You couldn't have scripted a scene that displayed a pathological lack of self-awareness any better than this: On Saturday, the state Senate voted down Linda Stewart's bill to temporarily ban sales of AR-15s. Then, at Gov. Rick Scott's urging, senators promptly held a moment of silence for the 17 victims of the Parkland massacre.
No action. Thoughts and prayers. Wait for the next shooting spree. Rinse. Repeat.
During the assault-weapon debate, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, cranked the stupidity knob up to 11: "Thoughts and prayers are really the only thing that's going to stop the evil from within the individual that is taking up their arms to do this type of massacre."
Read that again slowly, and let the cynicism and shruggie-emoticon complacency of Stargel's insipid remark wash over you.
At the risk of being glib, God didn't seem to be paying much attention to your thoughts and prayers after Sandy Hook, or after Pulse, or after Las Vegas, all tragedies that gut-punched us but led to little more than platitudes from the Republicans in power. All the while, the body count keeps rising. Now there are another 17 dead bodies – and a legislative body that thinks more thoughts and prayers will do the trick.
That's not to say the indignation arising from Parkland has been completely ineffectual. The Senate is still considering the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which would raise the age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, require a three-day waiting period, ban bump stocks, give cops more authority to seize weapons from those deemed mentally unfit, and provide funding for more armed school resource officers and mental health counselors. (After the moment of silence Saturday, the Senate rejected a motion to allow parents to opt students out of classrooms with armed teachers.) Such a bill wouldn't stand a chance in a state legislature renowned for its slavishness to the gun lobby, were the students not dragging lawmakers along kicking and screaming.
But it says something that the Senate couldn't even bring itself to place a two-year moratorium on the mass shooter's favorite weapon, the AR-15, even though a recent Quinnipiac poll showed that more than 60 percent of Florida residents support a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. It says something that, with MS Douglas students forcing a debate that the National Rifle Association would just as soon not have, the best Florida can muster is a waiting period and a requirement that the purchaser of a war machine be old enough to legally buy beer. And it says something that, in the U.S. Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has decided to put gun reforms on the backburner, as it's more important to deregulate the financial industry and give Wall Street executives a big, fat kiss on the lips.
Much has been written in the last few weeks about the NRA's vice-like grip on policy, both in Florida and across the country. Stories have highlighted the thousands and millions of dollars Republicans – from state legislators to U.S. senators to the president of the United States – have raked in from the gun lobby and lamented the familiar ritual of outrage and inaction that seems to follow these incidents.
Those two aspects, of course, go together. Consider this anecdote from a New Yorker profile of Marion Hammer, the NRA's all-powerful Florida lobbyist. In it, state Rep. Jared Moskowitz is talking to Coral Springs city commissioner Dan Daley two days after the Parkland killings: "'I was talking to one of the Douglas students,' Daley says. 'His only words to me were "Do something." I had to tell him that I legally can't do anything, because the governor could take away my job if I tried.'"
Moskowitz turns to reporter Mike Spies and says, "That's the legacy of Marion Hammer."
Hammer, Spies explains, "is nearing four decades as the most influential gun lobbyist in the United States. Her policies have elevated Florida's gun owners to a uniquely privileged status, and made the public carrying of firearms a fact of daily life in the state." She was the force behind Stand Your Ground, as well as a 2011 bill that punishes local officials who try to enact any sort of gun regulations. "Hammer is not an elected official," Spies continues, "but she can create policy, see it through to passage, and use government resources to achieve her aims. These days, Florida's Republican-controlled legislature almost never allows any bill that appears to hinder gun owners to come up for a vote."
As the story notes, 91 percent of Florida Republican lawmakers have an A-minus rating or higher from the NRA. But it's probably too simplistic to argue that it's the NRA's money that keeps legislators in line. The bigger issue is that Republicans don't want to go into a GOP primary with Hammer as an enemy. As former state representative and now U.S. congressman Matt Gaetz told Spies, "If you're with Marion 95 percent of the time, you're a damn traitor."
And so, when tragedy strikes, you get thoughts and prayers, because the spineless people in power have been utterly cowed into submission by a gun lobbyist. The children of Douglas High need more damn traitors, not another pointless moment of silence.
If God is out there listening to Republican supplications, he's made it quite clear that it's up to us mere mortals to try to stave off the next massacre. But that's not really what those thoughts and prayers are about; they're a way to pretend that you care without doing anything that would piss Marion Hammer off.
That, folks, is how the Florida legislature operates. And that's why – so long as these obsequious minions of merchants of death hold power – nothing will change.
Come November, tell them where they can shove their thoughts and prayers.
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