When Gwen Graham saw the 17 white crosses outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School memorializing the students and teachers killed in a mass shooting there on Valentine’s Day, she started sobbing. The former congresswoman is in a crowded race to replace Florida’s term-limited Republican governor, Rick Scott, and seeing those crosses lined up outside the Parkland, Florida high school inspired her vow to ban military-style assault weapons on her first day in the governor’s mansion if she’s elected.
“I want that executive order drafted, ready to go, so that as soon as I’m sworn into office as governor, I can sign it banning assault weapons,” the Democratic gubernatorial candidate tells Bustle. “That’s the action we need. That’s the action we have to have.”
Outrage over Florida’s loose gun laws surged after reports that the 19-year-old Stoneman Douglas gunman legally bought the AR-15-style rifle he used to take 17 lives at the high school. As teenage survivors of the shooting lead the charge in calling for meaningful gun reform both in Florida and nationwide, women running for office in the Sunshine State are amplifying those survivors’ voices and strengthening their own gun control platforms in the wake of the tragedy. If the current momentum behind gun reform keeps up, the issue could be a deciding factor in Florida’s November elections.
“I am very much optimistic that somehow this time is going to be different, that the voices of these young adults are resonating here locally and also nationally,” says Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democratic candidate running for Congress in Florida’s 26th district.
For Mucarsel-Powell, gun violence was a personal nightmare long before the Parkland shooting. She lost her dad to gun violence when she was 24. Although he was killed in Ecuador, she understands the pain of losing someone to a bullet. “That trauma of losing a loved one to gun violence stays with you, and it comes back every time you hear of these shootings,” she tells Bustle.
She also has three children, and says her 9-year-old daughter is worried about what to do if someone opens fire in her South Florida school. Mary Barzee Flores, a former judge running as a Democrat in Florida’s 27th congressional district, also views gun violence through a mother’s lens. Two days after Parkland, there was a shooting threat at her 17-year-old son’s high school, located 40 miles south of Stoneman Douglas. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the frequency of school shootings across the U.S. in recent years had Flores rattled.
In the first nine weeks of 2018, there were 12 school shootings that resulted in at least one person besides the shooter being shot. Four of those took place after Parkland. The longer the United States goes without gun reform, Flores and Mucarsel-Powell believe, the more American children are at risk of dying in a classroom.
“It’s just horrifying to think that my daughter can’t legally buy a beer until she’s 21, but [the Parkland shooter] could go and buy a gun and he’s not 21,” Flores tells Bustle. “And not just any gun, but an assault rifle.”
Federal law states that you must be 21 to buy a handgun from a licensed dealer, but only 18 to purchase from an unlicensed dealer. By contrast, you must be 18 to buy a rifle from a licensed dealer, and there’s no federal minimum age to buy a rifle from an unlicensed seller. In Florida, it’s easier to buy an assault-style rifle than a handgun; the state has a mandatory, three-day waiting period for anyone seeking to buy a handgun, while there’s no such waiting period for AR-15-style rifles like the one used at Stoneman Douglas.
“These automatic weapons that can fire off multiple rounds very, very quickly, they are being used to hunt our children. They’re being used to mow down people in public places and in our schools,” Graham says. “They’re not useful for any other purpose other than a military purpose.”
Flores, Mucarsel-Powell, and Graham all support a complete ban on military-style assault rifles for civilians nationwide. U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) proposed a ban on assault weapons last month, but it’s unlikely to pass while Republicans control both houses of Congress. The Florida legislature also rejected a similar ban days ago.
Graham isn’t optimistic an assault weapons ban in Florida will become a reality without a governor who’s willing to champion the idea, which is why she promises to take immediate action through an executive order if elected. “I don’t think the Florida legislature has the political will or the courage to stand up to … the NRA,” she says.
Flores and Mucarsel-Powell would also likely face backlash from the gun lobby if elected to Congress. The NRA has a tight grip on Capitol Hill, as the pro-gun group has made more than $11 million in direct contributions to federal candidates over the past 20 years, ABC News reports. If Republicans maintain control of the House and Senate in 2018, fighting for gun control in Congress will remain an uphill battle for the Florida women. They’re ready to take on the fight, though. Flores is even considering making a lapel pin of a red “F” to show off the F rating she plans to receive from the NRA once in Washington.
Beyond her goal of banning assault weapons, Flores’ career as a Florida circuit court judge helped shape her belief that the loophole allowing Americans to buy guns from unlicensed dealers without a background check needs to be closed. She heard a lot of gun violence cases in her almost 9 years on the bench, and says that most defendants she saw didn’t get their guns from licensed dealers. She also believes the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives needs to keep computerized records of all gun sales across the country, including those bought at gun shows and from private sellers.
All three of these Florida natives also understand that roughly one-third of Floridians own guns, and they want to make it clear that they don’t have a problem with law-abiding citizens keeping a firearm at home. As Graham put it, protecting the 2nd Amendment and enacting common sense gun laws are not mutually exclusive.
“I understand people who want to hunt and fish with their family, and I have no problem with that. But there’s no reason for anybody to have military-style weapons of mass destruction,” Flores says. “I’m not anti-gun; I’m anti-murder.”