After a shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school left 17 people dead, the mayor of nearby Weston wanted to prohibit people from carrying guns in public buildings and parks — a move that could lead to him being kicked out of office and on the hook for thousands of dollars in fines and attorneys’ fees.
Florida law prohibits local municipalities from passing ordinances that regulate firearms or ammunition, and if one is passed that violates the state statute, it will be declared void. Elected or appointed officials involved in the drafting or passage of such local rules face fines of up to $5,000, will be unable to use a city attorney and could be held responsible for footing up to $100,000 of the legal bills for anyone who challenges the local rule in court. The governor is also given the power to suspend them from office.
Florida is among 43 states that in some way restrict municipalities from enacting gun laws stricter than those in place at the state level. After a spate of mass shootings during the past few months, some localities are challenging the laws in court or narrowly crafting rules that circumvent the state.
Weston Mayor Daniel J. Stermer joined nine other municipalities in a lawsuit earlier this month that says the penalties under Florida’s law are “onerous, unconstitutional and unprecedented” as well as “vindictive and expressly intended to be punitive in nature.”
Plaintiffs say the state laws have a chilling effect and force local officials out of taking action when it comes to guns in their communities — creating fears that local authorities could be held personally responsible for the changes.
“I’m putting my office where my mouth is,” said Stermer, who initiated the lawsuit and drafted the local gun control ordinance. A city commission will discuss it at an upcoming workshop. “I’m prepared to put my office on the line for this. Until we all stand up and say something, nothing’s going to change. Parkland is in our back yard. It’s 20 minutes away.”
Florida’s law is part of a class of ordinances called preemption laws, which are aimed at curtailing local power. They are tangible examples of the growing divide between Republican statehouses and Democratic cities, and they have been enacted to address a spate of issues during the past three decades, including taxation and minimum wage.
The best-known example is the 2016 “bathroom bill” passed in North Carolina, which attempted to undercut Charlotte’s efforts to expand civil rights laws and tried to prevent cities from enacting their own minimum wage. The National Rifle Association was the driving force on the gun laws, most of which were put in place in the 1980s and 1990s. Florida’s preemption law was passed in the 1980s, and the fines were added in 2011.
“Generally, these laws were imposed by the NRA and its forces to restrict the ability of cities to enact more restrictive gun-control laws,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law.
The NRA took a page from the playbook of tobacco companies — which realized that it is nearly impossible to control policy on the local level — turning their focus to statehouses, said Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
“By implementing preemption, they could concentrate all of their focus at the state level and not worry about going from town to town and fighting these laws,” he said.
The NRA Institute for Legislative Action says preemption ensures that “Second Amendment rights are not diluted or distorted through controversial local policies.” The laws also allow for a uniform statewide application of laws rather than scattershot local regulations, according to NRA literature. An NRA spokeswoman did not respond to a request for additional comment.
Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, has said that preemption laws protect gun owners “from harassment by an unreasonable and confusing patchwork of municipal gun laws.”
But local officials claim that they, not state authorities, are best suited to decide what types of rules should govern their municipalities.
In Washington state, a bill has been introduced to negate the state’s firearm preemption law and restore the “inherent local authority to adopt firearms regulations under the police power to protect public health, safety and welfare.”
In Illinois, a bill was filed in the legislature in February to repeal its firearm preemption law. Earlier this month, officials in Deerfield, Ill., adopted a ban on assault weapons. The village has been sued by a resident and two gun advocacy groups, saying that the ban violated protocol. They say the law was not enacted during a 10-day window in 2013 during which jurisdictions were allowed to ban or restrict assault weapons before a law allowing residents to carry concealed weapons in public went into effect. Deerfield says the ban is an amendment to its 2013 ordinance and is therefore legal.
A bill pending in the South Carolina legislature aims to strengthen the state’s preemption law, prohibiting the allocation of state funds to jurisdictions that enact rules on guns that are stricter than those at the state level.
Columbia, S.C., became the nation’s first city to ban bump stocks late last year, months after they were used in a mass shooting that killed 58 people on the Las Vegas Strip. Mayor Steve Benjamin (D) said the city carefully crafted the ban so that it did not violate the state’s preemption law.
“I believe that smart, thoughtful, bipartisan policymaking . . . to end the carnage is in the interest of all of our citizens,” said Benjamin, who considers himself a strong supporter of the Second Amendment.
In Florida, Stermer said Orlando and Gainesville have joined him in his lawsuit, as has Tallahassee, which was sued by pro-gun groups after the city did not repeal decades-old laws that barred the firing of guns in municipal parks, recreational facilities and plots smaller than five acres. A federal appeals court threw out the lawsuit, but it did not rule on the constitutionality of the city law.
Eric Friday, general counsel for the gun rights group Florida Carry, which sued Tallahassee, said the city only won the right to keep a law that cannot be enforced on the books. Friday said the preemption laws apply to an array of rules, including those regarding traffic and pedestrians, and that gun owners should not have to wonder what the laws are when they cross different jurisdictions. He thinks local officials who flout state statute should be held responsible, just as they would for breaking any other law.
“I think it’s absolutely proper,” Friday said of the law, arguing lawmakers needed to enact it because cities and counties were “violating state law.”
But Mike Alfano, a spokesman for Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D), said the mechanism that allows local officials to be held personally responsible is “a form of bullying and intimidating, and it really undermines local democracy.”
McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott (R), who signed the 2011 law, said the governor’s office is reviewing the lawsuit.
“Governor Scott’s top priority has always been protecting the safety of our students and communities,” Lewis said. “That’s why the governor proposed and then signed major legislation that strengthens school security and keeps firearms out of the hands of those with mental illness and individuals who wish to harm themselves or others.”
A spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi declined to comment, as did spokesmen for other state officials named in the lawsuit.
The Miami City Commission unanimously approved a resolution calling for the city attorney to review the 2011 law. Commissioner Ken Russell said the law does not take into account that officials in Miami might want to regulate guns in a different way than leaders in rural parts of the state. Russell said officials are now ready to fight back against onerous penalties.
“This sort of sanction is what’s inspiring a lot of elected officials to stand up and challenge it,” Russell said.