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Florida's powerful gun lobby puts cuffs on officials

Published Jan. 20, 2012

Even without the interference of the gun lobby and its flunkies in the state Legislature, Hernando County commissioners would have a tough decision to make on Tuesday.

That's when they're scheduled to vote whether Paul Hargis should be able to sell guns he orders online out of his home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Spring Hill.

The county planning staff recommended that he be limited to no more than one sale per day. More likely, it will be three or four a month, Hargis said.

A vote to approve Hargis' operation would also please the gun-toting voters, at least the ones paying attention.

On the other hand, it would not please most of Hargis' neighbors, who definitely are paying attention.

One of them, Paul Allen, has collected more than 300 signatures on a petition asking the commission to deny the request.

And if Hargis' business does grow, as he hopes it will, who is going to enforce that one-buyer-per-day rule? As far as I can see, nobody.

This neighborhood is incompatible with any business and, no matter what anyone says, selling guns is not just any business. Suppose one day, when Hargis is out, a package delivery service leaves a parcel on his doorstep? If, for example, he's selling soap, said County Attorney Garth Coller, that's no problem.

In the gun business, with the possibility that a kid or a criminal could gets his or her hands on that package, it absolutely could be.

Weigh all the pros against all the cons, and I'd say the commission should vote to deny.

But, according to County Attorney Garth Coller, it can't — not without risking a long, expensive legal fight.

The reason? That same state law that recently forced the city of Brooksville to end its very reasonable ban on firearms in parks.

The state has long forbidden cities and counties to place extra restrictions on the use and sale of guns. But the new law passed last year by the state Legislature puts teeth into this prohibition — and claws, a blackjack and a lead pipe. The punishment for failing to comply includes fines of up to $5,000 for elected officials.

The law does make an exception for zoning laws, except ones that "are designed for the purpose of restricting or prohibiting the sale, purchase, transfer, or manufacture of firearms or ammunition."

Because the county staff and Planning and Zoning Commission both recommended approval, a court might well interpret a denial from the County Commission as specifically targeting gun sales, Coller said.

Reading all the absolutist language in the law, and considering that Palm Beach County's lawyers have already called it a "form of political bullying" in a court challenge, you can see why Coller is worried.

Backers of the law would love to see a test case, a chance to show just how much power the law gives them, he said. And with the county's three lawyers struggling to keep up with ordinary county business, he said, "we don't want to be a test case."

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Maybe his fears won't be realized. But add the advice of the county attorney to the reasons to vote for approval of the home business, and I think commissioners have to do so.

Either way, this law has made their job a lot harder and for only one reason: State lawmakers refuse to stand up to the gun lobby.

That includes the four members of the Hernando delegation, all of whom voted for the bill. It even includes, of course, Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. That they have a record of standing up to just about every powerful special interest except the National Rifle Association gives you a good idea of its power in Tallahassee.

This ultimately leaves local governments in a bind, and the commissioners need to tell that to our legislators — tell them this nutty law needs to go.

And that's not a tough decision. That's an obvious one.

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