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The Parkland Shooting’s Role in the Close Florida Senate Race

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 01, 2018 4 min read
Mourners gather at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
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No single event in American schools this year has had a more profound impact than the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February. That impact could extend into next Tuesday, when a tight Florida election contest will help decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

A recent average of polls puts Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, ahead of his opponent, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, by fewer than 3 percentage points. Each has dealt with the fallout from the Parkland shooting in different ways and had different reactions to the killings.

Last month, Parkland played a significant role in a debate in which the two disagreed sharply about school safety and gun control, as well as how the two candidates have responded to the shooting itself.

Scott touted his and the Florida legislature’s quick response to the shooting, telling the audience that they had passed a “comprehensive school safety bill.” By contrast, he said, Nelson has “never gotten anything done with regard to creating school safety,” the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

The bill Scott referred to raised the legal age limit for rifle and shotgun purchases from 18 to 21, prohibited the sale of bump stocks, and imposed a three-day waiting period on firearms purchases. In terms of school safety, the bill established a “guardian” program through which school personnel can be trained and armed, and provided $400 million for new school mental health and security measures. (Some families of Parkland victims publicly supported the bill.)

Scott also devotes a decent chunk of the education section of his campaign website to discussing the legislation.

Earlier this year, Nelson collaborated with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to hold an extensive hearing on Capitol Hill about how to improve school and student safety after Parkland. But in sharp contrast to Scott, he called for a prohibition on purchases of assault rifles in a speech the day after the shooting. And not surprisingly, Nelson took a much more partisan approach in that October debate with Scott, arguing that the governor should tell parents like Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jamie died at Stoneman Douglas, that they’ll no longer support policies backed by the National Rifle Association. Nelson underscored his point by highlighting that Guttenberg was his guest at the debate. (Scott’s top rating from the NRA has been a primary focus for Nelson.)

“Fred wakes up every day and goes to the cemetery first thing. He’ll never have another birthday for Jaime,” the senator told the audience.

Unlike Scott, Nelson does not mention Parkland or school safety in his campaign’s website dedicated to education.

Divisions in Parkland

Guttenberg has been one of the most outspoken members of the Parkland community to get involved in the Senate race, but not everyone there is on the same side.

In an October ad, Scott’s campaign ran an ad featuring remarks from Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed at Parkland. Pollack praised Scott for encouraging him.

“Rick Scott wasn’t worried about the politics that came with that bill, and he did what he thought was right. We need a politician that’s going to do what’s right,” Pollack says in the ad, which is titled “Meadow” and you can watch below:

Here’s a quick political aside: Guttenberg’s foray into politics has taken on interesting dimensions. In September, he voiced support for Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican congressman who has split from the GOP by calling for more gun controls. However, Guttenberg subsequently decided to back Mast’s Democratic opponent in the race, Lauren Baer.

Student survivors of the Parkland shooting who’ve gained influence since February have also weighed in. Less than ten days after the murders, David Hogg, a Parkland student and gun control activist, referred to the idea of Nelson losing his seat to Scott by declaring “we can’t let that happen.”

Subsequently, Hogg and Nelson have each thanked each other in social media posts. Hogg also criticized opposition to Nelson’s bill that would impose restrictions on blueprints for printing guns. More broadly, Hogg is pushing for a big voter turnout in support of candidates who support gun control.

On the opposite side of the debate is Kyle Kashuv, who’s criticized attempts by Hogg and other students to push for gun-control measures. Soon after the shooting, Kashuv said Scott had done enough to highligh school safety, although Kashuv doesn’t appear to have spoken much publicly in favor of Scott in recent weeks. He seems to have focused more on the race to replace Scott, which features Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, and former GOP congressman Ron DeSantis—Kashuv is backing DeSantis.

Separately, Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group that also pushes for new restrictions on firearms, is backing Nelson, as part of a broader $2 million effort to support Florida Democrats.

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Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.