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Florida agriculture commissioner and NRA lobbyist spar over gun case

Attorneys for dozens of cities, counties and local officials filed a brief last week urging the 1st District Court of Appeal to uphold a lower-court decision that found a state law prohibiting local gun restrictions unconstitutional.
Marion Hammer & Nikki Fried. [Associated Press]
Marion Hammer & Nikki Fried. [Associated Press]
Published Dec. 30, 2019
Updated Dec. 30, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer sparred Friday after Fried’s lawyers filed a court brief arguing that an NRA-backed gun law is unconstitutional.

Hammer, the gun-rights group’s longtime Florida lobbyist and former national president, sent a memo to NRA members accusing Fried of thinking “it’s OK to deliberately violate state law and not be punished.”

The memo came after The News Service of Florida reported Thursday that Fried had filed a brief backing cities and counties that challenged a 2011 state law that threatens tough penalties — including fines and potential removal from office — if local elected officials approve gun regulations. A Leon County circuit judge this year found the law unconstitutional, and the case is pending at the 1st District Court of Appeal.

“Joining anti-gun cities and counties, Florida's agriculture commissioner is asking the 1st DCA to allow local government officials to have immunity from punishment when they intentionally break the law,” Hammer wrote. “Folks, you can't make this stuff up ... who would have imagined such self-important arrogance?”

That spurred Fried to issue a news release providing a statement about the case and firing back at the NRA. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which Fried has headed since getting elected last year, oversees concealed-weapons licenses, a closely watched issue by the NRA.

“I made a promise during my campaign that the NRA would have no influence over me or our department. I stand behind that promise,” Fried said in the news release. “The out-of-touch NRA simply can’t handle that they’ve lost control, they’ve lost in court, and they’ve lost revenue made at the expense of communities demanding common-sense gun safety. Despite the improved efficiency and accountability we’ve brought to concealed weapons licensing — including up to a 98 percent cut in review times --- the NRA can attack me all they want. They can’t stop me from fighting to keep Florida’s families safe from gun violence.”

Florida since 1987 has barred cities and counties from passing regulations that are stricter than state firearms laws, a concept known as “preemption” of local gun laws. The 2011 law was designed to strengthen the preemption by adding penalties, such as the possibility of local officials facing $5,000 fines and potential removal from office for passing gun regulations.

Dozens of cities, counties and local elected officials challenged the 2011 law last year after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. They argued that the potential penalties had made local officials afraid to move forward with gun-related measures that might not be preempted by the 1987 law.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson in July found parts of the 2011 law unconstitutional, citing issues related to “legislative immunity,” which protects local government officials in their decision-making processes. He also pointed to the constitutional separation of powers, as judges could be asked to rule on penalizing local officials.

Lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody took the case to the 1st District Court of Appeal, with the NRA also filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the law.

But Fried’s brief, filed Tuesday, said the law violates constitutional immunities provided to elected officials as they make policy decisions.

“The act of governance requires independent judgment and discretion on the part of those individuals who are the decision-makers. Immunity is a necessary shield for government and its officials when it exercises this discretion to promote the public good,” attorneys for Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, wrote. “Without immunity from liability, officials would be tempted to vote for what is safest for them personally, rather than what is best for their community.”

Hammer’s memo Friday, however, described Fried as being the “most anti-gun commissioner of agriculture in over 40 years — maybe ever!”

“Keep in mind there are 283 cities, 109 towns, and 20 villages in the state of Florida, for a total of 412 incorporated municipalities and 67 counties in Florida,” Hammer wrote. “That means the overwhelming majority of local governments follow the law and are not whining to the courts wanting to be above the law. “

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