The Leon County Commission has passed an ordinance on guns.
Randi Atwood/Democrat

A
Leon County circuit judge late Friday struck down a state law that
threatened tough penalties if city and county officials approve gun
regulations.

Florida since 1987 has
barred cities and counties from passing regulations that are stricter
than state firearms laws. But in 2011, lawmakers went further by
approving a series of penalties that local governments and officials
could face if they violated the prohibition.

Local governments, including the city of Tallahassee,
challenged the 2011 law after last year’s mass shooting at Marjory
Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Leon County Circuit Judge
Charles Dodson, in a 15-page ruling Friday, found the law
unconstitutional on a series of grounds.

State
Rep. Dan Daley, a Coral Springs Democrat who helped challenge the 2011
law while serving as a city official, issued a statement Friday night
calling the decision “a major step in the right direction for gun safety
advocates, local elected officials, and the state of Florida as a
whole.”

“Local elected officials have not just a
right, but a responsibility to speak up and advocate for common sense
gun reforms in their communities and should be able to do so without
fear of penalty or punishment,” Daley said.

Dodson’s
ruling did not strike down the underlying 1987 law — known as a
“preemption law” — that prevents cities and counties from passing gun
regulations tougher than state laws.

But the ruling
affects the 2011 changes that created a variety of penalties for
violating the preemption law. For example, under the 2011 law, local
officials could face fines up to $5,000 and potential removal from
office. Also, members of the public and organizations could receive
damages up to $100,000 and attorney fees if they successfully sued local
governments for violations.

During arguments
before Dodson last month, Jamie Cole, one of the attorneys representing
local governments, called the 2011 law “unprecedented,” pointing to the
stiff penalties that city and county governments and officials could
face. But Daniel Bell, an attorney for the state, said the law prevented
a “potential patchwork regulatory scheme” of gun restrictions across
the state.

Dodson’s ruling, in part, addressed
“legislative immunity,” which protects local government officials in
their decision-making processes. He also pointed to the constitutional
separation of powers, as judges could be asked to rule on penalizing
local officials.

“Because
local governments must have what amount to small legislatures, and
because courts cannot interfere in legislative processes, neither this
court, nor any other court in Florida, can enforce the civil penalty
provisions (of the law) against local legislators,” Dodson wrote.

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Three
lawsuits, involving 30 cities, three counties and more than 70 elected
officials, were consolidated in the case that resulted in Dodson’s
ruling.

During the case, lawyers for Gov. Ron
DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and the National Rifle
Association argued that Dodson should uphold the penalties. DeSantis’
lawyers wrote in a court document that the Legislature approved the
penalties in 2011 to strengthen the preemption law “after abuse and
intentional ignorance by local municipalities.”

“(It)
is a bedrock principle of American constitutional law that local
governments have no legal authority to defy the will of their creator:
the state,” the NRA argued in a March brief. “Local governments are
creatures of the state subject to whatever limitations on their power
that the state sees fit to impose consistent with the federal or Florida
Constitution, and here, the state has seen fit to penalize local
usurpation of the Legislature’s sovereign power.”

But
attorneys for the cities and the counties wrote in February that local
governments have been urged to take actions such as requiring procedures
or documentation to ensure compliance with background checks and
waiting periods for gun purchases and requiring reporting of failed
background checks. But the attorneys said local governments refrained
from going ahead with the proposals because of the “severe chilling
effect” of the preemption law and penalties.

“By
both incentivizing ideological lawsuits and imposing severe penalties on
local elected officials and governments, the statute intimidates
officials, preventing them from passing even constituent-supported
ordinances they generally believe are not preempted,” the February
document said. “The chilling effect of local officials’ abilities to do
their job has cascading, adverse effects on plaintiffs’ speech,
association, petition and instruction rights.”

The
city of Tallahassee was sued by Florida Carry and the Second Amendment
Foundation in 2014 for two ordinances that predated the statewide
preemption but are still on the books. One prevents people from firing
guns in city parks and the other prohibits shooting guns on
non-agricultural land under five acres.


Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said he opposes two bills in the
Florida Legislature pertaining to carrying guns on campus and open
carry.

The
city defended the lawsuit and countersued that the state law was
unconstitutional because it penalized municipal elected officials for a
legislative act. Commissioners can be charged in both their official
capacity and as individuals, and personally fined up to $5,000 and face
removal from office by the governor. They also can be held personally
responsible for reimbursement of attorney fees of the opposing party up
to $100,000.

Then Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who lost against DeSantis in last year's gubernatorial election, pointed to the lawsuit repeatedly during the campaign to portray himself as a candidate willing to stand up to the NRA. On Friday, he hailed the ruling.

"If
you can believe it, I was sued for passing a law against shooting guns
in parks. Thanks to this ruling, local leaders can now lead on ending
gun violence without the fear of fines, personal liability, or removal
from office," he said on Twitter. "So go pass local gun safety laws
& end preemption!"