Teen survivors of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting travelled to the state capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 21 to demand action from lawmakers on guns, and to show support specifically for a proposed assault weapons ban in the the Florida House of Representatives. What these brave students were instead met with, however, was a defeated ban on assault rifles paired with a seemingly urgent desire to brand pornography in the state as a public health crisis. The shameful vote of the Florida House is a disgraceful act of political cowardice that reveals just how fundamentally out of touch Florida Republicans are with fundamental political issues today.
America today faces a crisis of public safety. Large crowds of people are predictably centered at particular locations such as schools, concerts and parks, which are easy targets for shooters aiming for as much death as possible. Meanwhile, firearms designed for operations of war can be legally bought by civilians, and can easily and unjustifiably evade or pass FBI background checks. Despite these glaring deficiencies, little if any gun control legislation has been passed at both the state and federal level in the past 20 years.
Readers who are familiar with the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut probably won’t find this as a surprise, but the Republican Party, at nearly all levels, has adopted a stance of gun-rights absolutism, where the party orthodoxy calls on all Republican leadership to denounce any imposition of gun control legislation as an infringement of Second Amendment rights. This phenomenon is best evidenced by the NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he reframed calls for a more extensive background check system as cultural elites trying to take away guns from the hands of the populace. Another clear example is the failure to act after the Sandy Hook shooting — a loathsome act of cowardice. However, the offensive vote of the Florida House is even more palpably disgraceful, since these politicians looked survivors of the school shooting in the eye and told them that taking steps to restrict pornography was more important than putting their lives above the politics of gun rights.
An assault weapons ban is not a new or untested idea. In 1994, Congress passed a federal assault weapons ban in the United States, which expired in 2004. Although there is limited evidence to suggest that the assault weapons ban reduced overall gun violence, the incidence of mass shootings in the United States did fall by 37 percent during the ban period. Under the 1994 assault weapons ban, the AR-15 rifle used by Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz would have been unobtainable through the means in which it was purchased.
Something about this latest shooting seems to have stuck in the minds of the nation, however. Politico opinion polling shows that 68 percent of Americans believe gun laws should be made stricter in the country, opposed to just 25 percent who are opposed to strengthening gun laws. More importantly, current polling indicates 53 percent of registered Republicans are now in favor of stricter gun laws, opposed to the mere 37 percent of Republicans who said the same in the wake of Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016.
Despite this momentous shift in bipartisan public opinion, however, the issue has been kept in political gridlock. Republican politicians are still highly beholden to gun rights activists, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA), for political support. In addition to spending over $54 million during the 2016 election in attempts to lobby officials and influence policy, the NRA’s core strength lies in its ability to galvanize voters and organize resistance to any politician who gives ground on the gun issue. For the past 20 years, gun rights advocates have wielded greater political power than gun control advocates, hence the gridlock we’ve seen on gun control.
In Florida, it is no different. Senator Marco Rubio’s embarrassing town hall performance showed clearly that Rubio was trying as hard as possible to not give an inch on gun rights while angering his constituents as little as possible. The noticeable shift in public opinion, however, is still very encouraging and indicates that perhaps gun control advocates may be gaining ground on gun-rights activists. Although the NRA “buying politicians” is an issue of incredible importance, ultimately votes are the sole vehicle to win elections, and right now it appears to be possible that anti-gun voters have the ability to scare NRA-bought politicians. Let’s hope they go to the polls, for Stoneman Marjory Douglas High School’s sake, and for the sake of our collective public safety.