Local gun rules coming off the books
By Demorris A. Lee, Times Staff Writer
The worry is that someone upset about not getting a building permit could walk into a municipal building and whip out a gun to show their displeasure. Or at a park, parents get into a heated confrontation at a Little League game, and a gun comes out.
Currently, local governments have stringent ordinances that forbid guns from being brought to city parks and municipal buildings. But on Oct. 1, that will change. Last spring, the Florida Legislature passed HB 45, a law that prohibits local governments from regulating firearms and ammunition in their communities. And if they attempt to do so, they'll face severe penalties.
To avoid conflict with the pending law, municipal attorneys and law enforcement agencies are quickly removing any language from their local ordinances that attempts to regulate guns. Such changes are currently under way in Tarpon Springs, Clearwater and Pinellas County.
"The penalties are draconian," said Tarpon Springs city attorney Jim Yacavone, who presented the issue to Tarpon's City Commission on Tuesday night. "There's a fine, you could lose your job, and the government attorney can't defend you. It's a clear message from the Legislature that they do not want local governments regulating firearms or ammunition in any capacity."
But Marion Hammer, who lobbied for the new state law on behalf of the National Rifle Association, said local governments need to simply follow the laws that are already on the books.
"Local officials are not above the law and they have been willfully and knowingly violating and thumbing their nose at state law," said Hammer, a former NRA president. "In the past, there were not penalties in the law, but this law has been on the books since 1987 that prohibited the adoption of ordinances regulating firearms or ammunition in any manner. The Legislature finally said enough is enough."
In 1987, lawmakers passed Florida Statute 790.33, in which the state preempted "the whole field of regulation of firearms and ammunition." But local governments continued to enforce stiffer gun and ammunition laws in an attempt to further regulate gunplay in their cities.
With HB 45, city officials who willfully and knowingly violate the preemption will be personally liable with a fine up to $5,000. A violation also would be grounds for termination or removal from office by the governor. No public funds could be used to defend or reimburse the person for violating the preemption.
A local regulation that violates the state's preemption will be ruled invalid, and a government could be liable for actual damages up to $100,000 and for a plaintiff's attorney fees.
"An example is, an elected official can be personally held liable if they pass an ordinance prohibiting guns in parks or the discharge of guns within city limits," said Kraig Conn, legislative counsel for the Florida League of Cities. "We are very concerned with the implications of the bill, and it puts cities and counties in the crosshairs, especially when a city or county attempts to pass a local law that is designed to protect citizens.
"Do we really want agitated parents at Little League sports games with firearms with them? Is that sound policy for public safety?"
The NRA's Hammer said violators of the new state law will pay. "There are attorneys all over this state getting ready to file lawsuits," she said.
In Tarpon Springs, the City Commission passed its changed ordinance on first reading Tuesday night. The new ordinance takes out language about it being unlawful to fire a gun within the city limits. Similar language is being removed from Clearwater's ordinances, said assistant city attorney Rob Surette.
"If a person has a concealed weapons license, there is nothing that precludes him from carrying in the park or on the beach," Surette said. "But where it becomes problematic is if he is shooting a gun in his back yard."
During the Fourth of July and News Year's celebrations, Clearwater's ordinance currently prohibits such activity, Surette said. However, after the changes, Clearwater's ordinance will no longer address the issue.
Next Tuesday, assistant county attorney Carl Brody will present an ordinance change to the Pinellas County Commission. The main change will be the removal of language that prohibits discharging a firearm in the county and prohibiting a person from carrying a concealed weapon on county-owned or county-managed land such as Brooker Creek.
Concealed weapons will still not be allowed in courthouses, police stations, schools, polling places or buildings such as City Halls where legislative bodies meet.
Tarpon Springs police Chief Bob Kochen said Tarpon's officers are being trained to ensure they know the law concerning guns. While Kochen believes that state law covers 90 to 95 percent of the situations that might arise with the unlawful use of guns, he's still a bit concerned.
"You cannot discharge a firearm in the city limits, but we can't enforce that anymore," Kochen said. "That's why I think they are going a little too far."
But Hammer said local government rules concerning guns and ammunition have simply been getting in the way.
"They have not been doing anything but inconveniencing law-abiding people," Hammer said.