Hillsborough County commissioners had barely recovered from an hour-long debate late Wednesday afternoon over how to prevent violence when Commissioner Les Miller dropped a bombshell.
Miller said he wanted to know whether the county could enact major gun control legislation, including a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips, and require mandatory background checks for all gun purchases.
“If we could do a little bit to curtail gun violence in cities, in counties, in the country, it would be well worth it,” Miller said in an interview after the meeting.
Miller, who nearly lost a son to gun violence in the late 1990s, rejected requests by other commissioners that he schedule a discussion on the issue for the next board meeting. His motion to have the county attorney research the county’s gun control powers was not on the agenda.
Despite the hot-button nature of the issue and the potential backlash from some constituents, the Republican-dominated commission voted 6-1 to support Miller’s request. Commissioner Mark Sharpe, one of five Republicans on the board, voted no.
It was Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner who was most resistant to voting for Miller’s motion. Minutes earlier, Beckner had weathered tough questions about his proposal to create a violence-prevention task force made up of professionals from various disciplines.
Several commissioners objected to the $150,000 Beckner wanted to fund the project, most of which would go to Prevention Institute, a California-based non-profit. The institute has helped other cities and counties develop successful violence prevention strategies, Beckner said. The rest of the money would go to a facilitator to guide the group’s deliberations.
Beckner was helped, however, by supportive testimony from law enforcement officials and a school board member. After 70 minutes of debate, the commission voted 7-0 to support funding the violence prevention group.
Then Miller floated his gun control proposal, seeming to link it to Beckner’s violence-prevention task force. He told commissioners his son was nearly killed by a gunshot while he was in college in Tallahassee.
“I don’t think anyone in the world should have to go through that,” he said, “but unfortunately it happens every day _ violent crime.”
Sharpe said the proposal worried him because media attention would focus on a potential assault weapon ban when statistics show those types of rifles are used in only a small portion of overall gun crimes. Sharpe suggested some preliminary research be done on what type of gun violence is most prevalent in Hillsborough County and what kinds of constitutional issues would be raised by a ban.
“We’ll be fighting that battle when really that may not be where we should be focusing our energy,” Sharpe said.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said the type of research Sharpe suggested would probably come out of the task force’s work.
Beckner, like the other commissioners, was caught off-guard by Miller’s gun control motion. Such a proposal threatened to embroil his newly minted task force in a gun control debate.
Beckner acknowledged that his idea for a violence-prevention panel started out as an effort to curb gun violence after the December school massacre in Newtown, Conn. And once the task force makes its recommendations, Beckner said, he expects some will address ways to curb shootings.
“My concern,” Beckner said to Miller, “is if we go forward today and we jump to talking about gun violence, we kind of start to dilute the focus of this group, which is to address violence at a higher level, and then come down to address the individual issues of violence.”
Beckner said he didn’t oppose individual commissioners asking the county attorney to do some research, but he didn’t support a “formal” request about gun control.
Miller replied he didn’t want to wait a year until the violence-prevention group made its recommendations. What’s more, Miller said, he wasn’t suggesting concrete action, only asking for information.
He finally convinced Beckner, who reluctantly supported the motion.
“I will support bringing back information,” Beckner said, “but I don’t want to mislead anybody that this is the direction our committee is going toward.”
County Attorney Chip Fletcher agreed to bring back his research May 15.