Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade law closes Florida’s “gun-show loophole,” but police weren’t enforcing it

Miami-Dade has a five-day waiting period for gun sales in public places, but the county wasn’t enforcing it until last year.
Miami-Dade has a five-day waiting period for gun sales in public places, but the county wasn’t enforcing it until last year. File Photo

For two decades Miami-Dade has had one of Florida’s strictest waiting periods for gun purchases, but the county police department only recently began enforcing the local law.

Last year, activists complained to county leaders that Miami-Dade police weren’t enforcing a local law designed to close Florida’s “gun-show loophole” within the county. The loophole refers to Florida’s statewide rules for waiting periods and background checks, which apply only to licensed gun dealers. Private sellers who set up booths at gun shows and can have access to thousands of potential buyers in a single day are exempt from the state requirement.

Miami-Dade’s 1998 ordinance requiring background checks and waiting periods applies to all gun sellers in a public place, including gun shows. While the ordinance has been on the county’s books for 21 years, Miami-Dade recently said it hadn’t been enforcing the rule and had dropped violating the gun regulations from the agency’s electronic roster of arrestable offenses.

Police officials said they thought the law was unenforceable because it’s stricter than state law. They were wrong. When they began enforcing the five-day waiting period last year, they didn’t investigate whether the law was being followed at gun shows.

This “ordinance violation was inactive in the Miami-Dade County Criminal Justice Information System Offense Listing,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote in a Feb. 26 memo to county commissioners. “As a result, there have been no arrests for violations” of the county gun restrictions.

The memo revealed an odd situation involving one of the most contentious issues in Florida more than a year after the 2018 Parkland massacre revived efforts to impose more controls on firearm sales.

Florida’s most populous county has a stricter law on the books than is found in most areas across the state. But police brass say they only recently discovered the agency wasn’t enforcing it. A major gun show in Miami says its sellers obey the local law even without police supervision, but gun-control advocates are skeptical about compliance.

Miami-Dade commissioners passed a resolution in May requesting a tally of how many people county police have arrested for violating the local gun rule and information on enforcement actions. Gimenez’s memo conceded the county hadn’t done anything about the law until commissioners asked about it.

“The answer was even worse than we expected,” said Maria Wright, whose son, Jerry, was killed in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. She lives in Pinecrest and is a volunteer leader with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, which asked commissioners for the report on Miami-Dade’s enforcement efforts. “We can have background checks on all gun sales in Miami-Dade County, but nobody is enforcing it.”

The owner of Miami-Dade’s largest gun show said Thursday that individual sellers are following the county rule at his events.

If someone brings a gun to sell at the Florida Gun Show Miami at the county fairgrounds, “you must conduct a background check,” said Khaled Akkawi, owner of the company that puts on gun shows across the state, Florida Gun Shows Inc. Someone with a concealed-weapons permit can take the gun home, an exemption required by state law. “Otherwise, [sellers] hold the gun for five days.”

A spokesman for Miami-Dade police said the agency wrongly believed the county ordinance wasn’t enforceable. It also hadn’t conducted sting operations or inspections to see if dealers were obeying the law.

Spokesman Alvaro Zabaleta said the police department had thought Florida’s law barring local governments from enacting gun-control rules stricter than state regulations had also invalidated Miami-Dade’s five-day cooling off period.

“That’s why it was originally taken off,” Zabaleta said. “It was initially pulled for the reason that it was stricter than the Florida rule.”

Florida’s Constitution lets counties enact laws requiring buyers to wait between three and five days before receiving “any firearm” from a seller at a location accessible to the public. The laws also can require background checks for buyers subject to the waiting period. Florida’s crackdown on local gun laws began in 2011, but counties were allowed to continue enacting local waiting periods if they wanted to.

The Parkland school massacre in February 2018 prompted more counties to join Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach in taking advantage of the allowance for a five-day waiting period. In May, Hillsborough enacted a five-day rule, and Alachua added one in June.

Zabaleta said after realizing the mistake last year, Miami-Dade police began enforcement efforts of the five-day rule and found no violations. That included a review of federal firearms paperwork filed by gun dealers, and undercover operations where officers tried to obtain firearms in Miami-Dade without waiting five days between purchase and possession of the weapon.

“They’re finding out these dealers really don’t violate” the five-day rule, Zabaleta said. “This year we’re planning several undercover operations.

“Could we have been more proactive about it?” he said. “Absolutely.”

Zabaleta said the county has yet to conduct an undercover operation at gun shows. The enforcement also hasn’t targeted unlicensed sellers, he said. Advocates say that track record misses the primary target of Miami-Dade’s 1998 law: unlicensed sellers at gun shows.

“It was to close the gun-show loophole,” said Amy Turkel, who helped organize the 1998 referendum campaign for the constitutional amendment that allowed Miami-Dade to enact its stricter rules weeks later. “In order for that to happen, they have to enforce it. That’s been the problem in Dade County. Nobody has been enforcing it.”

Doug Hanks covers Miami-Dade government for the Herald. He’s worked at the paper for nearly 20 years, covering real estate, tourism and the economy before joining the Metro desk in 2014.
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