lives matter? Why wasn’t the debate about gun safety important enough then?” asked state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat from Orlando and gay-rights advocate. Smith says he "lost constituents in the Pulse nightclub shooting. I lost a friend. Some of my closest friends survived that shooting after multiple gunshot wounds that they sustained."
Smith adds that “the victims at Pulse were disproportionately low income, disproportionately more likely to not have access to insurance, not have access to mental health services. And we had cuts to the mental health system after that,” Smith said. “So I’m calling the question over why Republican leaders are tripping over themselves right now and calling for investigations and resignations and new laws.”
As the Florida Legislature crafts a $400 million bill to boost limit gun rights, bolster school security and mental-health spending, legislative leaders contend that the differing reactions to the two shootings are firstly rooted in timing: The Parkland high school shooting happened during the regular 60-day lawmaking session, when lawmakers were under the glare of the Florida media and forced to react swiftly under protest. Pulse happened June 12, 2016, when lawmakers weren’t in session and were hitting the campaign trail instead.
When asked about Guillermo Smith’s points, Florida Senate Budget Chairman Rob Bradley said he does “not accept in anyway shape or form that we marginalized the victims of Pulse or that we are prioritizing one type of victim over the other.”
Bradley said that the venue of the shooting, a high school, made it particularly shocking to lawmakers as they sat in session.
“There is something about the idea of that special, sacred safe place of a school with children, and so many of us have kids and we depend on that to be just sort of a cocoon to learn and live and do so in a safe environment. Having that shattered is just so mind-blowing ... and for it to happen during session when we can do something about it,” Bradley said.
While Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee are taking the unprecedented step of considering gun control, the debate about firearms is fracturing along typical racial and partisan lines. Republicans tend to represent heavily white districts, where guns are more associated with sporting and self defense. Democrats tend to represent heavily non-white districts where, especially in the black community, guns are viewed as instruments of murder.
Republicans want the possibility of armed teachers in school. Many Democrats — especially African Americans — dread the idea due to their experience with guns and the disproportionate punishments that tend to be meted out on black kids in schools and from law enforcement.
One sees guns as a solution. The other sees firearms as the problem.
State Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, who represents a poor African-American community in north Miami-Dade, said his district office is pock-marked with bullet holes from stray gunfire or shooters just popping off in the neighborhood. That’s not an experience his white Republican colleagues have, he says. He recalls how blood soaked into the concrete walkways at his Liberty City elementary school after a shooting victim stumbled onto the premises and died at the campus flag pole where all the kids saw the body.
“I asked a Republican friend here ‘Do you own a gun?’ And he said ‘Yeah.’ Have you ever been shot at? ‘No.’ Have you ever seen someone get shot? ‘No.’ Well, I’ve seen all of that,” Braynon said. “And I don’t own a gun. I don’t want a gun. And in every single one of those experiences I remember, me owning a gun would not have made that experience any better. It would have made it worse.”
“So you’re living in your country club gated communities and you own a gun like ‘I own a gun. I’m gonna stop something when things go down. I got this.’ And I’m like, what are they talking about?” Braynon said. “It’s like we have two different worlds and when you look at [Marjory] Stoneman Douglas and Pulse, everyone sees the difference. Pulse was Hispanic. Pulse was LGBT — minorities, marginalized communities, lower income communities. Stoneman Douglas is in an affluent community.”
Democrats have also questioned why Republicans were so quick to delve into the beliefs of Pulse shooter Omar Mateen, who pledged fealty to the terrorist group ISIS, while saying relatively little about the worldview of 19-year-old Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, who had reportedly used racist words, had swastikas imprinted on his ammunition magazines and had a social media account with him wearing a Trump-backing “Make America Great Again” red ball cap.
State Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Brandon, said he has spoken with Braynon and told him “I have no idea what it’s like to be a black man in America” or to be gay. So he’ll have to rely on the words of others about their experience.
But, in the end, Lee said he sees the timing of the session as the “big driver” of the debate.
“We’re not just in session. It’s an election year,” Lee said. “And the margin of error for some state Senate districts between Republican and Democratic control under the maps the Supreme Court drew is very thin. And the governor is probably going to be in a general election battle for [the U.S.] Senate that’s going to be a nationally watched contest in a battleground state. And that tends to get people’s attention.”
Indeed, polling shows that many Republican-held positions are out of step with Florida voters overall, who want AR-15s and similar “assault weapons” banned, and oppose arming teachers in classrooms. The latter provision is in the legislation in the House and Senate, the former has repeatedly been voted down.
Polls also show that voters, by big margins, support a three-day wait for long gun purchases, an age limit of 21 for buyers and limits on firearms purchases by people deemed too violent by the courts. All of those provisions are supported by a majority of Republican voters, as well as voters overall, and are in the legislation.
The House sponsor of the bill, state Rep. José R. Oliva (R-Miami Lakes), said lawmakers are trying to strike a balance between effective gun control and the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
As for the disparities between the Pulse and Parkland reactions by legislators, Oliva said that “the only people I’ve heard ask that question is the press.” He said timing was everything.
“We’re in session and thousands of parents and children came up and demanded action. And the kids — they’re eloquent,” he said. “So you’re seeing representative government in action.”
While Oliva praises them, the Stoneman Douglas students crusading for gun control have been vilified by some quarters of the political right bristling at the high school kids who took on the NRA and Republicans.
Aided by Democratic lawmakers and gun-control advocates, they bused to Tallahassee and held nationally televised rallies outside. When they chanted in the rotunda outside the Florida House, lawmakers couldn’t hear themselves talk even though they have microphones and speakers in the sealed chambers.
“Republican lawmakers were scared s---less,” state Rep. Guillermo Smith recalled.
Student leader Emma González, who proudly sports a shaved head and identifies as a bisexual Cubana, acknowledged the difference between Parkland — dubbed Florida’s “safest city” last year due to its low crime rate — and poor, minority-heavy communities plagued by gun violence. To that end, the students with the March for Our Lives movement met up Saturday with kids from Chicago to “share stories, ideologies, and pizza,” she wrote in a string of message on Twitter.
“Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these few weeks alone,” González wrote.
“Since we all share in feeling this pain and know all too well how it feels to have to grow up at the snap of a finger, we were able to cover a lot of ground in communicating our experiences,” she said. “People of color in inner-cities and everywhere have been dealing with this for a despicably long time, and the media cycles just don't cover the violence the way they did here.”