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Florida said to have some of weakest gun laws in nation

by Phil Helsel /  / Updated 

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Florida, the state where a 19-year-old gunman allegedly opened fire at a high school on Wednesday, killing at least 17 people, has what some describe as among the most lax gun laws in America.

Less than a year ago, the alleged gunman Nikolas Cruz legally bought the .223-caliber rifle described as an AR-15 type firearm believed to have been used in the mass shooting from a Broward County gun store, authorities and other law enforcement sources said.

Cruz, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland who had been expelled, allegedly opened fire at the school shortly after 2:20 p.m. and was later arrested.

This latest mass shooting — which adds to a string of mass shootings committed in the U.S. with a semi-automatic rifle sometimes called assault-style weapons — raised questions among some about the accessibility of firearms like the AR-15.

Florida "has some of the weakest laws in our country" when it comes to guns, said Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords who was severely wounded in a 2011 assassination attempt and who started a foundation to combat gun violence.

"How many months — the Las Vegas shooting, the worst shooting we've had in the history of our country, happened on Oct. 1. And what we’ve got from a lot of members of Congress and the White House were thoughts and prayers and there will be an appropriate time to do something about this," Kelly said Wednesday on MSNBC.

"Well, is today the time?" he said.

Those buying guns from licensed dealers in Florida must pass a background check, the same as those buying from licensed dealers across the nation, and there is a three-day waiting period in that state for handguns. Being a convicted felon is one of the criteria that would prevent someone from legally possessing a gun.

Florida law also imposes criminal penalties for those who fail to secure firearms from minors. There are no restrictions on the size of magazines a gun owner can buy or possess.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in a 2016 report gave Florida an "F" grade and said it has weak gun laws. But the Sunshine State is not alone: The group gave the same grade to a swath of states in the South, Midwest and West and said more can be done.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has been given an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association and who in 2017 signed a law to bolster the state's "stand your ground" law (it was ruled unconstitutional by a Miami judge in July) was asked about gun control in his state Wednesday and answered in vague terms.

"All of us want to live, and to have everyone live in a safe community," Scott told reporters. "And there’s a time to continue to have these conversations about how through law enforcement, how through mental illness funding, can we make sure people are safe — and we’ll continue to do that."

Scott said in a statement Thursday he would be organizing meetings in the state capital of Tallahassee “to discuss what we must do immediately to keep our schools safe and keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill individuals."

Democrats in Florida's Republican-controlled legislature last year introduced bills that would prohibit the sale of so-called assault weapons and or large-capacity magazines and require registration of those currently owned, but the measure died in committee.

A bill passed by the Florida legislature in 2011 and signed into law by Scott that would have prevented doctors from discussing gun safety with patients was ruled a violation of First Amendment rights by a federal appeals court in February of 2017, the Associated Press reported. The law, which had the support of the NRA, was called the only law of its kind in the nation. Supporters said it was necessary because doctors were overstepping their bounds and pushing an anti-gun agenda, the AP reported.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, said Thursday in Washington that "None of the laws that have been presented here in the past would have prevented any of these attacks, including the one yesterday, but that doesn't mean there isn't anything to do," Rubio said. "And just because I don't have an easy answer at my fingertips doesn't mean we shouldn't try to find a real answer."

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He added that it's unfair to suggest there's an easy fix, and also unfair to suggest Congress should do nothing. "I support anything that would work," he said.

One of the deadliest shootings in modern American history, the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, happened in Florida and involved a Sig Sauer MCX. Forty-nine people were killed and the gunman, Omar Mateen, was killed by police.

Mateen legally purchased the rifle used in the attack, despite the fact he had been looked at twice by the FBI in the past.

California has taken aim at AR-15 rifles, enacting laws barring so-called assault weapons and blocking the sale of large-capacity magazines.

But the state's strict gun laws did not prevent San Bernardino attackers Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik from obtaining the handguns and rifles used in the 2015 rampage that killed 14 people. Federal officials said that they had large-capacity magazines that violate California law in their SUV, the Associated Press reported at the time. A friend who bought two rifles was charged with acting as a "straw buyer."

Kevin Janson Neal, who killed five people in a shooting spree in northern California last year before being fatally shot by police, was apparently barred from having guns by a judge's order but assembled rifles at home, authorities have said.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel at a Wednesday night press conference on the school shooting called for more money for mental health treatment, and said those getting treatment for mental health should be barred from having access to handguns.

"If a person is predisposed to commit such a horrific event, like go into a school and shoot people, if a person is going to drive a truck into a crowded area, if a person is committed to committing great carnage — there’s not anybody, or not a lot law enforcement can do about it, or any entity can do about it," Israel said.

He said all that law enforcement can do is to rigorously train for mass shootings in order to respond quickly. "We have to be able to mitigate," he said. "We have to be able to respond quickly so we can lessen the loss of lives."

Sheriff Israel on MSNBC Thursday night described the AR-15 used as “a high-powered rifle,” and said “it produces great carnage, it’s a devastating weapon.” He said he didn't have a round count but “it’s going to be incredibly high.”

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