Carl R. Ramey: State and federal lawmakers fail to act on gun bills


Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 9:44 p.m.

The children and teachers of Newtown were massacred four months ago. Other, horrific acts of gun violence remain seared in our memory. Yet, legislative leaders continue to dither, hoping we'll buy their tiresome Second Amendment rhetoric and ignore their political cowardice.

In Washington, what began as a serious, comprehensive debate over gun control, never got beyond the Senate when a powerful minority shot down a modest, overwhelmingly popular proposal to expand background checks. Fearing the wrath of the NRA and paralyzed by the prospect of not getting re-elected, political courage was in short supply.

In Tallahassee, where Florida's 2013 legislative session is about to wrap-up, lawmakers haven't even initiated a gun control debate. Every measure sponsored by the Democratic minority has been bottled up or totally ignored.

In other words, business as usual. Florida's Legislature has a long history of playing ball with the NRA. In 1987, it passed the nation's first “shall-issue” (meaning, highly permissive) concealed-carry weapons law. Then, in 2005, it led the nation again in adopting NRA's “model” legislation that dramatically expands the right of self-defense — codified in the notorious “stand your ground” law.

Rather than setting any controls, Florida's lawmakers have chosen to expand or protect gun use. Since 2005, they have passed laws: 1) requiring employers to allow employees to take guns to work (when locked in vehicles); 2) lifting a longstanding ban on guns in state parks; 3) banning doctors from asking patients about gun ownership; 4) preventing insurance companies from penalizing gun owners; and 5) subjecting all local governments to stiff penalties if they attempt to regulate firearms (ensuring preemption by more permissive, NRA-sponsored state laws).

Florida's freewheeling approach to gun control is especially evident in lawmakers' defiant, close-minded attitude toward the “stand your ground” law. Let's stipulate that everyone has a right to defend themselves. Let's also stipulate that such right (long held absolute in one's home) should be applicable in some circumstances outside the home.

But don't tell me that citizens should have unfettered power and discretion, with no accountability, to use a gun in the public square. And, don't tell me that Florida's “stand your ground” law — giving citizens who feel the least bit threatened an affirmative right to stand their ground and fire, even when they could safely retreat — is so vital to Florida's safety, and so admirably administered, that it can't be changed in some way. Nevertheless, that's the position of Gov. Scott and the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Yes, Scott did commission a task force in 2012 to study the law. But weighted down with supporters of the law, its final report does little more than provide cover for legislative inaction. So, as before, we're left with no duty to retreat, no limitation in circumstances where the shooter acts provocatively, and no change in the presumption favoring the shooter's assessment of the threat (permitting deadly force simply because he/she “believes” it's “necessary”).

Why, one must ask, does fear of the NRA block even modest changes to this questionable law? It's one thing for an organization beholden to business interests that build and market guns to take an absolutist position on any issue involving the sale and use of guns. But what about the rest of us, including the vast majority of NRA members and gun owners? When will we stand up to the radical, corporate-driven element of the NRA and support sensible, limited restrictions on firearms that do nothing to impede hunting, self-protection or recreation?

We can start by vigorously debunking NRA's oft-repeated argument that any regulation infringes on constitutional rights and leads to gun confiscation. Both points are absurd on their face, because Florida's Constitution plainly states that “the manner of bearing arms may be regulated by law”, and the U.S. Supreme Court has decreed that the 2nd Amendment is an “individual right”, meaning that every law-abiding citizen has the enduring privilege of owning and bearing arms. Still, as with other amendments, including the more exalted First Amendment, necessary and reasonable limits can be drawn without eviscerating the basic protection.

In sum, law, principle and common sense are against the absolutist position of NRA radicals. But it'll require louder, more persistent, counter voices before lawmakers in Washington or Tallahassee stop doing NRA's bidding and, instead, start defending the broader public they represent.

Carl R. Ramey, a former Washington, D.C., attorney, lives in Gainesville.

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