In the first five minutes of the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016, Orlando police say more than 200 rounds were fired from an assault-style weapon, creating the scene of incredible carnage that police found in the club’s main room. A later review revealed that the people slaughtered in that initial assault had been hit, on average, four times each.
Nearly two years later, a former student with an assault weapon needed less than six-and-a-half minutes to shoot 34 people, killing 17 of them, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The killer fired 139 shots, averaging a victim every 11.4 seconds. He left behind the rifle and 180 unused rounds in high-capacity magazines.
This type of deadly mass shooting would have been beyond anyone’s imagination in 1789, when Congress proposed the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms. It was plainly meant to perpetuate the citizen militias on which states then depended for defense and to maintain order (and control slaves).
The best marksmen at the time could manage at most three or four rounds a minute from their muzzle-loading muskets. That’s a far cry from the blast of violence that an assault-style firearm can deliver — the kind of weapon used in roughly 85% of “mass casualty” events. The vast majority of those were legally obtained.
If Florida lawmakers had banned the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in the aftermath of the 2016 massacre, as Connecticut did after the slaughter of 20 young children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2004, would the 2018 slaughter in Parkland have been less lethal? Would it have happened at all?
That’s a question that should haunt Florida’s leaders even now.
One small step forward …
But in the weeks after the horrifying Parkland tragedy, Florida agreed only to several modest reforms. Lawmakers raised the legal age for buying any rifle from 18 to 21 and made the sale subject to the same three-day waiting period as handguns already were. They extended the wait time indefinitely if the required background check took longer. They banned bump stocks, which effectively convert a semiautomatic weapon like an AR-15 into a machine gun.
They also enacted a “red flag” law, enabling law enforcement to ask judges to take weapons from people deemed potentially dangerous. It has been invoked thousands of times, undoubtedly saving many lives.
The gun lobby never accepted any of that and soon reasserted its control of the state Capitol. Last April, the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis kowtowed to the NRA by repealing an older law that required a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
New legislation this year would repeal the post-Parkland waiting period as to rifles and shotguns (SB 1124) and waive it altogether (HB 17) if the required background check comes back favorable sooner than required. That bill would also allow the sale if the check isn’t completed within three days, excluding weekends and legal holidays. HB 1223 would let 18-year-olds buy rifles and shotguns again.
Topping the NRA wish list is an open-carry bill (HB 1619) to allow people to shoulder their AR-15s or carry any other weapon almost everywhere in public, including on school grounds and inside polling places and athletic events. It would allow legislators, like its sponsor, Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Riverview, to carry weapons anywhere on the Capitol premises, where they’re now allowed only for law enforcement. It would repeal the ban on weapons on college campuses. This is insanity.
Police who seize weapons from people they arrest would have to return them (HB 485) if the items aren’t needed as evidence and the owner isn’t already disqualified by law or under a red flag order.
This is a witch’s brew of unforeseeable consequences and wrong signals.
The waiting period isn’t only about making sure the purchaser isn’t disqualified by a prior crime or commitment to a mental institution. It helps to prevent suicides and impulse killings. When originally enacted by a 1990 constitutional amendment applying to handguns, it was commonly known as a “cooling-off” period.
The National Academy of Sciences calculated in 2017 that waiting periods in 17 states and the District of Columbia were preventing roughly 750 gun deaths each year. Expanding them nationally would save another 950 lives, the authors said.
Rep. Joel Rudman, R-Navarre, the sponsor of HB 17, speaks of instances when would-be gun buyers waited years for background checks to clear. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, only 2% don’t meet the deadline. That’s no excuse for effectively wiping out the waiting period in most other cases.
Rudman, a physician who visited the bloodstained Parkland school building as a legislator, said he came away convinced that mental illness, not gun laws, were to blame for the tragedy. It is particularly unforgivable, then, that his bill would make it even easier for mentally ill people to be armed.
Florida should be strengthening, not weakening, its gun laws.
Gun violence is our nation’s peculiar epidemic, claiming a record 48,430 lives in 2021, the last year of complete data.
‘Too far to turn back now’
Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor speaks for the majority of sensible Floridians when he says, “We’ve come too far to turn back now” regarding school safety and gun violence.
“As the chief law enforcement officer in my circuit, I will plead to all of our elected officials in Tallahassee and in Washington, D.C., to do the right thing and to do everything in their collective power to not make it easier for people with bad intentions to get guns,” he told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board.
Some legislators are trying. SB 150 and HB 279 by Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, and Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, propose to ban new assault weapons and large-capacity magazines except for military and law enforcement uses.
SB 76, by Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, and HB 291, by Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, D-Parkland, close the so-called gun show loophole by requiring a background check on all weapons purchases. Private buyers and sellers would need to complete their transactions at licensed gun dealerships. Transfers between family members would generally be exempt.
WATCH: Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, D-Parkland, discusses her gun legislation filed for the 2024 session.
It will be a political earthquake if any of these good bills even gets a hearing. It’s virtually certain, on the other hand, that most of the bad ones will.
And Floridians will have to live with the fear of listening for the next rapid barrage of gunfire and praying that their loved ones don’t become victims of indiscriminate slaughter.
The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board includes Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson, Opinion Editor Krys Fluker and Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick. The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, editorial writer Martin Dyckman and Anderson. Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.