Ten Florida Cities Challenge State’s Pre-Emption Rule on Guns

(CN) – Ten South Florida cities are seeking to overturn a state law barring them from enacting local rules regulating firearms.

In a lawsuit filed in Leon County on Monday, city leaders argued the law, which can fine officials up to $5,000 and remove them from office, violates the Florida Constitution.

Weston Mayor Daniel Stermer initiated the effort and elected officials from Miramar, Pinecrest, Lauderhill, Pompano Beach, Cutler Bay Coral Gables, Miami Beach, Miami Gardens and South Miami joined him.

The lawsuit names Governor Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and other cabinet members as defendants.

The suit challenges the Joe Carlucci Uniform Firearms Act of 1987, which created the preemption rule, and a 2011 amendment to the statute that added penalties.

In addition to the fine and removal from office, the law also allows for elected officials to be sued personally and prohibits using public funds to defend those suits. Although the state claims preemption in all manner of local regulations, this is the only law that adds such penalties.

“These onerous penalties are vindictive and expressly intended to be punitive in nature,” the 45-page complaint states. “As a result, the penalties deter and chill officials from taking any actions in the area of firearms and ammunition, even in those areas where such actions are (or may be) allowed.”

Though the preemption law has received criticism – and legal challenges – in the past, the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has renewed cities’ efforts to pass ordinances regulating guns.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has proposed a ban on guns in city hall. Other elected officials want to create “gun-free zones” or put limits on gun shows held in their cities.

Last month, city commissioners in Coral Gables voted unanimously to ban the sale of “military-style rifles,” but backed down after gun rights advocates threatened to sue under the state law.

This isn’t the first time elected officials confronted the state’s preemptive rules on firearms.

In 2011, Palm Beach County filed a lawsuit disputing the governor’s ability to remove county commissioners. Leon County Judge John Cooper agreed, calling that part of the law “unconstitutional.” But Cooper did not strike down other aspects of the law.

Then, in 2014, two gun rights groups sued the city of Tallahassee and its commissioners over an ordinance, several years old, prohibiting the use of firearms in public parks.

A Leon County Circuit Court judge ruled the state law already rendered the local ordinances “null and void” and city officials did not need to remove them if they weren’t already enforcing them. An appellate court affirmed the ruling, but did not take up the larger constitutional issues surrounding the state law or strike down the penalties.

Lead attorney for the cities, Jamie Cole of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole and Bierman, called those penalties “unprecedented.”

“The penalties were designed to instill fear and deter local officials from doing anything in the realm of firearms,” Cole told Courthouse News by phone.

That includes decisions not expressly prohibited by the law, such as zoning regulations on businesses selling firearms, he said.

The state law is another example of the Florida legislature “whittling away at home rule powers,” Cole said.

“No doubt, there are situations where you need to have statewide, uniform laws such as those dealing with traffic,” he said, “but it has gone a lot further than that.”

Gun rights advocates scoffed at the cities’ legal challenge.

“Elected public officials, no matter how important they think they are, must follow the law,” said Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s top lobbyist in Florida, in an e-mail. “When they willfully and knowingly violate state law they must to be held accountable. They remind me of disobedient children who whine about being punished.”

“Home rule does not allow local governments to regulate constitutional rights,” she said, adding she personally believed in stricter penalties, such as barring violators from holding office for life.

Eric Friday, general counsel for Florida Carry, said gun owners traveling from city to city should expect similar laws.

“To me, it’s just common sense that laws should be uniform throughout the state,” he said by phone.

Friday said some elected officials attempted to flout the law in the past, which required the legislature to enact penalties. Now, in light of the recent mass shootings, cities see “an opportunity to get rid of something they never liked and they are trying to use the courts to change the law,” he said.

Gov. Scott’s office and the attorney general did not respond to a request for comment.

Cole, the lead attorney, looks forward to the constitutional battle.

“We kind of hope the attorney general and the governor won’t shy from defending this law,” he said.

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