In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: On backyard gun ranges, how local officials interpret state law matters

Not so fast . . with that backyard gun range, Florida.

Amid concerns unfurled by a Miami Herald story about a Big Pine Key snowbird installing a gun range in the back of his home — and being allowed to keep it by local authorities despite neighbors’ complaints that the bursts of gunfire are a hazard and a nuisance — I turned to The City Beautiful.

What would Coral Gables do faced with such a wretch of a neighbor, too lazy and cheap to drive to a gun range and pay shooting fees?

In this stable of civility, people aren’t even allowed to freely choose the color of their homes. Home owners must visit City Hall and pick from a catalog of acceptably harmonious paint colors — one of scores of restrictions imposed by city code.

But gun laws are strictly a state issue.

Or so the Republican-led Florida Legislature decided in 2011 when it forbade cities from enforcing their own sensible gun regulations or enacting new ordinances to curtail gun violence in our midst.

At the insistence of the powerful National Rifle Association lobby and with the blessing of Gov. Rick Scott, who signed the law, cities and counties had to scour their books and remove local laws that banned, for instance, the celebratory firing of guns in residential areas.

Even code-crazy Coral Gables had to go through its plump books and remove any gun-related ordinance — or face a $5,000 fine and the removal from office of the offending local lawmaker who might refuse to comply.

But that doesn’t mean that authorities would tolerate a gun range in a Coral Gables backyard, the city’s chief legal officer told me.

“We can enforce the Florida statutes that say you cannot fire recklessly or negligently,” City Attorney Craig E. Leen said. “To me, shooting a gun in a backyard would be negligence. It’s dangerous. If we are aware of any attempt by someone to do such a thing, we would pursue it under state law.”

In other words, Coral Gables city officials aren’t as willing to interpret state law — as vague as Florida statute 790.15 may be — as leniently as Monroe County authorities do. Finally, a ray of sanity on the issue.

The Keys’ county commissioners and county attorney as well as law enforcement representatives voice concerns about “safety and quality of life” issues over Doug Varrieur’s makeshift gun range on Mango Lane. But just as quickly say their hands are tied by state law.

Then again, Varrieur’s shooting buddy on “Gun Day,” every Wednesday from 3 to 4 p.m., is a retired sheriff’s deputy — just two good ol’ white boys at play, isn’t it?

Imagine the same backyard gun range and two young black guys with dreadlocks shooting their guns? Or two Hispanics playing loud bachata music as they practiced their aim?

How would Monroe County interpret “negligent” and “reckless” discharge of firearms then? How far would neighbors go with their complaints?

Leen, also a law professor, suggests that neighbors consider filing a nuisance lawsuit.

“If you are being endangered, you can sue,” Leen said. “Lawful action can cause a nuisance.”

He likened backyard gun ranges to factories that spew harmful smoke into others’ properties.

“Unconscionable,” he said.

As unconscionable as Florida lawmakers who aren’t defending Americans’ rights to bear arms or supporting gun safety with their votes, but only pushing the agenda of a lobby that generously funds their political campaigns.

The backyard gun range isn’t about Second Amendment rights. It’s about everyone’s right to a measure of safety and peace — especially now that it has been stripped away by recurring shootings at malls, theaters and schools — at least in our homes.

There’s something terribly wrong with a society that can impose rules for the selection of a home’s paint color, a society that can regulate at what time you can take out your garbage can for collection, but legally has to tread carefully when a self-described “responsible gun owner” sets up a gun range at home.

There’s something terribly wrong when the NRA can violate the sanctity of our homes — and doesn’t even have to ring the doorbell.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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