Florida top court weighs law punishing local leaders over gun laws

(Reuters) – The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday will consider whether city officials in the state can be punished for passing local gun laws that are later blocked by a court in a case that spotlights the divided U.S. response to the gun violence epidemic.

Thirty municipalities, three counties, including Miami-Dade, and more than 70 elected officials in Florida want the state’s high court to recognize that they cannot be sued for adopting restrictions on firearms that are later found to conflict with a decades-old state law that gun control advocates say was meant to limit local regulations.

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But, the state’s attorney general has argued that local officials should not be allowed to violate Floridians’ right to bear arms without penalty.

Gun control advocates are watching the case closely and said the penalties imposed for violating the state law represent a dangerous step in limiting gun restrictions.

Thursday’s oral arguments come in the shadow of several recent mass shootings, including at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas that left 19 students and two teachers dead.

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U.S. lawmakers are trying to find common ground this week on gun legislation to encourage states to pass “red flag” laws to prohibit people judged a risk to themselves or the public from buying firearms.

The Florida Supreme Court case began in 2018, when municipalities, including Miami Beach, wanted to restrict firearms from government facilities and ban sales of large-capacity detachable magazines, among other measures.

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Before adopting the restrictions, they went to court to challenge a 2011 state law that imposed penalties on local leaders who adopted gun measures that were later blocked by a court because they were preempted by a state law.

A trial court ruled in favor of the local officials but the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld the 2011 law last year.

In 1987, Florida had joined a growing number of states by enacting a preemption statute declaring the state legislature was “occupying the whole field” of firearms regulation and local ordinances “null and void.” The legislature said the goal was to provide uniform firearms laws in Florida.

The penalties set forth in the 2011 law for violating the preemption law included fines of $5,000 on officials and anyone affected by the ordinance could sue the local government for up to $100,000 in damages.

Officials including Nikki Fried, the Florida commissioner of agriculture who is also a Democratic candidate for governor, argued in court filings that local officials have legislative immunity to enact laws, even ones later found to be unconstitutional, without fear of punishment.

But, Attorney General Ashley Moody responded that the legislature is free to do away with legislative immunity for local officials, which it did.

The case has attracted attention of advocates on both sides of the gun debate.

The National Rifle Association said without the threat of penalties, local governments will adopt unconstitutional laws that require groups such as the NRA to bear the expense of challenging such laws.

Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, two groups that support tighter gun restrictions, argued in a joint court filing the penalties improperly chill the legislative role of local government.

They also said Florida was the first state to adopt such penalties, but was soon followed by Mississippi and Arizona.

“The 2011 penalty provisions,” said the groups, “are thus in the vanguard of an alarming trend.”

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