The political strategy for Democrats hoping to rewrite Florida gun laws is emerging in Tallahassee, as lawmakers introduce more than a dozen new bills to see whether any proposals might gain traction among majority Republicans.
Their tactics are part ambitious optimism – Republicans so far seem uninterested in their ideas – and part public-relations strategy to draw attention to their party’s ideas about changes to criminal background checks, the Guardian campus security program and forcing abusers in domestic violence cases to give up their guns.
With a Republican majority in both chambers and a Republican governor, Democrats face long odds.
Trying to ensure that at least some proposals would be considered by legislative committees or floor consideration, Democrats have flooded the House with proposals, a classic minority party strategy.
Democrats are filing bills in volume, proposing changes to a variety of gun laws and writing bills with sweeping language, said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.
“It’s an opportunity to at least say ‘Hey, you have these options in front of you. If you won’t hear this bill, will you hear this one instead?’” Eskamani said.
The strategy is more a public relations effort than anything, said Daniel Smith, chairman of the Political Science Department at the University of Florida. Democrats in the minority will attempt to stoke public opinion about gun safety to pressure Republicans, he said.
“When you’re in the minority party, you have to try to play up public opinion as much as anything else because you don’t have the institutional control to set the agenda,” he said.
Smith said Democrats shouldn’t be optimistic about overcoming the influence of the National Rifle Association and other special interests on guns.
Republicans represent constituents in their home districts who “tend to be much more supportive of some of the efforts by the NRA not to scale back gun owners’ rights and regulate the industry, much less individual possession of armed weapons,” he said.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Bushnell, and a member of the National Rifle Association said the Democrats’ approach will at least spark conversation.
“It is a strategy for tying up the floor or maybe using so much time and attention that maybe you hope to move some people towards your way of thinking about it,” he said.
Baxley said one side believes guns are the issue and the other believes violence is the issue, so finding common ground will be essential. He predicted it will take more than one legislative session to accomplish.
“None of us want our children harmed,” he said. “You start there, and then start finding what kind of things you could both agree on to achieve that common goal.”
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, and the Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence organized an event in the capital earlier this month to unveil Democrats’ gun proposals. Emotions ran high as legislators and advocates discussed gun violence.
A survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Brandon Wolf, recalled crouching beside a bathroom sink, after getting shot in the nightclub.
“It’s been two years, and I still don’t sleep well at night,” Wolf said. “I still avoid crowded rooms, and I always look for the first exit.”
A chapter leader for Moms Demand, Gay Valimont, said she was hopeful the Legislature will pass new gun restrictions.
“This is probably our best chance to pass positive gun legislation this year,” she said. “These gun bills are nothing new, they have put them forth every year and have never gotten a hearing.”