Assault weapons ban in Florida quashed by state Supreme Court

Justices found the proposal misleading, but one of the justices disagreed.
A flier from Ban Assault Weapons Now, which aimed to get a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot that would ban assault weapons in Florida.
A flier from Ban Assault Weapons Now, which aimed to get a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot that would ban assault weapons in Florida. [ Ban Assault Weapons Now ]
Published June 4, 2020|Updated June 4, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — A proposal to ban assault weapons in Florida was rejected by the state Supreme Court on Thursday, with a majority of justices ruling that the proposal was misleading.

The proposal, spun out of the 2018 Parkland massacre, would have changed Florida’s Constitution to make it illegal for people to buy assault weapons or transfer those weapons to others.

In finding the proposal was misleading, a majority of justices took a narrow approach, honing in on just a few words at the end of the proposed ballot summary.

The ballot measure summary, which is limited to 75 words, states that the proposal “[e]xempts and requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to this provision’s effective date.”

To the organizers, this wording meant that people currently owning assault weapons would be able to keep them if they registered the weapons. In the full text of the proposal, it clarifies that people can’t transfer those weapons to anyone.

The justices read the summary differently. To the 4-1 majority, the summary exempts the weapon itself. So, in theory, the weapon, if it’s registered, could be transferred to someone else.

But since their interpretation of the summary conflicts with the full text of the amendment, the measure itself is misleading, they said.

“Contrary to the ballot summary, the Initiative’s text exempts only ‘the person’s,’ meaning the current owner’s, possession of that assault weapon,” justices wrote.

Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muñiz were in the majority.

Justice Jorge Labarga, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, disagreed with his colleagues. In a dissenting opinion, Labarga found the language wasn’t misleading at all.

“The ballot title clearly communicates the chief purpose of the Initiative, and the ballot summary clearly summarizes the content of the proposed amendment,” he wrote. “In fact, the language is accurate, and the majority simply concludes that the language is insufficiently narrow.”

Lawyers for Attorney General Ashley Moody and the National Rifle Association had asked the Supreme Court to strike down the amendment. Moody called it “deceitful and misleading” last year because she said it could ban all sorts of weapons not typically considered assault rifles. Justices did not address that issue in their opinion.

The measure’s wording said the proposed amendment would have banned all “assault rifles,” which it defined 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 did not apply to handguns.

The committee gathering signatures for the amendment was Ban Assault Weapons Now, whose chairwoman, Gail Schwartz, lost her nephew, Alex Schachter, in the 2018 Parkland shooting. The gunman was wielding an AR-15-style rifle.

In a statement, Schwartz blasted the court’s decision, as well as criticizing Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature, which passed laws in the last two years making it tougher to amend the Florida Constitution.

“The Supreme Court, now controlled by the NRA in the same way as our Governor and our Legislature, has fundamentally failed the people of Florida," she said in a statement. “The Supreme Court’s rejection of BAWN’s amendment does not change our commitment to rid Florida of these killing machines.”

The group was hoping to get the initiative before voters this fall, but they did not collect nearly enough signatures. After missing this year’s deadline, they shifted their goal to the 2022 election.

The group’s executive director Brendan Olsen, said in a statement that they would announce their “ambitious next steps” in the coming weeks.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.