A Tallahassee judge has struck down the $5,000 fine that Florida mayors and city council members face if they try to enact municipal gun-control rules, ruling the unique penalty goes too far in stamping out defiance of state checks against local regulations.
Judge Charles Dodson also declared unconstitutional a provision of the 2011 law that allows Florida’s governor to remove local officials for going too far on the gun-control front.
Dodson did endorse the heart of the law, which bars local ordinances that go beyond firearm regulations established by the Florida Legislature. The Leon County Circuit Court judge’s ruling simply strikes the unprecedented threat of civil fines and expulsion for passing local laws that Florida has already declared “preempted” by state authority.
Dodson’s Friday ruling in the case of Weston versus DeSantis is probably just the start of the legal fight, with the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis expected to appeal the decision up the ladder of the state judicial system. But for now, the fine that helped define Florida as one of the most hostile states in the country to gun-control legislation is no longer a threat for local governments. The lead attorney in the case said that would give cities more latitude to experiment with gun laws that don’t run afoul of state rules.
“It gives cities the ability to pass legislation that tests the boundaries of preemption, without fear of being thrown out of office or penalized,” said Jamie Cole, the Weiss Serota lawyer from Miami representing Weston and 19 other cities in the suit against Florida.
Sean Caranna, a board member of the gun-rights group Florida Carry, said he was confident the fine would be restored by a higher court, since it makes sense to link penalties to illegal conduct. “It’s the same reason you have a monetary value attached to a speeding ticket,” he said. “It discourages people from violating the law.”
In Miami-Dade, Miami Beach, Cutler Bay, Key Biscayne, Pinecrest, North Miami, South Miami and Surfside are plaintiffs. So is Miami Gardens, which opted to remove “No Guns” signs from local playgrounds after the 2011 law passed and prompted the city to repeal its ban against firearms in parks.
Coral Gables is also a local plaintiff. City leaders there cited the potential of fines and expulsion last year when they backed off plans to pass a local ban on selling military-style rifles, legislation introduced after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Though other cities in Broward County joined the suit, Parkland did not.
Andrew Gillum, the Democrat who lost to DeSantis last November, was also an original plaintiff in the suit as the mayor of Tallahassee in April when the litigation began. “Thanks to this ruling, local leaders can now lead on ending gun violence without the fear of fines, personal liability, or removal from office,” Gillum wrote on Twitter late Friday afternoon.
A spokesperson for the Florida Attorney General’s Office, which was listed as a defendant along with DeSantis and other state offices, was not immediately available for comment.
Florida has banned local gun laws since the 1980s, but the 2011 law created the penalties designed to put teeth into enforcement of the rules. No local official has yet received a fine from the law, but there have been lawsuits by gun-rights advocates and others based on the 2011 law. Fort Lauderdale last year won a court fight preserving its ability to ban a gun show from a city-owned venue.
In his ruling, Dodson said allowing a judge to fine a local lawmaker improperly shifted too much power from the legislative branch to the judiciary. He said the prospect of a local lawmaker being sued merely for passing a law would amount to “impermissible judicial meddling in a purely political matter.”