Coral Gables city commissioners said Tuesday they would risk ouster from office and thousands of dollars in fines and legal costs by pursuing a local ban on assault rifles that Florida law prohibits them from enacting.
"This is more important than us keeping our jobs," said Commissioner Frank Quesada. "Could we possibly be one cog or one domino in the process of improving the safety of kids throughout the state of Florida? I think the answer is yes."
The proposed Coral Gables ban on military-style rifles passed unanimously over the objections of the city attorney, who warned commissioners that Florida law prohibits her from defending them from any litigation tied to a local gun rule.
A 2011 state law backed by the gun-rights lobby strengthened Florida's longstanding prohibition on cities or counties enacting their own gun rules. The 2011 law imposes a $5,000 fine on municipal officials who try to enact local gun rules. The law also gives Florida's governor the authority to remove mayors and commissioners enacting their own gun rules.
Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli proposed the local ban, saying he wanted Coral Gables to be an example in the face of Florida's gun lobby and the reluctance of the Republican-controlled legislature to pass a broad crackdown on rifle sales after the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, which left 17 dead.
"This is a matter of principle," he said in an interview after the vote. "Somebody has to take a stand."
The City Commission, which includes Valdés-Fauli, will have another chance to back off its promised challenge to the Florida law, since the proposed ban still faces another vote before being enacted. At the moment, its effect would be only symbolic since Coral Gables says no merchant sells military-style rifles within city limits.
Sean Caranna, executive director of Florida Carry, said Florida's demand for statewide gun rules prevents local governments from violating the gun rights of residents no matter where they live. It also prevents the kind of patchwork of prohibitions that can be impossible to enforce.
"We had issues of people traveling from one county to another and acquiring something that was allowed one place and banned in another," Caranna said in an interview earlier this month. "A number of cities and counties decided they were going to break the law. They made the conscious decision to say, 'We don't care what the law is. We're going to break it.' "
The city of Tallahassee earlier this year lost its bid to have the 2011 law declared unconstitutional in a dispute with Florida Carry over a firearms ban in city parks that Tallahassee no longer enforces. But the First District Court of Appeal hinted that if the state should ever try to actually oust an elected official over the 2011 law, the issue could be ripe for a constitutional challenge.
Coral Gables commissioners said they're eager for that kind of confrontation, saying a local gun ban could fast-track the issue to the courts. City commissioners in Weston this week instructed their legal department to take Florida to court over the 2011 restriction, which is considered one of the nation's strictest bans on local gun rules. Mayor Daniel Stermer said he's urging other cities and counties across Florida to join the suit in an effort to lift the sanctions.
Passage of the 2011 law prompted cities across the state to lift local bans on bringing concealed weapons into city parks. Stermer said he would like to impose restrictions on firearms possession inside city buildings, which is currently allowed under state law under most circumstances.
"A private property owner can say, 'I don't want guns in my house,' " Stermer said. "We can't say that as a government."
Some Coral Gables commissioners had urged following Weston's path and trying to undo the 2011 restrictions through litigation rather than outright defiance. Valdés-Fauli's proposal initially fell flat with city commissioners, stalling for a lack of a second when he first proposed it Tuesday.
But when he raised it again later in the meeting, skeptics on the five-member board came to his side. Commissioner Patricia Keon voiced concerns about the measure during the debate until she received what she considered discouraging news about the Legislature's action on restricting gun sales after Parkland. A leading proposal among state lawmakers would restrict the sale of guns to people 21 or over, and impose a three-day waiting period for background checks.
"I got this email from our lobbyist, saying 'We're working really hard on this. I think the best we're going to do is get an age limit of 21 and a three-day background check,' " Keon said from her seat on the commission dais. "That's the best we can do? That's the best we can do?"
She joined Quesada, Michael Mena and Valdés-Fauli in voting yes on the Coral Gables ban.
"If we can't do the right thing," she said afterward, "why are we here?"
This story was written by Miami Herald Staff Writer Doug Hanks and Times/Herald Staff Writer Elizabeth Koh