For gun rights groups, Florida’s new attorney general is no Pam Bondi. And that’s a good thing.

Ashley Moody had the kind of week that makes groups like Florida Carry thankful she’s attorney general now.
After winning the nomination for Florida attorney general, Ashley Moody speaks to over 100 supporters at her night watch party at the Floridan Palace Hotel in Tampa on Tuesday, August 28, 2018.
BRONTE WITTPENN | Times After winning the nomination for Florida attorney general, Ashley Moody speaks to over 100 supporters at her night watch party at the Floridan Palace Hotel in Tampa on Tuesday, August 28, 2018.
Published Aug. 2, 2019

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody had the kind of week that overshadowed her predecessor, Pam Bondi.

On Friday last week, Moody interjected herself in the gun debate by recommending that the Florida Supreme Court reject a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban assault rifles in the state.

On Tuesday, Moody announced she would appeal a circuit judge’s ruling that struck down a state law that threatens penalties such as removal of office for local officials who approve gun regulations.

Although Bondi’s eight years as attorney general were characterized by embroiling her office in the most divisive political and cultural issues of the day — opposing Obamacare, supporting a gay marriage ban — her record on guns, at least to some groups, was mixed.

RELATED STORY: Pam Bondi, with Republican attorney general coalition, involves herself in faraway court fights

“I’ve got no love for Pam Bondi,” said Eric Friday, the general counsel for Florida Carry, a gun rights group that makes the National Rifle Association look mild at times.

In only a week, however, Moody showed Friday that he has a friend in Florida’s top law enforcement officer.

“Ms. Moody is doing nothing more or less than standing by her statements she made on the campaign trail,” Friday said. “And I think that’s refreshing.”

But for those on the other side of the gun debate, they see politics, not the law, behind the positions taken by Moody, and by extension, all of the resources she controls as the head of the largest law firm in the state.

“You’ve got to be silly not to believe that her Republican Party politics are at play here,” said Ben Pollara, a political consultant working on behalf of Ban Assault Weapons Now!

The group has a proposal that would effectively ban the sale of assault weapons in the state and force owners who already own the weapons to register them.

Its chairwoman is Gail Schwartz, whose nephew, Alex Schachter, was killed when a 19-year-old former student used a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle to kill him and 16 other people in Parkland last year.

Her group needs to collect hundreds of thousands more signatures before going in front of voters in 2020.

But first, it has to be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court, which will decide whether it passes the two tests required of proposed constitutional amendments: whether it deals with only one subject, and whether it’s clear what the amendment is trying to accomplish.

Moody is already standing in the way, however. In a rare move for Florida attorneys general, she told the court last week that the proposal was too vague and that its effects too vast to go before voters.

Attorneys general automatically send proposed amendments to the Supreme Court, but they seldom state an opinion on it.

“The amendment would ban the possession of virtually every semi-automatic long gun,” Moody wrote to the court.

But her argument that the amendment is vague is thin, supporters say.

The proposed amendment, Pollara says, clearly lays out what constitutes an assault weapon: “any semiautomatic rifle or shotgun capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition at once, either in a fixed or detachable magazine, or any other ammunition-feeding device.”

Those military-style weapons, which are capable of firing a round each time the trigger is pulled, make up the vast majority of rifles sold in the state. Old-fashioned bolt-action rifles, which are slower to fire because the user has to operate a lever in between each shot, are rarely sold.

Defining an “assault weapon” has been a struggle in many other states, which have often defined them by specific features, such as the types of grips, stocks and magazines they have. Gun manufacturers have simply modified their products to get around them.

That’s why the creators of Florida’s amendment intentionally used a broad but specific definition, Pollara said.

“It’s pretty simple," he said. "Anybody can understand it.”

Moody’s spokeswoman, Lauren Schenone, said it’s her job to point out problems with proposed amendments.

“As a former prosecutor and judge, Attorney General Moody takes seriously her oath to defend the Constitution and the constitutionality of any duly enacted law of the State of Florida — and no political attack, no matter how egregious, will ever break her devotion to that oath,” Schenone said.

The same day Moody said she would fight the amendment, a Leon County judge struck down as unconstitutional a 2011 law that penalized local politicians who try to pass gun-control measures.

It was a law created by the Republican-controlled Legislature meant to bolster a 1987 law that prohibited communities from passing their own gun-control ordinances.

More than 30 local governments, mostly South Florida cities, but also including Tallahassee and Miami-Dade County, filed suit against the 2011 law.

On Tuesday, Moody announced she would appeal the judge’s decision, earning praise from prominent National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer.

“The state cannot sit by and allow rogue local officials thumb their noses at the law,” Hammer wrote in an letter to NRA members.

But St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement that the law was ironic, considering that when he was in the state House, Republicans repeatedly bemoaned politicians in Washington imposing laws on Florida.

“It’s the height of hypocrisy for the Legislature to continue to impose preemptions on us across the board," he said in a statement.

State Rep. Evan Jenne, a Democrat from Dania Beach, voted against the bill in 2011, and he said he wasn’t surprised at all that Moody was vetoing the judge’s decision.

“There’s certain things that the Republican Party believes, and on guns, it’s that they should be proliferated,” Jenne said.

The week’s decisions are an indication Moody is willing to support positions popular in the GOP, despite the criticisms against her during last year’s Republican primary.

Her opponents blasted her as a “liberal judge," made hay out of the fact that she was once registered as a Democrat in the 1990s, and touted the fact that they had they had higher ratings from the NRA (Moody still had an A rating).

Regardless, they’re a welcome departure from her predecessor, Friday said. Bondi, who could not be reached for comment, had a mixed record on the topic.

“Ms. Bondi made numerous anti-gun decisions," Friday said.

Bondi opposed a semiautomatic weapon ban in Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting and defended Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law. But she also argued that stand your ground shouldn’t be used by police officers to defend their shootings.

In 2013, Bondi also defended the state’s law that prohibits people from openly carrying weapons, pitting her against Friday’s organization. Her handling of it prompted Hammer to reassure NRA members that Bondi was "a friend of our organizations.”

Bondi also defended the Legislature’s gun-control measures passed in the wake of the Parkland shooting, including a provision that outlawed anyone younger than 21 from buying a rifle or shotgun.

The NRA challenged the law and asked that a 19-year-old plaintiff be allowed to remain anonymous in the case so she could avoid potential harassment. After Bondi fought it, Hammer accused her of “bullying.”

“Pamela Bondi talked a great game on the campaign trail,” Friday said. “I’m glad to see Ashley Moody keeping her promises.”

Information from the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.