Under Florida law, city and county officials face penalties for violating the state’s prohibition on local gun ordinances. After that provision was enacted three years ago, gun rights advocates have filed several lawsuits against local governments and individual commissioners—including in Florida’s capital city.
Since the mid-80s, Florida law has said local governments can’t restrict gun use—only the state can. Second Amendment advocates say the preemption of local rules prevents a confusing patchwork of regulations for gun owners. Florida Carry Executive Director Sean Caranna explains it’s the same principal keeping local governments from enacting their own traffic rules.
“You can’t drive into the city of Tallahassee and say, ‘Well, instead of having red lights, we’re going to have blue lights,’” he says.
But he says despite the long-standing state law, about 300 local jurisdictions kept gun restrictions on the books with no repercussions until recently.
“It is a very sad state of affairs where you have local officials who know what the law is and are willing to break it anyway,” he says.
In Tallahassee, one rule on the books prohibits people from firing guns unless they’re in large agricultural areas. Another city decree imposes a non-criminal fine of $50 for shooting guns in public parks. But in 2011, police stopped enforcing those local gun ordinances after Florida Carry and the National Rifle Association successfully pushed the Legislature to add enforcement teeth to the state preemption law.
“Draconian penalties for a public or appointed official that allows a violation of the legislative act” is how Tallahassee City Attorney Lew Shelley explained the changes to the City Commission in February. He says the 2011 law let people sue the city for up to $100,000 and go after individual commissioners for $5,000. It also allowed the governor to remove elected officials from office—but a judge struck down that provision this month after Palm Beach County challenged the law.
Still, Florida Carry’s Caranna says, though the governor can’t do it, local officials still can be removed for failing to repeal gun rules.
“The governor still retains the authority to suspend them from office, and then it would be up to the Senate to remove them from office,” he says.
In the face of these threats, many local jurisdictions have taken gun ordinances out of their codes. In Tallahassee’s case, when the City Commission considered repeal this February, commissioners delayed a vote to get more information. At the time, Mayor John Marks said he would defy what amounted to intimidation tactics.
“I believe that this is akin to the civil rights movement in many, many ways,” he says, “and sometimes you do have to be civilly disobedient in order bring attention to certain things.”
Florida Carry and the Washington state-based Second Amendment Foundation believe Marks’ willful defiance makes their lawsuit against the city a slam dunk.
But Tallahassee Senior Assistant City Attorney Cassandra Jackson contends the city isn’t required to do anything because the state law already voids local ordinances.
“So whether the city did anything is really unnecessary to act because it is null and void, and our officers know they cannot enforce city regulations,” she says.
On the same day the groups sued Tallahassee, they also filed a challenge against Broward County. And Caranna says, with about 80 jurisdictions keeping gun rules on the books, Floridians should expect more suits soon.
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