Florida Forces Towns to Pull Local Laws Limiting Guns
By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
MIAMI — The signs — “No Guns Allowed” — are being stripped from many Florida government buildings, libraries and airports. And local ordinances that bar people from shooting weapons in their yards, firing up into the air (think New Year’s Eve) or taking guns into parks are coming off the books.
The state has spoken, again, on the matter of guns, and this time it does not want to be ignored: since 1987, local governments in Florida have been banned from creating and enforcing their own gun ordinances. Few cities and counties paid attention, though, believing that places like Miami might need to be more restrictive than others, like rural Apalachicola, for example.
But this year the Legislature passed a new law that imposes fines on counties and municipalities that do not do away with and stop enforcing their own firearms and ammunition ordinances by Oct. 1. Mayors and council and commission members will risk a $5,000 fine and removal from office if they “knowingly and willfully violate” the law. Towns that enforce their ordinances risk a $100,000 fine.
To comply with the law, cities and counties are poring over their gun ordinances, repealing laws and removing gun-related signs. In Palm Beach County, that means removing ordinances that bar people from taking guns into county government buildings and local parks and from firing guns in some of its most urban areas. In Groveland, that means they can now fire their guns into the air to celebrate. And in Lake County, firearms will soon be allowed in libraries.
“Now you can have a shooting gallery in your backyard,” said Shelley Vana, a Palm Beach County commissioner. “We are really urban areas here. I come from a rural area in Pennsylvania. I understand that guns are appropriate in a lot of places with no problems. But in an urban area, it’s different.”
State lawmakers who supported the bill, which was backed by the National Rifle Association, said local governments were overreacting, particularly since the original law that pre-empted local gun ordinances was passed in 1987.
“The notion that a city ordinance stops violence is patently absurd,” said State Representative Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who sponsored the bill. “People lawfully carrying weapons with permits are rarely part of the problem.”
The law seeks to protect licensed gun owners who travel from county to county and may not be familiar with the patchwork of rules that dictate where they can carry and shoot a gun.
Florida gun laws are broader than local ordinances. They restrict guns, for example, at legislative and city council meetings but not inside the buildings themselves. They permit target shooting under “safe” conditions and in “safe” places, and they make it illegal to display a firearm in a rude or threatening manner, unless it is in self-defense. Floridians also cannot knowingly fire a gun in a public place, in an occupied building or on a paved street. But those who support stronger laws said words like “knowingly” and “safe” often make enforcement difficult.
Local gun ordinances first galvanized gun rights advocates in 2000 when South Miami passed an ordinance that required trigger locks for guns while stored. The National Rifle Association took the town to court, and the town lost. But counties and cities across Florida continued to vote on or enforce their own gun ordinances.
“The bill provides a remedy, if somebody chooses to be irrationally stubborn,” Mr. Gaetz said.
Some cities and counties, though, say they will lobby for a change so they can have more flexibility. Officials say that none of their ordinances violate the Second Amendment; they just give them added power to tamp down crime.
“It’s a disregard for public safety,” said Shirley Gibson, the mayor of Miami Gardens, where signs prohibiting guns in parks were taken down. “It’s not a good message to send.”
Kraig Conn, the legislative counsel for the Florida League of Cities, said fining individual mayors and council members for their legislative actions sets a “horrible precedent.” Lawmakers hold immunity that protects them from liability in civil lawsuits for duties they perform. “It pierces legislative immunity,” he said. “This is part of our common law system.”
It also runs counter to the Republican principle that local control is best.
In a state of 18 million people, with rural and urban areas adjacent to one another, “the State Legislature doesn’t know where it makes sense to restrict guns,” Mr. Conn said.