February 21, 2018 at 1:26 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Parkland shooting inspires new calls for gun reform. Will it be enough?
Parkland shooting, gay news, Washington Blade

Students and other gun reform supporters protested in D.C. on Wednesday in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting last week. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In the aftermath of America’s most recent mass shooting — a tragedy at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead — gun control has emerged as a defining issue ahead of the congressional mid-term elections and LGBT candidates are among those bringing it the forefront.

The LGBT community was energized to enact gun reform legislation after the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., but the latest massacre that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has created new momentum for change that students and gun control advocates are embracing.

That’s particularly true for gay candidates running for Congress in Florida, which was the home state of both the Orlando and Parkland shootings.

David Richardson, who’s currently a state representative in the Florida legislature, is running for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in Florida’s 27th congressional district.

Richardson said he’s been advocating for gun reform since the Orlando shooting, but the push for change after the Parkland incident “has been larger, if you will,” which he credited to the Florida Legislature being in session.

“We’ve got school kids that are traveling here tonight,” Richardson said. “There will be a rally in Tallahassee tomorrow. There seems to be a willingness on the part of the Republican majority party to listen to a higher degree than they have listened in the past. In fact, at the end of our legislative session today, the speaker announced publicly that they were working on a bill that they hope would be a bipartisan bill regarding guns.”

Richardson also said there’s greater motivation for change after the Parkland shooting compared to the Orlando attack because “the other big difference is that these are school children versus LGBT folks in a nightclub.”

“These are kids and they’re kids from a neighborhood that have some level of financial comfort so that they can afford to come up and allow their voices to be heard and also they’re very articulate,” Richardson said. “I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the speeches, but some of these kids are incredibly articulate and they’re using social media to move their issue.”

There’s general agreement among gun advocates about the solutions that must be enacted: universal background checks, closing the gun-show loophole, ensuring that we can keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, banning bump stocks and restricting assault weapons.

Lauren Baer, who served as a foreign policy expert in the State Department under the Obama administration, is running for the Democratic nomination in the 18th congressional district and cited those solutions as “things that I hear people want in order to keep themselves, their families, their children safe.”

“The issue of gun violence prevention is hugely important to the constituents of Florida-18,” Baer said. “It was important even before the tragedy that happened in Parkland last weekend and it’s even more on people’s minds today.”

Baer’s potential opponent in the mid-term election, incumbent Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), has responded to the Parkland shooting with his own explanation for why the shooting occurred, blaming violence in video games and movies.

“When you look at ‘Call of Duty,’ when you look at movies like ‘John Wick,’ the societal impacts of people being desensitized to killing in ways different than how somebody on the battlefield was desensitized is troubling,” Mast said on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

Baer said Mast’s response to the shooting was “disappointing and ill-informed,” referencing that debunked notion that virtual violence inspires mass shootings.

“There’s one thing we know and it’s that video games don’t cause mass shootings, guns in the hands of individuals with bad intentions do, and there are common-sense steps that we can take in our communities and members of Congress can take in order to curb gun violence and keep our children safe,” Baer said.

But we’ve seen the push for change and outrage over inaction before. That hasn’t resulted in change from Congress, nor any consequences for lawmakers holding it up. In fact, after the Pulse shooting, the National Rifle Association-endorsed Trump won election to the White House and Republicans maintained majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Is there any reason to think things will be different in the 2018 mid-term elections? The head of an LGBT group that focuses on gun reform efforts thinks so.

Jason Lindsay, executive director of the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, said the Parkland shooting “has rekindled the flame of activism in the community.”

“The enthusiasm gap has closed,” Lindsay said. “There’s always been this proposed enthusiasm gap saying that people on the right side are very, very motivated and passionate about gun issues and they’ll vote on it, but voters on the left-end of the spectrum, it’s not that important. Well, that dynamic has definitely changed and gun violence is a top issue for voters.”

Lindsay cited a volunteer meeting that was set for Thursday night in D.C. as evidence of new energy in the fight for gun control. The event, Lindsay said, is one of several volunteer meetings the Pride Fund is coordinating across the country.

Baer said the latest mass shooting will have an impact on the mid-term elections because the victims in Parkland were students and “the children who were cowering under desks and the closets are now rallying in the streets and writing their congresspeople and demanding action.”

