Romano: Should we really diminish the First Amendment to stifle talk of the Second Amendment?

Published July 21, 2016

She just wanted a conversation about gun violence.

She wasn't asking her fellow City Council members to pass any laws, impose any restrictions or change any existing gun regulations in St. Petersburg.

Lisa Wheeler-Bowman was asking only that the council consider symbolically supporting a League of Women Voters request for a legislative session on gun violence.

And even that, she discovered, might run afoul of Florida's trigger-happy laws.

"I'm not trying to take away anyone's gun. Lord knows, I don't want anyone taking away my gun,'' Wheeler-Bowman said. "I just wanted a deeper conversation about sensible regulations that might stop all of this violence. It's sad that we can't even talk about it. As an elected official, I feel like my hands are tied.''

And so we've come to the point where it now seems reasonable to ask:

Are Floridians so in love with the Second Amendment that we're willing to abuse the First Amendment?

"It's a real, real concern,'' said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

The specific problem in this case has to do with a law passed by the Florida Legislature in 2011. Cities and counties were already forbidden from passing local gun regulations, but the state upped the ante with language that left elected officials susceptible to fines, lawsuits and removal from office for messing with gun laws.

When City Attorney Jacqueline Kovilaritch alerted Wheeler-Bowman to the potential ramifications of passing even a non-binding resolution related to firearms, she said she decided to pull the discussion from today's agenda.

This isn't the first time common sense has been stifled by this NRA-supported law. This was the same law that cops around the state once said left them powerless to shut down backyard gun ranges.

And last month, the Sarasota City Commission was also considering passing a resolution to ask the Legislature to consider tightening laws on assault-style weapons.

Commission members appeared to view it favorably until the city attorney warned that the NRA might sue, and the resolution wound up failing 4-1. City Manager Tom Barwin said a lawsuit would probably not succeed, but the possibility of a protracted, and expensive, legal struggle was deterrent enough.

"I don't even know what word to use other than 'absurd,' '' Barwin said. "The First Amendment is the bedrock of everything in our society, and now we're being told that a local, elected body can't even offer its opinion? How can we even function as a democracy like this? It's nuts.''

The League of Women Voters has asked state officials to ban assault weapons, and to close loopholes in background checks.

Goodman, who has a concealed weapon permit, said the problem is the NRA purposefully exaggerates any proposed gun legislation.

"We can't even get them to the table to discuss it,'' Goodman said. "They immediately start shouting: 'They're coming to take our guns.' And that is clearly not the case. We're just talking about coming to agreement on sensible legislation.''

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At the very least, it's a conversation worth having.

Perhaps the governor, House speaker and Senate president can find the courage to ask the NRA for permission to have that conversation.