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Florida Supreme Court rejects challenge to gun law

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In a case stemming from the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a challenge to a state law that threatens stiff penalties if local officials pass gun-related regulations.

The 5-1 ruling was a blow to 33 cities and counties and dozens of local officials who contended that penalties in the 2011 law were unconstitutional. It was a victory for state Republican leaders and Second Amendment advocates such as the National Rifle Association.

Florida since 1987 has barred cities and counties from passing regulations that are stricter than state firearms laws, and the penalties in the 2011 law were designed to strengthen that “preemption.” The law, for example, could lead to local officials facing $5,000 fines for passing gun regulations and would allow members of the public and organizations to receive damages and attorney fees if they successfully sue local governments for improper gun regulations.

The case did not challenge the underlying 1987 law but contended the penalties in the 2011 law were unconstitutional, in part, because they violated legal immunities for local officials and governments. Also, attorneys for the cities and counties argued the 2011 law violated the constitutional separation of powers because it would lead to courts delving into the motivations or intentions of local elected officials.

But Justice Ricky Polston, in Thursday’s 25-page majority opinion, rejected the arguments, including that the law violated what is known as “governmental function immunity,” a legal doctrine that helps shield government bodies from liability.

“The imposition of these civil statutory actions for violations of the (1987) preemption statute does not violate governmental function immunity,” Polston wrote. “It is not a core municipal function to occupy an area that the Legislature has preempted, and local governments have no lawful discretion or authority to enact ordinances that violate state preemption.”

Polston was joined in the opinion by Chief Justice Carlos Muniz and Justices Charles Canady, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans. Justice Jorge Labarga dissented, while Justice Renatha Francis did not participate.

In his dissent, Labarga argued that the 2011 law violated the separation of powers because it would empower judges to determine whether violations by local elected officials were “knowing and willful.”

“(The) requirement of judicial involvement in determining whether the action of the public official was ‘knowing and willful’ amounts to nothing less than an impermissible judicial intrusion into the official’s legislative thought process, and it undermines the official’s ability to effectuate the constituents’ will,” Labarga wrote.

The majority upheld a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal. The case involved three lawsuits that were consolidated in Leon County circuit court. The lawsuits were filed by cities and counties from various parts of the state, such as Tallahassee, Gainesville, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.

Attorneys for the local governments wrote in a 2019 court document that city and county officials had been urged to take actions after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, which killed 17 people at the Broward County high school. Those requests involved such things as requiring procedures or documentation to ensure compliance with background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases and requiring reporting of failed background checks.

But the attorneys said local governments refrained from going ahead with the proposals because of the potential penalties in state law.

Former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who left office this month, joined the challenge, which drew briefs from prominent groups on both sides of the issue, including the NRA and the Giffords and Brady gun-control organizations.

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida