Miami-Dade County

The short life of a city gun ban in Florida: Coral Gables drops plan to defy the state

These AR-15 rifles, on display at a gun shop in Wendell, N.C., are the type of weapons that would have been banned for sale in Coral Gables if local firearms regulations had been enacted. The proposal for a citywide ban on assault rifles was defeated Tuesday, March 20, 2018.
These AR-15 rifles, on display at a gun shop in Wendell, N.C., are the type of weapons that would have been banned for sale in Coral Gables if local firearms regulations had been enacted. The proposal for a citywide ban on assault rifles was defeated Tuesday, March 20, 2018. TNS

Coral Gables on Tuesday backed down from enacting Florida’s first citywide ban on assault rifles, with commissioners conceding that state sanctions for trying to regulate gun sales at the local level are too severe to ignore.

“This is very frustrating. Because we’d love to do something about this,” said Michael Mena, who last month joined in a unanimous City Commission vote endorsing a draft ban on the sale of military-style rifles. “Whether we like it or not, there is a state statute that prevents us from doing that.”

Two weeks after the Feb. 14 Parkland massacre, Mena was one of four Yes votes on Feb. 27 to ignore the advice of the city’s legal staff and draft a gun-control ordinance defying Florida’s promise of $5,000 fines and removal from office for local officials who try to enact stricter firearms rules than exist in state law.

vince lago coral gables march 20
Coral Gables City Commissioner Vince Lago speaks during the March 20, 2018, commission meeting, where a proposed local ban on the sale of assault rifles was defeated. Lago, pictured one of the video screens broadcasting the action to spectators at City Hall, cast one of the three No votes. To his left on the dais is the ban’s sponsor, Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli; to his right is Commissioner Patricia Keon. To Keon’s right is City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos. BY DOUGLAS HANKS

But on Tuesday, he and another commissioner, Frank Quesada, flipped sides, saying they still believed in the local ban but didn’t want to expose Coral Gables to millions of dollars in legal bills for enacting the kind of law that was targeted for an unprecedented set of penalties seven years ago by Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature.

“I’m not fearful of being removed from office or paying a $5,000 personal fine,” Quesada said. But he predicted the ordinance would bring a line of lawyers representing people “who say, ‘Hey, I want to open a gun shop, and I can’t. And they’ll end up suing.”

Local gun laws have been banned by Florida since the 1980s as part of Tallahassee’s broader crackdown on municipal rules that are stronger than state ones. But with cities and counties still enforcing local rules prohibiting guns in local parks and government buildings, the National Rifle Association in 2011 helped pass a Florida law that added unique sanctions to the ban on municipal firearms regulations.

Along with fines and ouster for elected officials passing local gun rules, the state legislation awards attorney fees to anyone who successfully sues a government for violating the 2011 law. Former banker Raul Mas Canosa told Coral Gables commissioners he has a valuable collection of semiautomatic weapons at home and wants to open a firearms dealership in a city that currently lacks gun shops.

“If you pass this ordinance, I will in fact sue Coral Gables,” he said. “If you want to regulate firearms, then go ahead and run for the state Senate. Run for the House of Representatives.”

coral gables commission
From left: Coral Gables Commissioner Vince Lago, Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli and Commissioner Michael Mena during the March 20, 2018, meeting of the City Commission. DOUGLAS HANKS

The proposed ban failed, with Commissioner Patricia Keon and Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli casting the two Yes votes and Commissioner Vince Lago joining Mena and Quesada on the No side. Lago missed the Feb. 27 vote endorsing the proposed ban, and he was the lone voice on the five-member board Tuesday who questioned the wisdom of an outright ban on certain firearms sales.

Lago cited crime statistics showing more murders by knives than by rifles across the country. “We are quick to blame, because it’s easy,” he said. “We need to take action, and find the answers across the board. I really wanted to see more action in regards to mental health.”

The knives-versus-rifles statistic comes from FBI data that show firearms far outpace any other weapon used in murders. Handguns sit at the top, linked to 7,105 homicides in 2016. Knives were linked to about 1,600, versus 374 for rifles. Unclassified firearms were used in 3,000 murders that year.

Though the local weapons ban died, Coral Gables commissioners unanimously instructed the city’s legal staff to join a planned lawsuit by other South Florida cities seeking to have the 2011 state law struck down. The city attorney’s office said Miami Beach, Miramar, Weston and other cities plan to join the suit trying to overturn the law that currently prevents local governments from enacting their own gun rules.

The ordinance proposed by Valdés-Fauli would have banned the sale of any firearm “capable of fully automatic, semiautomatic or burst fire.” The legislation identified 65 gun makes by name that couldn’t be sold within city limits, including an AR-15, the rifle used by a lone shooter to kill 17 teenagers and adults at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“These are military-style weapons that are meant to kill and kill rapidly,” Keon said. She said the targeted rifles are powerful enough to shoot through the bulletproof vests issued by the city’s police force.

She also railed against Florida’s “draconian” sanctions for local governments who merely enact legislation counter to the wishes of state lawmakers. The sanctions are “there to cause fear, and to create extraordinary costs to anyone that attempts to ever even disagree with them.”

Valdés-Fauli went further, calling the Tallahassee lawmakers who passed the 2011 law “prostitutes” who “sold themselves to the NRA.”