Moms Demand Action warns DeSantis about gun politics and primaries

Gun Rights

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Republican lawmakers held the line as a repeal of licensing requirements to carry firearms in public drew fire from both sides of the gun debate Thursday in Tallahassee.

After an easy 13-6 vote in a Senate committee, the bills are ready to be debated in both the Florida House and Senate – at the same time a new poll shows three-quarters of Florida voters opposed to the idea.  

SB150/HB543 is backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, House Speaker Paul Renner, and lobbyists for gun groups like the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America. 

But 77% of Florida voters stand in opposition, according to a University of North Florida poll. 

“Even among Republicans, most people (62%) are against carrying weapons without a permit,” said Michael Binder, executive director of the UNF, Public Opinion Research Lab. 

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Thursday amidst gun control group protests that the bill was a threat to public safety and complaints from gun rights groups that the proposal fails to deliver what had been promised, a Senate committee amended SB 150 to insert technical language found in HB 543, and made the two proposals identical.

Florida Democrats allied with pro-gun regulation groups Moms Demand Action, formed after the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, and the student group March for Our Lives, organized after the 2018 Parkland high school mass killing. They attacked the measure as a slap in the face to mass shooting survivors and said it prioritizes politics and profits over lives. 

“Too many lawmakers in Florida are allowing gun extremists to have a seat at the table to write the policies that are supposed to protect Floridians, but instead they’re protecting gunmakers’ profits. It’s shameful,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action. 

Watts was in Tallahassee to participate in the Florida chapter’s annual day of action at the Capitol and while open carry advocates question whether politicians pushing to relax gun laws are truly committed to the cause, Watts questions whether they truly think it is a good idea.  

“There’s a reason that Governor DeSantis doesn’t want guns in his events. He knows that it’s dangerous for people to have easy access to guns and to not have background checks or safety training. He wants permitless carry for thee but not for me,” said Watts. 

The Washington Post reported last month the DeSantis campaign had requested a gun ban at the Tampa Convention Center for an election night victory celebration but didn’t want the request attributed to the campaign.

Open carry supporters feel betrayed

In contrast to the safety faction, open carry advocates wonder whether the bill’s sponsors truly believe they have a proposal to protect what they have said in committees is a “God-given right enshrined in our Constitution.”  

Alachua’s Christopher Rose told Senate sponsor Sen. Jay Collins, R-Tampa, that he felt betrayed by the amendment to make the Senate and House bills identical, a move to quicken its delivery to DeSantis’ desk for a signature.

“Reading the amendment I don’t think he even believes the words that’s coming out of his mouth because the words that he’s used to describe this amendment is not what this amendment does,” said Rose. 

On the possibility that Rose might accidently reveal he was carrying a firearm and be in violation of Florida Law, he asked Collins, “Why do you want to have me arrested, senator, after telling me this is my right to bear arms.”

Collins and Rep. Charles Brannon, R-Macclenney, the House sponsor, would wipe out longstanding requirements to apply for a concealed weapons license that include a background check and a firearms training course. 

When Sen. Lori Berman, D-Palm Beach, asked Collins if he was aware gun violence was the No. 1 killer of children, Collins responded that opponents and supporters of the bill can “cherry-pick” different studies to support their position.

“But as a dad, I’m someone who takes that very serious. We’re all for responsible gun ownership and that’s why we’re doing this,” said Collins. 

Berman persisted in the line of questioning. 

“So if guns are causing children to die, don’t you think we should be doing something to limit access to guns rather than increase it,” asked Berman. 

Collins steadfastly defended the repeal of a weapons license. 

“No, I do not. There is a constitutional right to keep in bear arms. And that is what we’re fighting for right now,” said Collins. 

Agitated advocates

Both the pro-gun regulation faction and the open-carry advocates warn Republican lawmakers there will be a political cost to pay if the bill is approved. 

Watts said Florida gun policy is at odds with the nation. She claims Moms Demand Action has flipped legislatures in Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, and have passed strong gun laws in each state and now have turned their focus on Ron DeSantis. 

“This is about primary politics. And if Governor DeSantis tries to run for president, we will hold him accountable every single day for his track record and for being a gun extremist,” said Watts, adding that her 10 million member group is bigger than the NRA.

And Matt Collins, who twice in the past year captured DeSantis on tape voicing support for open carry, dismissed the permitless carry bill as low-hanging fruit for a supposedly pro-gun Legislature with a GOP supermajority. 

Collins told senators they were embarrassing DeSantis by making him look like an “impotent” failed leader in comparison to Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott. 

Abbot was able to get an open carry law through the legislature without a supermajority of Republicans. 

“This inaction by the legislature undermines the governor’s agenda, which of course hurts his chances in the upcoming presidential primary,” said Collins. “It begs the question that if the governor cannot get a very friendly legislature to add open carry to this bill, then how do we think he’s going to do trying to convince Congress to act on anything if he becomes president?” 

What’s next

The proposal now awaits debate in the House and Senate.

DeSantis said Tuesday he will sign whatever lawmakers send him, a permitless carry or an open carry bill.

“I’m not going to veto that (permitless) because it didn’t necessarily include everything I wanted,” said DeSantis.

James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahasse

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