The startling revelation that local governments in Florida have systematically failed to enforce ordinances that require background checks on all gun purchases, including those at gun shows, underscores the unacceptable ambivalence among too many leaders when it comes to keeping guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill. But until congressional leaders heed public sentiment that supports background checks for all gun buyers, it will be up to state and local leaders to bring some common sense to gun control. Connecticut did so last week, and now it's time for leaders in seven Florida counties to at least enforce the laws already on the books.
Nearly four months after the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., the nation remains oddly bifurcated. Poll after poll has shown that the vast majority of Americans support President Barack Obama's call for universal background checks of gun buyers' criminal and mental histories. Slimmer margins that support limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault-style weapons have eroded as the National Rifle Association has continued its relentless lockdown in Washington and state capitals like Tallahassee.
Even the latest ray of hope out of Washington for universal background checks — a bipartisan plan pushed by Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — will carve out exemptions for sales between family members and some hunters.
Fifteen years ago in Florida, it was not nearly so difficult. As the Tampa Bay Times' Peter Jamison detailed on Sunday, months after a volatile felon named Hank Earl Carr of Tampa stockpiled a cache of weapons and killed three law enforcement officers and a 4-year-old boy, Florida voters in November 1998 overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment allowing counties to enact their own universal background check ordinances and expand the waiting period for gun buys. Eleven counties responded, though four later repealed the measures. But seven of Florida's most populous counties — including Pinellas and Hillsborough — that represent 45 percent of all Floridians still have the measures on the books. Not that the ordinances do any good.
Jamison found that in county after county, law enforcement officials have largely ignored or wholly forgotten ordinances that require private sellers to work with a federally licensed dealer to insure a buyer is not a felon or otherwise disqualified from owning a gun. Dealers and sellers argued the process was cumbersome, and law enforcement officials seemed to suggest they don't have the manpower to enforce it. Critics argue such a patchwork of ordinances still won't prevent illegal buyers from crossing county lines to purchase a gun elsewhere — a reason that the broader national solution remains ideal.
But until Congress demonstrates a commitment to commonsense gun regulation, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee should work with their respective county commissions to revise their ordinances so they are enforceable. And local gun dealers should embrace the chance to prove that their profession is part of the solution of keeping guns out of the wrong hands. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have universal background check requirements for purchasing guns. It's past time to use them.