Hernando County commissioners not powerless to regulate home gun dealer

Published Jan. 24, 2012

Theatrical indignation aside, Hernando commissioners missed an opportunity Tuesday to affirm their own home-rule authority over an intrusive Legislature. After a two-hour hearing, the commission, with only Jim Adkins correctly dissenting, approved an earlier decision from its Planning and Zoning Commission allowing retail gun sales in a residential neighborhood. Both Commissioners David Russell and Wayne Dukes lamented an inability to do otherwise because of a 2011 state law that prohibits local governments from enforcing firearm regulations.

Except that is just what the commission did. In approving the prior ruling, the commission established regulations governing the number of customers that can travel each day (one) to Paul Hargis' Spring Hill home to conduct business. Hargis volunteered to follow the limit even though, under the state law, the county is unable to enforce it legally. That point became irrelevant anyway, after commissioners heard their own code enforcement staff say the limits are ineffective because officers' can't differentiate between customers and visitors/family members coming and going from a home.

So what the county is left with is a new gun dealer, operating in a residential neighborhood, with no local government ability nor legal authority to control the business' hours of operation nor volume of customers. How is that protecting the character of the neighborhood or the health, safety and welfare of its residents? Counting on the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officers to enforce local zoning rules is implausible.

In side-stepping Second Amendment entanglements, commissioners still could have controlled Hargis' operations more effectively. They should have required Hargis to follow the same rules the county set for a previously authorized home-based gunsmith — no in-person transactions on the premises. Customers cannot pick up or drop off their firearms from that home-based repair business and requiring a neighborhood gun retailer to act similarly is not unreasonable.

A frustrated commission aimed much of their criticism at a pro-gun Legislature that robbed lower-level governments of local control. However, just as appropriate, would be a commission self-evaluation of its own zoning policies. Exactly why is a non-elected Planning and Zoning Commission given the authority to issue special exceptions — without sufficient neighborhood protections — to businesses that can bring unwanted traffic into residential areas?

Had this matter landed before the elected county commissioners in the first place, they could have negotiated tougher operating standards with Hargis instead of just affirming the decision from the planning and zoning board. The angst at the Legislature is understandable, but commissioners seeking greater local control shouldn't abdicate that imperative responsibility to an appointed panel with no accountability to the electorate.