MIAMI — In the wake of this month’s Florida school shooting, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) renewed his calls for a better background-check system to keep firearms away from the mentally ill, but said nothing of his two votes opposing restrictions on gun purchases by some people deemed unfit by the federal government.
The Miami Republican said that his two votes — concerning some veterans and Social Security recipients — sought to protect constitutional rights, and he pointed to a slew of gun-control legislation he has either co-sponsored, drafted or talked up, including an assault weapons ban, which has gained traction after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Curbelo’s shifting and nuanced positions on guns has drawn the same criticism from completely opposite quarters: the National Rifle Association and his top Democratic opponent, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Both describe Curbelo as an opportunist, with Mucarsel-Powell saying he votes like a right-wing Republican in Washington while campaigning like a moderate in Florida’s 26th Congressional District, a swing seat. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton won it by 16.3 percentage points — her biggest margin in the nation in a seat held by a Republican running for reelection.
“This is a common theme for Congressman Curbelo: tough talk in Florida, but party-line votes, standing with special interests in Washington,” Mucarsel-Powell said.
Though both of Curbelo’s votes were supported by the NRA, the legislation concerning Social Security, was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of disability groups. They opposed the Obama-era regulation because it targeted as many as 80,000 people who weren’t necessarily adjudicated mentally infirm. Instead, anyone who used a representative, due to a mental impairment, to receive Social Security disability or supplemental income benefits would have had their names sent to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Curbelo said that wasn’t fair to seniors and the disabled.
“While the Congressman strongly supports strengthening the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and has co-sponsored legislation to do so, he also believes in the Second Amendment,” said Curbelo’s spokeswoman, Joanna Rodriguez.
“Advocating to deny our seniors their constitutional right is an insult to those who have already contributed so much to our nation,” she said. “The Association of Mature American Citizens said it best, the vote was a ‘welcome reprieve to seniors who have had their Second Amendment rights subverted by an Administration and agency with significant influence over their retirement income.’”
The legislation, passed in February 2017, was the only gun bill this Congress has OK’d. The joint resolution was signed by President Donald Trump before the regulation went into effect.
About a month later, Curbelo voted for legislation that sought to overturn a law signed by former President George W. Bush in 2007 after the Virginia Tech mass shooting that required the Department of Veterans Affairs to submit names of “mentally defective” veterans to the background check system. Since then, the VA reports, about 174,000 veterans names have been added to the list for various mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
Curbelo said he objects to the way the VA determined who made the list and who didn’t.
“The VA was not making determinations on whether a beneficiary presented a danger to themselves or others, solely whether they needed assistance managing their finances,” his spokeswoman said. “Just because a veteran needs assistance managing their finances does not mean they should be denied one of the Constitutional rights they swore and sacrificed to defend.”
A group of former generals all opposed the legislation, though, leading Mucarsel-Powell to question if the legislation really helped vets.
“Curbelo had the chance to follow the guidance of multiple retired generals who called for Congress to strengthen our background check system, but instead, he voted with the gun lobby and Republican leadership,” she said.
The controversial legislation, which sparked a tense back-and-forth on the House floor between Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings and Florida Republican Brian J. Mast, stalled in the Senate.
Months later, on Oct. 1, 2017, a mass shooter killed 59 people and shot 422 more in Las Vegas. Curbelo and others responded by proposing a ban on “bump-fire” kits that help make a semiautomatic rifle fire like a machine gun. He then voted against a concealed weapons bill in December because it didn’t include language on bump stocks.
After the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Curbelo joined with Democrats and outlined a list of gun safety priorities and has signed on to Democratic Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s legislation to allow the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a mental health issue.
“We have to take a holistic approach to the gun violence issue, and guns aren’t the only problem, they’re just one of the elements of this challenge that we’re facing in our society,” Curbelo told Fox last week. “We do have to invest more in mental health, we have to strengthen the NICS, the background check system, so that those who do have mental health disorders are accurately reported to the NICS and can’t get access to these types of weapons.”
It’s that statement about “strengthening” background checks that, Mucarsel-Powell says, conflicts with his votes.
Since then, Curbelo has followed Mast’s call to ban “military-style firearms” for civilians.
For the NRA, which has contributed $7,450 to Curbelo since he first ran in 2014, that was the final betrayal.
“Carlos Curbelo is a political opportunist who repeatedly communicated his support for the Second Amendment as well as his specific opposition to gun bans and ammunition bans to the National Rifle Association,” spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said. “It’s generous to call him a flip-flopper when it’s pretty clear he lied to our members and can’t be trusted.”
Asked for reaction to the NRA’s statement, Curbelo said he was supporting “common-sense solutions that keep firearms and certain accessories out of the hands of violent, unstable individuals.”
“As the son of Cuban immigrants who watched a communist government seize all firearms from the public to leave their opposition defenseless against tyranny, Carlos has the utmost respect for the Second Amendment and is committed to protecting that right for all law-abiding Americans,” he said.