One month after a school shooter killed 17 people one county to the north, Miami commissioners have made strides to challenge a Florida law preventing local officials from enacting their own gun rules at the risk of fines or removal from office.
Miami Commissioner Ken Russell has sponsored a resolution, which passed unanimously last week, asking the city attorney to evaluate a 2011 law supported by the gun lobby that would impose a $5,000 fine on municipal officials who try to enact local gun rules, while giving Florida’s governor the authority to remove elected officials who violate the law.
“We have empowered our attorney to take on the state with regard to that legislation to see if it’s even constitutional for them to bind our hands like that,” Russell said Wednesday, adding that the city attorney, Victoria Méndez, now has the authority to sue the state on the city’s behalf if she finds the law flawed for whatever reason.
Supporters of the state statute have argued that operating under one uniform law ensures law-abiding gun owners will be able to travel between cities and counties without unknowingly breaking local laws.
But Russell supports an assault-weapons ban, a view popular with the majority of the state’s voters, according to a poll released by Quinnipiac University last month, and he said it’s his duty to keep students safe within city limits.
“We really believe a city should be able to make its own rules,” Russell said. “The way you use a gun in an urban farm community is very different than what we need in a dense municipality.... We want that ability to protect our students.”
Last month, commissioners in Coral Gables thumbed their nose at the law, stating they would pursue a ban on AR-15-style weapons in defiance of the state government. The move was largely symbolic, though, since no merchants sell the weapons within city limits. A Coral Springs commissioner has also said he would propose an ordinance to limit the sale and transfer of large-capacity gun magazines in the city, which sits next to Parkland.
In the meantime, the city of Miami is doing what it can to get assault weapons — and all unwanted guns — off the streets, through a series of gun buy-backs planned for this year, the first of which will be held on Saturday at Henderson Park from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The purpose of the buy-backs, organized by Miami Police and funded through a $100,000 donation from a local businessman after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, is to give gun owners the chance to turn in their unwanted firearms for up to $250 in gift cards. Alain Perez, the founder of Eventstar Structure, an industry favorite in permanent and semi-permanent fabric tent structures, donated the money explicitly for the buy-back program.
“In instances like this, you’ve got to do what you can,” Russell said. “And you’ve got to be creative when the state isn’t stepping up.”
But Michael S. Scott, the director of the Center of Problem-Oriented Policing, an academic group that publishes policing guides, said gun buy-backs are not as effective as advertised. The former chief of the Lauderhill Police Department, Scott said buy-backs do little to put a dent in gun violence numbers, although they make for good public relations.
“Gun buybacks continue to be popular for several reasons: They are relatively easy to conduct, they create the visible impression to the public that government is responsive to the problem, and their effectiveness seems, to the less-well-informed, plausible,” Scott wrote in an email to the Herald. “They probably don’t do much harm even if they don’t do much good. The biggest potential drawback is if some people use the money obtained from selling an old gun to buy a new, more lethal one.”
Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina said the tragedy in Parkland may have sparked a change of heart for many gun owners, particularly those with young or teenaged children.
“When it happens so close to home and the [media] coverage is a little more intense, you can’t help but look at your own kids and wonder if [owning a gun] is the best decision,” said Colina, who took over the department in January.
Colina said the department has regularly held gun buy-backs at least once a year, but that he could not predict how many gun owners would take part this year.
Guns received by police are either returned to their owners if stolen or melted down, he said. Maybe they’ll collect enough to commission an artist to take the metal and make something out of it, like a statue promoting gun safety, the chief said.
“If we got just one gun off the street... that’s a success already,” he said.