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With No Power to Pass Gun Laws, Florida Cities Prepare Plan B (and C)

Florida's failure to ban assault weapons has angered some local officials, but they have few options for recourse. Some are taking the issue to voters, while others are challenging a state law that bans cities from passing gun laws.

Gun Control-Colorado
A gun dealer takes down an AK-47 assault rifle from a sales rack at his store in Colorado.
(AP/Brennan Linsley)
After the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month left 17 teenagers and school staff members dead, local politicians have had enough with the state telling them what they can and can't do.

Under Florida law, cities and counties are prevented from enacting their own gun laws. Officials who try to enforce local gun legislation face up to a $5,000 fine and removal from office.

In response to the shooting, which sparked a nationwide push for gun control, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill two weeks ago that bans rapid-firing bump stocks, raises the age limit for gun purchases to 21, allows some teachers to carry guns and institutes a three-day waiting period for gun purchases. Notably absent from the bill, however, was a ban on assault weapons, which is gun control advocates' biggest priority since most mass shootings involve them

With no power to pass their own gun laws, local officials who want stricter gun laws are turning to the ballot box and the courts to get them.

Skip Campbell, the mayor of Coral Springs, Fla., is leading a campaign with other mayors to pass an amendment to the Florida constitution that would ban assault weapons. He's trying to get the amendment on the 2020 ballot.

Meanwhile, the city of Weston plans to sue the state over its preemption law and is inviting others to join the lawsuit. Miami could be next, since the city's commissioners directed the city attorney to look into the constitutionality of Florida’s preemption law.


Assault Weapons Ban Backtrack

But even if they support stricter gun control laws, some local officials will be hesitant to take on the state.

Case in point: The city of Coral Gables was expected to ban the sale of assault weapons in the jurisdiction on Tuesday but backtracked at the last minute. Fully aware of the potential financial, legal and political repercussions of passing local gun laws, the city's commissioners unanimously voted last month to push forward with the ordinance in the wake of the Parkland shooting. 

“Maybe there will be a legal challenge or a fine. The governor might remove us. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we are ready to confront whatever happens,” Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, who proposed the ordinance, told Governing last month.

“If this brings a legal challenge, that gives us the opportunity to look at the state statute and see whether such a preemption, whether an exceedingly broad preemption of local rules, is constitutional,” Coral Gables Commissioner Patricia Keon said last month.

Fast forward a few weeks, and, while Valdés-Fauli and Keon maintained their position, the three other members of the city commission ultimately decided to vote no on the assault weapons ban.

"We need to be about establishing laws and enforcing laws, whether we like it or not ... this is an elected body," Commissioner Michael Mena said at the meeting. "As frustrating as it may be, I can't support this ordinance moving forward."

Commissioner Frank Quesada expressed concern over the part of Florida's preemption law that would make the city responsible for any plaintiff's attorney fees if they were sued. He said that while he was willing to risk paying a $5,000 fine and even being ousted from office, he could not risk putting such a large "financial burden" on the city's residents.

In fact, a citizen showed up at Tuesday's meeting threatening to sue if the ordinance passed. The ordinance was also likely to attract a lawsuit from the National Rifle Association, which already sued Florida for its bill.

The Coral Gables city attorney, for her part, supports the commission's new outlook. The ordinance moved forward at last month's meeting against her recommendation. She consistently said she could not sign the ordinance as legal even if it passed because it would have been preempted by state law. 

Although the commissioners backtracked on their decision to put their jobs in jeopardy, they did vote on Tuesday to join Weston's lawsuit against the state and to research a potential ballot measure that would change the Florida constitution to ban assault weapons, much like Mayor Campbell.


'It’s Like a Parent-Child Relationship'

Weston and Coral Gables aren't the first cities to challenge Florida's restriction on local gun laws. In 2017, the mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum, defended the city in a lawsuit the state brought over two ordinances banning guns in public parks. Gillum argued that because the city was not enforcing the laws, they were not violating state law.

The court eventually agreed with Gillum but declined to rule on the state law’s constitutionality since no municipal officials in Tallahassee had actually been removed from office. The court hinted, however, that a city official’s removal would raise constitutional questions.

The most recent conflict in Florida mirrors a trend happening around the country: Conservative state legislatures are increasingly passing laws to keep more liberal cities from enacting their own ordinances on everything from gun control to the minimum wage.

In just the last three years, Missouri has enacted a law preventing cities from setting their own minimum wages and from banning plastic bags; North Carolina has blocked Charlotte’s anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people; Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has moved to prevent local fracking bans; and Arizona just last week signed a bill that outlaws soda taxes on the local level.

Unfortunately for cities, courts tend to rule in favor of state supremacy.

"Courts rarely or never find in favor of localities when there’s a question of home rule,” says Dr. Lori Riverstone-Newell at Illinois State University. “Most often the courts have said something like, ‘this is an issue between states and localities.’ It’s [interpreted to be] like a parent-child relationship.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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