TALLAHASSEE — Florida Supreme Court justices on Tuesday cast a skeptical eye on a constitutional amendment banning assault weapons, with the chief justice calling part of it “prohibitively misleading.”
The proposed amendment, drafted after the 2018 Parkland massacre, would outlaw a variety of weapons and require current owners to register them with the state. Organizers missed the deadline to go before voters this fall and they’re now aiming for 2022.
Lawyers for Attorney General Ashley Moody and the National Rifle Association argued Tuesday that the amendment is overly broad and applies to far more weapons than AR-15s and other semi-automatic rifles, which the public commonly views as “assault weapons.”
NRA attorney George Levesque said the ban could even apply to even pellet guns and paintball guns.
“The average voter is not going to appreciate that and they’re going to be confused by that,” Levesque said.
But justices largely glossed over those arguments, focusing instead on one particular sentence in the ballot summary.
The sentence says the amendment “exempts and requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to this provision’s effective date.”
The lawyer who crafted that language, Jon Mills, said it meant that current owners of assault weapons were exempt from the ban, but that they had to register their weapons. When the person died, they could not hand them down to a family member or anyone else. The weapon would have be turned over to authorities.
But Chief Justice Charles Canady read it differently. The sentence, he said, says the weapon itself is exempt from the ban, he said, meaning that the weapon could be transferred to another person after the ban takes effect.
“I don’t know how anybody could get an idea from that that when the person who possessed it trundles off this earth, then all of a sudden that weapon becomes illegal and is no longer exempt,” Canady said. “If it means that, if I’m reading it correctly, then that is prohibitively misleading.”
Mills said that interpretation was “completely nonsensical," noting that if that were true, the amendment would allow someone to buy up thousands of assault weapons before the ban takes effect, then sell them after it takes effect.
“It says what it says,” Canady responded. “I didn’t write this.”
Before constitutional amendments go before voters, justices have to decide whether the proposals deal with only a single subject and has a fair ballot summary. If justices decide the summary is misleading, organizers would have to start over.
The amendment would ban all “assault rifles,” which it defines as “semiautomatic rifles and shotguns capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition at once, either in fixed or detachable magazine, or any other ammunition-feeding device.” It does not apply to handguns.
“It seems to me that the chief purpose of this amendment is to eliminate long guns in the State of Florida within a generation,” Justice Ricky Polston said.
Mills said that it only applies to semi-automatic long guns. Bolt-action rifles, which require the user to pull a lever in between each shot, would be permitted.
The committee gathering signatures for the amendment is Ban Assault Weapons Now, whose chairwoman, Gail Schwartz, lost her nephew, Alex Schachter, in the 2018 Parkland massacre. The gunman was wielding an AR-15-style rifle.
Schwartz said after the hearing that the amendment will save lives.
“Should these weapons be legal for the general public? The answer is no,” she said. “And we feel confident that the Supreme Court will agree.”
Schwartz was hoping to get the amendment on the 2020 ballot, but her committee didn’t gather the 766,200 signatures required by Saturday to become eligible. Organizers fell well short, with just 147,304, and are now looking to 2022.
Mills, a former Florida House speaker who also crafted the language behind Amendment 4, the felon-voting initiative that has now become embroiled in the courts, said he didn’t want to predict how the justices will rule on this case.
If the justices reject it, they’ll come back with something before 2022. He noted that voters rejected the first effort to legalize medical marijuana, in 2014. Mills went back to the court with a new amendment, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2016.
“The court is always an education,” he said.