Sen. Bill Nelson, a common-sense moderate Democrat from Florida, stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate Monday and spoke, for just a bit, about the days when I first got to know him.
“I have been a hunter all my life,” he told his fellow senators. “I grew up on a ranch. I own numbers of guns. But my guns are for hunting.”
Indeed, that was precisely my first impression of Nelson back when I spent the night at the Nelson ranch outside Melbourne with a few other Florida high school guys. We were members of the Key Club service organization, planning ways to help Nelson become president of Key Club International at our upcoming Toronto convention. (Yes, he won.)
Nelson seemed born to be a rancher and very much a gun guy, in the eyes of this city kid. He also seemed born for politics — I pegged him as a future Florida governor (close but not quite right).
On Monday, Nelson was still the gun guy I knew. He was, after all, standing next to large pictures of two superb killing machines. “This is an AR-15,” Nelson said, pointing at the first gun. “It is the civilian version semi-automatic of the military version M16.” And, pointing to the second weapon: “This is what the killer in Orlando a week ago took in. It’s the same caliber, .223. It’s a collapsible stock. It’s the Sig Sauer MCX.”
Next he asked the key question every thinking American can answer: “Do we think that a person that is on the no-fly list ought to be able to buy one of these lethal killing machines?”
You and I, of course, can easily buy either or both of these military-modeled assault weapons. And earlier this month, Omar Mateen, a man on a mission, walked into a Port St. Lucie, Fla., gun store and bought a new MCX just as easily as any of us could. Even though he was on the U.S. terrorist watch list in 2013 and 2014 and was interviewed three times by the feds. In an ad featuring a soldier in full combat gear, MCX’s manufacturer Sig Sauer boasts the weapon is “the first true mission-adaptable weapons system engineered to be silenced, light and short.” (The MCX’s silencer is not about protecting tender ears of deer.) Mateen executed 49 people, wounded 53 — and proclaimed allegiance to Islamic State terrorists.
After Senate Republicans, fearful of the National Rifle Association’s clout, answered Nelson’s question by defeating four small bills, he said: “What am I going to tell 49 grieving families? … What am I going to tell the community of Orlando that is trying to come together in the healing? Sadly, what I am going to have to tell them is that the NRA won again.”
But one of the few courageous Republicans in Washington, quiet-speaking Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, was determined to push for a real reform. She joined with Nelson and seven other bipartisan co-sponsors to forge a reform that would prevent persons on the no-fly list from buying firearms, yet also give them a quick appeal process.
Collins is built with enough steel to lead her party’s spineless leaders back to the common sense path that was once their national security strength. Sen. Barry Goldwater, who posed for “I’m the NRA!” ads also proclaimed: “I’m completely opposed to selling automatic rifles. … I’ve never used an automatic or semi-automatic for hunting. … They have no place in anybody’s arsenal. If any SOB can’t hit a deer with one shot, he should quit shooting.”
And Ronald Reagan, declared in 1989: “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47 (then considered the assault rifle of choice) … is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.”
Importantly, Collins’ bipartisan proposal would also instantly alert the FBI if anyone who appeared on the watch lists in the past five years bought a gun — the only proposal that would’ve given officials even a chance of stopping Mateen from his massacre.
That proposal was added by the former Florida ranch kid, Bill Nelson. Even if it gets through Congress, it will be a micro-mini victory. It only affects an estimated 2,700 persons who are on the no-fly list and other added selectees. But even a glimmer of common sense happening in Washington these days will seem like big news.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.