Florida has seen its share of mass gun violence — the Orlando nightclub shooting two years ago, the massacre this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
But Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, is not backing down in his support for gun rights as he tries to unseat longtime Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is signaling plans to make guns an issue.
Long a holder of the National Rifle Association’s top rating of A+, Mr. Scott has backed the state’s laws in favor of concealed carry permits, sales tax waivers on licenses, and even allowing people without a concealed carry license to be armed during emergencies like hurricanes.
In the wake of the February shooting in Parkland, he signed legislation allowing some faculty to be armed — but the law also raised the age at which a firearm can be purchased from 18 to 21. The NRA was opposed, while gun control advocates said the legislation didn’t go far enough.
“We’re not going to run away from the issue,” said Scott campaign communications director Ryan Patmintra. “The governor is an NRA member, a proud supporter of the Second Amendment, and his actions following Parkland were swift and measured.
“I think what gets lost in all the buzz following the tragedy is that the families who lost children in that horrific shooting asked policymakers for two things: make our schools safer and keep guns out of the hands of people who would do harm,” he said. “Nelson may not want to admit it, but the legislation the governor passed marked the most significant move toward accomplishing those goals than any level of government has made.”
Mr. Nelson says it’s not enough.
In a campaign email to supporters last week he spotlighted the outsized role his state has played in recent gun tragedies, with 17 dead at Stoneman Douglas and 49 people killed at Pulse nightclub by an Islamic State backer who used a legally purchased semiautomatic rifle and pistol for his deadly spree.
“Far too many Floridians know the damage and heartbreak a single weapon of war can cause,” the campaign wrote in a fundraising email Tuesday. “Yet Congress has not lifted a finger to prevent these tragedies from ever happening again. It’s outrageous. We owe it to the victims and their families to do more.”
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was among the students killed in Parkland and who resigned June 7 from a state safety commission formed after the massacre, said it’s Mr. Scott who’s got it right.
“Sen. Nelson politicized the whole event when the main issue is school safety,” Mr. Pollack said. “The governor reached out and really stepped up. He called me, he showed up at my house, he went to the funeral.”
While Mr. Pollack insisted he would “do anything,” for Mr. Scott, he has not made the senatorial campaign a linchpin of the efforts of the nonprofit he formed after his daughter’s slaying, Americans For Children’s Lives and School Safety (CLASS).
“Gun control is a deflection,” he insisted. “I don’t oppose some people pushing that, and anyone who has lost a kid gets a pass. But the real issue should be fix the schools, make them safe, do it this week, and I think the governor has tried to do that.”
The Nelson campaign did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
The idea the Florida senate race will boil down to gun rights versus gun control isn’t so clear, according to Sunshine State political experts.
For one thing, they say despite Mr. Scott’s pro-gun record, it may be hard pinning the label of extremist on him.
“Following the Parkland shooting, Nelson fell into line with the Democrats’ radical and uncompromising anti-Second Amendment posturing. In contrast, Gov. Scott swiftly signed a school safety bill that many saw as pragmatic — it was opposed by the NRA but supported by President Trump and a vast majority of the state’s Republican legislators,” said Taylor Budowitch, a top legislative aide and spokesman for various conservative organizations in Tallahassee.
Mr. Scott has also battled with Dinesh D’Souza after the conservative pundit posted online messages that seemed to mock Parkland students pushing for more gun control. Mr. D’Souza apologized for the tweets, but Mr. Scott tried to get him disinvited to an upcoming state GOP gathering.
Attempts to paint Mr. Scott as an NRA puppet were also dealt a blow when Florida newspapers reported the powerful lobbying group isn’t a major money player in the state.
Years ago, the organization would write checks to a handful of candidates from both parties, but recently it has confined itself to giving relatively small sums to the Republican Party in Florida.
The NRA now is focused on legislative victories and advertising to voters and members the grades it gives to lawmakers, according to The Tampa Bay Times and The Sun-Sentinel.
President Trump addressed the NRA convention last month and criticized Sen. Nelson in his remarks, a reference Mr. Nelson’s campaign was quick to note in fundraising emails. Also in May, gun-control activist David Hogg, a high school student in Parkland who has leapt to media prominence since the attack at his school, organized a gun-control protest at Publix, a major grocery store chain in Florida.
Mr. Hogg and other Pulse or Parkland survivors on both sides could churn the soil in the race, with the combination of their unimaginable grief and post-tragedy dignity making them potentially powerful figures on the Florida political landscape.
For example, Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, is on the ballot this fall as a Broward County School Board candidate.
Mr. Petty and Mr. Pollack joined Mr. Nelson last month in condemning the release of a new video game called “School Shooter.”
But the Parkland parents and survivors from Marjory Douglas are a divided lot in terms of what they would like to see politicians do. Some of them believe the Florida measure did not go far enough and have accused Mr. Trump of pretending to care about the issue more than he does.
Kevin Cade, a Democratic political consultant in Florida, said he doubts guns are on the minds of Floridians today to the extent they were three months ago.
“Sadly, probably not,” he said. While he praised Mr. Nelson’s position on assault weapons and “common sense” proposals, Mr. Cade said other issues are more pressing.
“In the research I’m seeing the cost and access to healthcare, better paying jobs, and funding our public schools are the highest priorities of voters right now — and likely will be in the near future,” he said.