Judge strikes down penalties for local governments that pass gun-control laws

Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to appeal the decision.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman cheered Dodson's decision. “The judiciary is setting the Florida Legislature straight again. This should have never become law.” [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE   |   Times]
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman cheered Dodson's decision. “The judiciary is setting the Florida Legislature straight again. This should have never become law.” [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]
Published July 28, 2019

A Tallahassee judge has struck down the $5,000 fine that Florida mayors and city council members face if they try to enact municipal gun-control rules, ruling the unique penalty goes too far in stamping out defiance of state checks against local regulations.

Judge Charles Dodson also declared unconstitutional a provision of the 2011 law that allows Florida’s governor to remove local officials for going too far on the gun-control front.

Dodson did endorse the heart of the law, which bars local ordinances that go beyond firearm regulations established by the Florida Legislature. The Leon County Circuit Court judge’s ruling simply strikes the unprecedented threat of civil fines and expulsion for passing local laws that Florida has already declared “preempted” by state authority.

Dodson’s Friday ruling in the case of Weston vs. DeSantis is probably just the start of the legal fight, with the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis expected to appeal the decision up the ladder of the state judicial system. But for now, the fine that helped define Florida as one of the most hostile states in the country to gun-control legislation is no longer a threat for local governments. The lead attorney in the case said that would give cities more latitude to experiment with gun laws that don’t run afoul of state rules.

“It gives cities the ability to pass legislation that tests the boundaries of preemption, without fear of being thrown out of office or penalized,” said Jamie Cole, the Weiss Serota lawyer from Miami representing Weston and 19 other cities in the suit against Florida.

Sean Caranna, a board member of the gun-rights group Florida Carry, said he was confident the fine would be restored by a higher court, since it makes sense to link penalties to illegal conduct. “It’s the same reason you have a monetary value attached to a speeding ticket,” he said. “It discourages people from violating the law.”

The lawsuit is being led by cities, counties and elected officials in South Florida but St. Petersburg, Safety Harbor and Dunedin are also among the plaintiffs.

“The judiciary is setting the Florida Legislature straight again,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said Saturday, reacting to the ruling. “This should have never become law.”

Andrew Gillum, the Democrat who lost to DeSantis last November, was also an original plaintiff in the suit as the mayor of Tallahassee in April when the litigation began.

“Thanks to this ruling, local leaders can now lead on ending gun violence without the fear of fines, personal liability, or removal from office,” Gillum wrote on Twitter late Friday afternoon.

A spokesperson for the Florida Attorney General’s Office, which was listed as a defendant along with DeSantis and other state offices, was not immediately available for comment.

Florida has banned local gun laws since the 1980s, but the 2011 law created the penalties designed to put teeth into enforcement of the rules.

After the law passed, several local governments in the Tampa Bay region moved to repeal ordinances that regulated guns, including Clearwater and Tarpon Springs. In 2017, St. Petersburg Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman sponsored a resolution supporting a call for a special legislative session on gun violence. But she removed the resolution after the city attorney said that interfering with gun laws could put an elected official at risk of fines, lawsuits or removal from office. She later received an opinion from the state attorney general saying she could talk about the issue.

No local official in Florida has yet received a fine from the law, but there have been lawsuits by gun-rights advocates and others based on the 2011 law. Fort Lauderdale last year won a court fight preserving its ability to ban a gun show from a city-owned venue.

In his ruling, Dodson said allowing a judge to fine a local lawmaker improperly shifted too much power from the legislative branch to the judiciary. He said the prospect of a local lawmaker being sued merely for passing a law would amount to “impermissible judicial meddling in a purely political matter.”

Miami Herald staff writer Doug Hanks wrote this story. Tampa Bay Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.