Shooting Down Debate

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY JUN 25, 2016

People hold strong opinions on the right to bear arms, but voters of all persuasions should note just how resistant gun rights proponents have been to even engaging in conversation. Democrats in Washington have filibustered and conducted a sit-in during the most recent push for gun control votes in Washington. But the starkest example of conversation-stopping techniques may be in the City of Sarasota.

Sarasota City Commissioners this week were set to pass a resolution asking state and federal leaders to restrict access to assault weapons. The key word is “asking.” Municipal officials in Florida have no authority to limit gun access, and restrictions that simply send buyers outside the city limits would only serve symbolic purpose anyhow. But City Attorney Robert Fournier uncovered a surprising part of a 2011 law that scared local officials from even posturing on the issue.

Turns out the same statute that blocks gun regulation also allows citizens to sue city commissions for, well, just about anything involving guns. An affected party that can bring action would include any “person or organization whose membership is adversely affected by any ordinance, regulation, measure, directive, rule, order or policy promulgated.” By Fournier’s reading, that includes a resolution asking higher bodies to regulate guns. And worse, any official that “willfully” violates this would be subject to a fine and legal action themselves, one that won’t be covered by city dollars. It’s a huge risk to commissioners to vote for such a resolution, one four out of five city commissioners were unwilling to take. Most likely, they will now ask Attorney General Pam Bondi for a read on the law. Now I think Fournier’s reading on the law is pretty strict, but it also feels unlikely Bondi, who dreams of the word “Governor” appearing in front of her name very soon, would come down a different way on this. Besides, lawmakers like state Rep. Greg Steube made very strong statements against the Sarasota resolution, so the idea that the Legislature intended anything short of a gag order for cities on guns seems unlikely.

And that’s the problem. Fournier suggests in a memo to commissioners the lawsuit provision of the law could simply be lawmakers’ “characteristic sloppy drafting.” As if lawmakers themselves wrote this law. A bill with this exact language was introduced in North Carolina in 2013, which at least shows lobbyists shopped this language nationwide since its passage in Florida. And groups like Florida Carry, which has sued multiple jurisdictions for running astray of this law.

I want to make clear, I’m no opponent of the Second Amendment. I don't particularly like the idea that law enforcement can use a type of weapon the law-abiding citizens cannot legally use themselves. If I were a city commissioner, I couldn’t support the resolution as written, but I would have tried to make some amendments to make the document something I could support.

The most recent conversation was born out of a tragedy where a man interviewed by the FBI three times was allowed to buy an assault weapon before killing dozens of people. He did so in a state where it takes 72 hours to buy a handgun and less than an hour to buy a semi-automatic rifle. One of the men murdered at Pulse this month was Sarasotan Eddie Sotomayor. City leaders responded by engaging a conversation that needs to be had. There are places between the extremes where reasonable gun regulation should at least be considered. But the gun lobby and the lawmakers frightened by them have done everything in their power to prevent discussion.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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