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PolitiFact Florida: Fact-checking Wayne Messam on Florida law, mayors discussing gun reform

The Democratic presidential candidate is the mayor of Miramar.
In this March 27, 2019 photo, Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam poses for a portrait, in Miramar. Messam announced, March 28 that he is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Published May 27

Democratic presidential candidate Wayne Messam said he’d make the prevention of mass shootings his No. 1 priority if elected to lead the nation. Messam, a city mayor in the same county where the 2018 Parkland school shooting happened, claimed that his abilities are restrained now, because a Florida law prohibits him from even talking about changing gun laws.

“Last year, I sued the state to allow local leaders to protect our residents from gun violence because in Florida, it’s illegal for mayors to even bring up gun reform for discussion,” Messam, the mayor of Miramar, said on his campaign website.

Is it true that Florida mayors are legally barred from discussing gun laws? Messam’s claim needs context.

The state Legislature in 1987 passed a law to give the state the exclusive right to regulate firearms and ammunition. And in 2011 the state added penalties that can be imposed on municipalities and local officials who violate the law by “enacting or causing to be enforced any local ordinance or administrative rule or regulation” on firearms and ammunition. The law doesn’t explicitly say they can’t talk about it.

The penalties were added to prevent local officials from making and enforcing their own rules.

Miramar and several other Florida cities have filed a lawsuit against the state. That lawsuit isn’t seeking to nullify the 1987 law that originally banned local officials from enacting gun laws, rather to get rid of the penalties added in 2011.

What are the penalties? If a court finds the violation “knowing and willful,” the local official gets a civil fine of up to $5,000. The governor can also remove the person from office.

Does that mean that local officials, including mayors, can’t discuss reforms to gun laws?

“The law appears to aim at stopping mayors from regulating via executive order,” said James B. Jacobs, a law professor and director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at NYU School of Law. “But it surely doesn’t prohibit advocacy or discussion.”

In recent years, including after the Parkland shooting, some mayors have publicly called for stricter gun control measures.

Messam’s lawsuit against the state acknowledges that penalties in the law are for voting on and enacting ordinances. But the penalties violate the right to free speech and have the effect of silencing officials, the lawsuit argues.

Elected officials don’t even debate ordinances out of fear of being penalized, the lawsuit said, adding that the penalties “impose substantial burdens” on constituents and elected officials’ ability to “engage in core political speech leading up to a vote.”

Messam’s spokeswoman, Cassandra Fenelon, said the law opens “many questions as it pertains to municipal authorities and exceptions.” As a result of ambiguities in the law and the accompanying penalties, Fenelon said, local municipal attorneys advise officials not to discuss or enact policies on firearms and ammunition.

The Legislature intends “to chill and deter local governments from taking any action at all that might affect firearms, even when such action might not be pre-empted,” Fenelon said.

Messam said that in Florida, "it’s illegal for mayors to even bring up gun reform for discussion."

Florida law prohibits local officials from enacting rules on firearms and ammunition. There are penalties for officials who enact or cause the enforcement of such regulations. Officials may choose not to discuss changes to gun laws, since they can’t legally enact them. But that law doesn’t directly prohibit the discussion of gun laws.

Messam’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Written by Miriam Valverde, PolitiFact staff writer

Read more rulings at PolitiFact.com/florida.

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