“We are here again now still having this conversation after what happened in Parkland, but my hope is that the fact that young people themselves are rallying and demanding that Congress finally do something will actually make the change this time around,” Baer said.

For the upcoming elections, Lindsay said the Pride Fund is focused on drawing attention to lawmakers who receive funds from NRA to stay in office.

The first is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whom Lindsay said accepted $3 million in NRA funding. The other is vulnerable incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), whom Lindsay said accepted $137,000 from the NRA, placing her on on the top 10 list of NRA recipient money.

“Because Comstock is such an NRA lackey and because she’s got an ‘A’ rating from them, she has voted time and time again with the gun lobby over the will of her constituents,” Lindsay said.

Richardson, however, had his own take on NRA support, saying donations aren’t where its power lies, but its willingness to take out lawmakers who disagree with it.

“They could easily do without that $1,000 political contribution,” Richardson said. What they can’t do with is having the NRA come after them. Many members of the majority party here feel like if you don’t support the NRA, then not only would they lose that financial contribution to their account, but they would risk the ire of the NRA. And then, the NRA would come after them and spend a half a million dollars to take them out.”

As evidence, Richardson said in 2016 the defeat of Republican Miguel Díaz de la Portilla, once chair of the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee, was orchestrated by the NRA because he refused to allow pro-gun measures to come before the panel. As a result, a Democrat won the seat, but a new Republican took Díaz de la Portilla’s position as committee chair.

Nonetheless, Richardson said he thinks the NRA’s tactics in the mid-term elections will be less effective because “we’re seeing these gun incidents recurring and…the conversation is getting more traction,” which is combined with dissatisfaction with President Trump.

“In the congressional district I’m running in, people just polled it and 55 percent of the people in the district, the Democrats, want to see him impeached,” Richardson said. “Anything that Trump has stood for, including widespread support for the NRA, is going to raise the ire of Democratic voters.”

As pressure builds in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, movement toward change is already taking place even before the mid-term elections.

President Trump on Tuesday directed the U.S. Justice Department to craft regulations banning bump stocks, which turn semi-automatic firearms into automatic weapons. Such a device enabled the Las Vegas shooter last year to kill 58 people and injure 851 attending a country music concert.

Further, Trump came out in favor of legislation aimed at improving the federal background check system. Various versions of legislation came up in the Senate after the mass shooting, but none have found sufficient support for passage.

In the aftermath of Trump’s newfound support for gun control measures, Richardson said he’d give credit to the president “when it’s done,” expressing skepticism real change will be enacted.

“After Vegas, by the way, there was conversation in Washington, D.C. about banning bump stocks, and that conversation lasted about two weeks and it died,” Richardson said. “I even thought at the time that the NRA may support that, but then everybody just moved off the conversation as soon as the news cycle was done.”

As an immediate remedy, Linsday is calling on Congress to pass legislation sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) called the Gun Violence Research Act, which would repeal the Dickey amendment and allow the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence. The Pride Fund endorsed Murphy in 2016.

“This should be like the one issue that everybody should be able to agree upon,” Lindsay said. “Even if we can’t pass legislation on specific policies at least let’s be able to pass legislation saying let’s let the government study gun violence and what’s causing it to continually get worse and worse.”

In Florida, House leadership brought to the floor legislation that would ban assault weapons in the state. However, lawmakers in the Republican-majority chamber voted 71-36 to table the legislation as student activists watched from the gallery and were emotional.

With energy building for action on gun control legislation, gay congressional candidates see a unique role for the LGBT community going forward because it experienced first-hand gun violence during the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Richardson said the LGBT community he represents in South Florida was affected by the Orlando massacre, but the issue of gun violence is real for all Americans.

“The LGBT community here in South Florida really identifies with what happened in Orlando and it makes it very personal for the LGBT community, but in general that the LGBT community, along with every other community, should be concerned about gun violence prevention,” Richardson said. “We share the same values in that we all just want to be safe on our streets.”

Baer said the LGBT community “knows all too well what it feels like to be the target of gun violence,” which creates a need for LGBT people to work with gun control advocates to institute change.

“This is really a universal issue that can touch neighborhoods and every community across this country, so we really, as members of the LGBT community, need to be working hand-in-hand with our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors and congresspeople to do something about this and make change,” Baer said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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