Florida candidates spar over guns after mass shooting
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's candidates for governor openly sparred over guns on Monday after a mass shooting at a video game tournament.
Democrats contended Republicans were ignoring a wave of gun violence in the state, including the February shooting at a high school in Parkland that left 17 people dead, and the massacre at a gay nightclub in 2016 that left 49 people dead. The two GOP candidates lashed back that Democrats were attempting to politicize a tragedy.
Authorities say 24-year-old David Katz of Baltimore killed two people and wounded 10 others before fatally shooting himself Sunday at a Madden tournament being held at a riverfront mall in Jacksonville.
U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, both Republicans, scrapped plans to hold campaign events in the northeast Florida city after the shooting. But four of the main Democratic candidates visited Jacksonville and called for stricter gun-control laws and reducing the clout of gun-rights organizations such as the National Rifle Association.
Democrat Gwen Graham called out DeSantis and Putnam for canceling their planned campaign events.
"The fact that they were afraid to come and answer questions says all that needs to be said," said Graham.
DeSantis and Putnam said they canceled their events out of respect for the victims.
"It's disappointing to see how quickly the liberal left tries to politicize a tragedy," said Putnam spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice.
DeSantis spokesman Stephen Lawson said Graham should apologize. "It is absolutely shameful that Gwen Graham would use the tragedy yesterday in Jacksonville to score a quick political point while victims are still recovering and families are still grieving," Lawson said.
It's not clear if the clash over guns will resonate in Tuesday's primary, but there's no doubt that the eventual Democratic and Republican winners will be on a collision course when it comes to guns and the recent tragedies.
John Barnitt, a 17-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, says nearly all his friends have registered to vote since the shootings at the Parkland school.
"I've been putting pressure on people that haven't registered to vote. ... I can't even think now of one person that isn't registered to vote," he said.
Barnitt spent nearly two months this summer with roughly 15 classmates on a bus tour with the March For Our Lives movement, meeting with students in every congressional district in Florida in hopes of turning out the youth vote.
As of Aug. 1, there were nearly 373,000 newly registered voters this year, according to an analysis done by Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor. He said that roughly 1 out of 3 of those new voters is under the age of 30, but he cautioned that it appears to be a "natural ebb and flow" of voter registration that mirrors trends in previous years. He pointed out many election officials do drives that target graduating high school seniors.
Graham, however, said he believes the tragic events that happened this year have created "a galvanizing force" that will end the Democrats 2-decade-old drought in gubernatorial victories.
Graham and the other Democrats have called for additional restrictions on military-styled assault weapons and a repeal of the state's contentious 'stand your ground law' that has come under scrutiny after a recent shooting in a Pinellas County parking lot.
"As long as we let this absurd status quo continue, in which the gun lobby controls our elected officials, this bloodshed will continue," said Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum just hours after the Jacksonville shooting happened.
Putnam earned attention when he called himself a proud "NRA sellout" last year, and both Republicans have said they would oppose any additional gun-control efforts.
After the Parkland shooting, the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Scott pushed through a bill incorporating measures opposed by the NRA, including a provision banning anyone under 21 from purchasing a gun. Both DeSantis and Putnam said they would not have signed the bill.
During a Jacksonville campaign stop, Former Miami Beach Mayor and Democrat gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine said he was "infuriated" and "insulted that the state of Florida continues to have the weakest gun laws in the state."
Levine, who has made gun control a big part of his campaign, said the shooting in Jacksonville reinforces the state's image as the "Gunshine State."
Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report.
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