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Florida state Senate rejects assault-weapons ban

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Heather Olivia, left, and Angelina Sosa, students of Atlantic High School in Delray Beach, attend a rally against gun violence on Wednesday. (Jim Rassol/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The emotional fault lines that have divided Florida since the school shootings in Parkland were on display in the Florida Senate Saturday as lawmakers passionately debated an assault weapons ban and then rejected it along primarily party lines.

The 20-17 vote against the ban included two Republicans, state Sens.. Anitere Flores and Rene Garcia of Hialeah, who joined 15 Democrats to support it.

The vote came in a rare weekend floor session as the Senate spent the day on legislation aimed at responding to the Feb. 14 Parkland attack. The bill would inject millions of dollars into mental health and school safety programs that lawmakers have long ignored and do something unseen in Florida for decades: impose new limits on gun access.

“If anything has come out of that tragedy, it is the realization that we have not done enough to this point comprehensively to have mechanisms in place … to prevent this from occurring,” Republican state Sen. Bill Galvano said as he introduced a new draft of the Senate plan.

The Senate had planned to take up its version of the legislation Friday, but with dozens of amendments drafted by Democrats, Senate leaders decided to spend much of Saturday debating the issue. Galvano also revised the proposal to include some components sought by House leaders in an attempt to send the bill to the other chamber and have it approved in time for it to reach the governor’s desk before the session ends on March 9.

Galvano called the legislation a compilation of “many, many ideas,” informed in part by the parents of victims and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and many in the Parkland community who traveled to Tallahassee last week.

“I think this journey is just beginning,” Galvano said. “This is not the end all and be all. I think we have much to do in this area, and I plan to do much in this area” so that all people are “safe to lead their daily lives and be productive in this state.”

The four-part legislation focused on mental health, firearms safety, school safety and communication and includes what Galvano said was “the most frequent request” — to raise the age for buying a rifle or shotgun from 18 to 21. He did not note that many of the parents and thousands of activists who rallied at the Capitol also wanted lawmakers to ban assault weapons.

For more than an hour, the Senate debated an amendment by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, to add an assault weapons ban to the package.

State Sen. David Simmons, an opponent of the ban, cited Adolf Hitler for seizing guns from German citizens and defended the need to allow civilians to have access to them. Democratic state Sen. Kevin Rader, who is Jewish and represents Parkland, called the analogy “absolutely unfair.” He recalled the evening he spent with parents waiting for the bodies of the victims to be identified.

“Everyone [from Parkland] is in agreement about banning assault weapons,” he said.

Galvano said he included what he thought was necessary for school safety, and he “did not want to include at this point a complete ban on firearms” because he said he thought an assault weapons ban would not be constitutional under the privacy and right to bear arms provisions of Florida’s Constitution.

State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami was among several Democrats who argued that the high-capacity weapons are not needed for civilians.

“They are designed to kill … modified for civilian use and then sold to the public with billions of dollars of profit,” he said. “The reason it is not being included is not because of constitutional law. It is a political decision not to include an assault weapons ban in here.”

But Republican state Sen. Kelli Stargel countered that she and her colleagues were not motivated by politics. She said she is willing to raise the age to 21 but bristled at the claim by gun control activists that prayers don’t matter.

“The one thing that will actually change this the most is the one thing that has become fighting words — and that is to say we need thoughts and prayers,” she said.

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