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  1. Opinion

Judge says you can't punish local officials for deciding about guns in their communities. It's a start.

A Tallahassee judge recently ruled that local officials can't be fined and fired for enacting gun rules that are more restrictive than those already in state law. But this is Florida and the subject is guns. The fight isn't over. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
A Tallahassee judge recently ruled that local officials can't be fined and fired for enacting gun rules that are more restrictive than those already in state law. But this is Florida and the subject is guns. The fight isn't over. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Jul. 30, 2019

Imagine the subject is not guns. Or a state that seems to value gun rights over pretty much any other.

Imagine lawmakers in Tallahassee passed a statewide law on, say, cigarettes, or electric scooters or what time you could buy alcohol. This law said that if your hometown mayor, county commission or city council dared to pass local rules regulating these things after the state already decreed the law of the land, those elected officials could be in trouble.

As in: Getting fined thousands of dollars and kicked out of office for trying to represent the sensibilities of the particular communities they serve.

Ridiculous, right?

Except it's Florida. And the subject is guns.

For decades, local gun laws have been banned through "preemption" — the state deciding it knows best despite the richly different communities that stretch from the Panhandle to the Florida Keys.

But in 2011, in a flex of muscle from the National Rifle Association, which holds the deeds to a collection of legislative souls, lawmakers added needle-sharp teeth to that law in the form of threats.

Local mayors or council members who wanted to, say, keep guns out of city buildings or parks or block the sale of military-style weapons in their towns would risk getting booted out of office and a $5,000 fine.

It bears noting we are a state with too much everyday gun violence and that we have seen tragedy and massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the high school in Parkland.

So local governments pushed back in legal action that included several South Florida counties, cities and officials, and closer to home, St. Petersburg, Safety Harbor and Dunedin. And score one for sensibility, at least for a minute.

Last week, Tallahassee Judge Charles Dodson ruled that those unprecedented and chilling penalties — my description, not his — are unconstitutional. His reasons were cleaner: Letting a judge fine a politician wrongly moves power from the legislative branch to the judiciary.

The judge did not strike down the law itself, which keeps hometown governments from going beyond state gun regulations. But the ruling means letting NRA-controlled politicians wield this kind of sword does not stand. A lawyer for the plaintiffs said this gives cities the ability to pass local rules that test "the boundaries of preemption" without fear of being fined or thrown out of office.

Here's the thing about local officials deciding what's best for the people who elect them: Hometown citizens who do not agree can vote them out. Which is how government is supposed to work.

Even as this was making news in Florida, it happened yet again, three dead and a dozen injured at a festival Sunday in California, including a teenage girl and a little boy. According to published reports, the shooter used a semi-automatic rifle he legally bought in another state. More thoughts, more prayers, nothing changes.

No doubt the Tallahassee judge's ruling is only the first stop as it winds its way through the courts. But it's a start that threats against local officials are not okay.

Even if we are talking about Florida, and guns.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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