Top Democrat criticizes lack of diversity on Senate panel


That’s the sentiment Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson expressed after testimony Monday from a panel of experts who appeared before a Senate committee exploring issues related to mass violence and white nationalism. 

The panel included two university criminology researchers, a sheriff, a former police chief and the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

But, Gibson said, none of the panel members represented Hispanics or blacks, groups that have been among the most high-profile targets of white nationalists’ attacks.

“It seems impossible to me to have a conversation about white supremacy and not have anyone of color who has expertise on the panel. There was no representative from any group that has been impacted by white nationalists or white supremacists,” Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat who is black, told The News Service of Florida.

Monday’s session disappointed Democrats for other reasons, too.

Law enforcement experts on the panel pointed the finger at social media and the internet but noticeably were reticent about condemning types of weapon used to carry out the attacks. That effectively thwarted Democrats’ desire to lay the blame on assault-style guns and high-capacity magazines, which have been used in mass shootings to kill dozens of people.

For example, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen promoted the use of “behavioral threat assessments,” rather than laws to restrict types of weapons and discounted any correlation between mental illness and acts of mass violence.

“Obviously, the more bullets you can have, the deadlier you can be,” Swearingen grudgingly acknowledged under questioning by Democrats during the meeting of the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee.

But the state’s chief law enforcement officer repeatedly pointed to studies showing that, historically, 60 percent of mass shootings were carried out by handguns and 20 percent with rifles, while AR-15s and AK-47s comprised “a smaller subset.”

“If you focus your effort on limiting a single type of weapon, we’re already behind the curve,” Swearingen said.

During a meeting of Senate Democrats on Tuesday, Sen. Gary Farmer called Swearingen’s comments “disconcerting.”

“This was a meeting supposedly about mass shootings and they’re sitting there with a straight face saying that assault weapons don’t increase the mass in mass shootings,” Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said. “It was mind-boggling, because to me, it’s such common-sense things.”

Farmer pointed out that Nikolas Cruz, who was captured on a school-surveillance system slaying 17 students and faculty members and injuring 17 others with an AR-15 at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, was able to fire multiple rounds in a short period of time.

“If he simply had to reload more often, there would have been more opportunities perhaps to stop it,” Farmer said.

Senate President Bill Galvano ordered Senate Infrastructure and Security Chairman Tom Lee to explore mass violence and white nationalism following last month’s shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

Federal authorities are investigating the El Paso shooting, in which 22 people were killed and two dozen others were injured, as an act of domestic terrorism and a possible hate crime after the gunman allegedly targeted Hispanics before opening fire Aug. 3 at a Walmart.

Galvano also asked Lee to probe whether the Legislature needs to expand safety laws passed in response to the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at the Parkland high school.

The Senate’s consideration of the issue got off to a rocky start last month, after Republican leaders in the upper chamber crafted a resolution condemning white nationalism and white supremacy as “hateful, dangerous and morally corrupt.”

Gibson wanted the Senate to note that mass violence is also caused by people who use semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines to carry out their attacks.

On Tuesday, Gibson and other Democrats renewed criticism of the Senate’s approach to one of the nation’s most controversial and politically divisive topics --- racism --- and the contentious issue of assault-style weapons.

But Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican and former Senate president, said in a telephone interview he had reached out, at Gibson’s suggestion, to former Orlando Judge Belvin Perry, who was unavailable to attend Monday’s meeting. Perry is black.

Gibson also asked Lee to consider Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, who is black and previously served as secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Lee said he did not reach out to McNeil, because the sheriffs’ association had already offered another alternative, Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight.

When asked about the lack of diversity on the panel, Lee said staff members for the committee and the Senate president’s office did the best they could when putting the group together.

“It’s just not easy to find experts who can be in Florida and participate in a panel like this that aren’t associated with one side or the other and in addition have a minority status,” Lee said.

“But nothing would have pleased me more than not to be in a position to have to answer that question,” he added.

Galvano told The News Service of Florida there’s still time for Lee’s committee to gather input from a variety of sources before the 2020 legislative session begins. The Senate president also pointed to the significance of the timing of Lee’s committee meeting, which came at the outset of committee meetings leading up to the session, which starts in January.

“I have every confidence there are more opportunities for folks to be heard on the subject and to bring in others that people may want to hear from with diverse backgrounds,” Galvano, R-Bradenton said. “In addition, the subject matters under review will be broad, including expanding background and red flag laws.”

Democrats have been pushing for an expansion of a 2018 “red flag” law, passed in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre, that allowed law enforcement officials to seek court orders to seize weapons from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

And Galvano echoed comments Monday by Lee about a potential for expanded background checks for gun purchases, another item on state and national Democrats’ wish list.

“Probably the thing that makes the most sense, if there is something to be done in the area of common-sense gun safety, would probably be an enhancement of some kind of background-check system, to look and see where there are holes in that system and if there is room for improvement,” Lee said Monday.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.