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Because of new state law, cities and counties are scrambling to get their gun laws off the books

The state of Florida is going after a gang of gun outlaws by threatening them with $5,000 fines, firings and lawsuits.

So who's in the gang?

St. Petersburg, Brooksville, Tampa, Hillsborough County —and other scattered scofflaws.

As a result, city councils and county commissions are now scrambling to rewrite local laws, because they're staring down the barrel at those fines, firings and lawsuits.

St. Petersburg is getting ready to repeal its ordinance against discharging firearms in the city limits. Tarpon Springs made a similar decision in August. Brooksville killed a ban on guns in parks and also deleted a law that could have suspended the sale of ammunition and firearms during emergencies. There are many more.

All those ordinances have been illegal for years because state law prevents cities and counties from regulating guns. But a new law, set to take effect Oct. 1, takes it a step further. It allows judgments of up to $100,000 against local governments that enforce such laws. And, in an unusual move, the law also says local officials could be fired and fined $5,000, with no representation from the city or county attorney.

"It is from Pensacola to Key West and all points in between," said Kraig Conn, legislative counsel for the Florida League of Cities.

Conn said city officials at first reacted with "a level of disbelief" as they realized their governments could be penalized and "you're going to be held personally liable as well."

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said, "I think they went overboard. I understand if they want to regulate state gun laws as the Legislature has the authority to do. But what happens to an officer who may misapply an ordinance? That seems like an awful lot of penalties for something that may be unintentional."

State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who sponsored the law, said "There's been plenty of hand-wringing and bed-wetting from local government."

But he said something needed to be done to prevent them from "willfully" violating state law. He pointed to the city of South Miami, which passed an ordinance requiring trigger locks.

The National Rifle Association fought the law, which was overturned because of the state law preventing it. Even so, Gaetz said, "There was no way for the NRA to ever be made whole through the recovery of attorneys fees and everything else."

Now there is.

The story begins in 1987, when the Florida Legislature passed a law saying it controls "the whole field of regulation of firearms and ammunition."

Just in case that wasn't clear, the law spelled out that this power was "to the exclusion of all existing and future county, city, town, or municipal ordinances." It made exceptions for the Florida Constitution and "general law."

But apparently, it wasn't clear. Cities and counties continued regulating some aspects of guns and ammo, at the very least by keeping gun laws on the books.

Such as St. Petersburg, which has an ordinance preventing people from firing guns in the city limits. Or Brooksville, which banned guns in parks.

Occasionally, a city or county would bring some of its laws into line, as Pasco County did in 2003, by repealing most firearms regulations. The matter came to the county's attention because a local resident with a concealed gun permit liked riding his bike several times a week at the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park and thought he should bring his gun with him for his own protection.

"In wooded areas like that, you're all by yourself," the man said at the time. "You're three, four miles out on the bike path, and anything could happen."

But other local laws have remained.

Pasco, for example, still has an ordinance that allows the county administrator to suspend the sale of alcohol, explosives or guns during a state of emergency. County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder said the county would no longer enforce that ordinance, or any other gun control ordinances, once the state law takes effect. He said the ordinance likely would be stricken during a cleanup of the county's land development code.

The law does not mean that it's suddenly acceptable to fire guns at will. There is a state law against discharging a firearm in public.

Asked if it wouldn't be helpful to let officials keep guns out of city parks, Gaetz, the legislator, said it's never the law-abiding people with proper concealed weapons permits who cause trouble. It's always the people who are holding guns illegally.

Even with the new law, he doesn't expect a lot of fines and firings. He expects that cities and counties will continue taking their old gun laws off the books.

Times staff writers Lee Logan and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.

Legislators add firepower to existing law

A 1987 law says the Florida Legislature "hereby declares that it is occupying the whole field of regulation of firearms and ammunition." A new law taking effect Oct. 1 adds penalties to local officials who make "knowing and willful" decisions to enforce local gun laws anyway, in violation of state law. Among them:

. "The court shall assess a civil fine of up to $5,000 against the elected or appointed local government official."

. Such a violation "shall be cause for termination of employment or contract or removal from office by the Governor."

. And also, "Except as required by applicable law, public funds may not be used to defend or reimburse the unlawful conduct."

Because of new state law, cities and counties are scrambling to get their gun laws off the books 08/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 1, 2011 12:28am]

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