Thursday, December 8, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Florida Court Rejects Local Rules Meant to Quell Gun Violence

As the U.S. reels from a pair of mass shootings, a Florida appeals court upheld an order striking down local gun-control measures.

(CN) — Gun-rights advocates are celebrating after a divided Florida appeals court ruled that Broward County can’t enact its own firearms safety ordinances.

Citing a state law that prohibits local governments from regulating firearms, a three-judge panel of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals on Wednesday rejected the county’s ordinance that, among other restrictions, barred people from carrying guns in airports and taxis. The decision upholds an earlier circuit court ruling. 

“We find that Broward County may not regulate indirectly what it cannot regulate directly,” wrote Chief Judge Spencer Levine, who was appointed by former Republican Governor Charlie Crist in 2009. 

Broward County had enacted ordinances that regulate weapons, including guns, in various places throughout the county. But, intending to “prohibit the enactment of any future ordinances or regulations relating to firearms, ammunition, or components thereof,” the Florida Legislature had previously passed a statute establishing that the state is in charge of firearms regulation.

Gun-rights group Florida Carry Inc. challenged the Broward County ordinance in 2014, claiming that the rule, which blocks people from carrying weapons in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and North Perry Airport, violates Florida’s preemption law. 

“Preemption laws prevent local jurisdictions from creating a patchwork of different regulations and a minefield of legal peril for individuals,” said Adam Kraut, senior director of legal operations for Firearms Policy Coalition, in a statement. 

Firearm preemption laws, which mandate that local measures can’t override federal or state laws, are often backed by the National Rifle Association. Such preemption laws have been challenged by gun-reform groups, and used by pro-gun groups to limit the authority of cities nationwide to regulate firearms.   

“Having dozens or hundreds of local municipalities with different laws regulating the carry of firearms would result in individuals having to become legal experts to avoid going to jail for accidentally violating a local ordinance,” Kraut said, adding, “We are delighted to see common sense prevail and congratulate our friends at Florida Carry for this important victory.” 

Attorneys for Broward County argued that Florida Carry lacked standing because the ordinances at issue regulated weapons and did not specify firearms and ammunition.

“In conclusion, we find that Florida Carry has standing and that the plain and unambiguous language of the ordinances regulate firearms. These ordinances regulate guns, which is synonymous with firearms, and thus violate the clear expression of the legislature and the state’s field preemption of firearms regulation,” Levine wrote.

Judge Edward Artau, who was appointed to the court by current GOP Governor Ron DeSantis, joined Levine in the majority.

The ruling comes in the wake of deadly mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, that took place less than a week apart.

On March 12, a judge in Colorado similarly struck down Boulder’s municipal ban on assault-style rifles following a two-year court challenge. The Boulder City Council had passed its ordinance in response to the shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. Parkland is located in Broward County.

Less than two weeks after the Colorado judge's ruling, police say a 21-year-old man from Denver shot and killed 10 people at a Boulder supermarket. He had reportedly purchased a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic pistol on March 16.

Since the most recent attacks, gun-reform advocates have been more adamantly pushing the U.S. Senate and President Joe Biden to address the harrowing level of gun violence in America. 

Judge Robert Gross, who was appointed by Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles in 1995, wrote a scathing dissent to Wednesday’s decision.

“The majority relies heavily on the fact that the county ordinance definition of a 'weapon' includes 'guns' within it. But the definition section cannot be read in a vacuum, without the limiting language [in state law], which expressly limits the reach of the ordinances before they impinge on 'firearms' or 'ammunition,' Gross wrote.  

He added that Florida Carry failed to provide “a scintilla of evidence” that its members had been adversely impacted by the ordinance. 

Gross invoked Lewis Carroll’s "Through the Looking Glass," quoting a passage in which Humpty Dumpty scorns Alice for questioning the meaning of his chosen word.

"Confronting this issue of statutory interpretation, I feel like Alice in Wonderland facing Humpty Dumpty," the judge wrote.

Judge Artau, in his concurrence with Levine's majority opinion, rejected the analogy.

“But the flaw in the dissent’s use of this literary classic is that the characters in the novel were viewing everything in their fantastical world through the lens of a looking-glass where everything was reversed, including logic. Much like the fictional characters’ world of inversed logic, the county ordinance directly prohibits guns while at the same time asserting that its prohibition on guns may not apply if some authority concludes that the prohibition was preempted,” Artau wrote.

 He added, “Thus, the county has incorporated a looking-glass of sorts into its ordinance, to borrow from the dissent’s literary reference. In essence, its looking-glass serves like an unwritten severance clause that attempts to save the ordinance from itself if declared invalid. But while the county may have attempted, short of an outright severance clause, to save the ordinance from its unlawful proscription of guns, it is not self-executing."

A Tallahassee-based appeals court is currently weighing a separate case focused on a 2011 law that threatens hefty penalties for city and county officials who approve gun regulations that exceed those at the state level.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.