By Katabella Roberts
The Florida Supreme Court on Jan. 19 upheld a state law banning local governments from implementing restrictions on the sale of guns and ammunition.
Under Florida law passed in 1987, cities and counties are not allowed to create restrictions on guns that are stricter than state law, also known as “preemption” of local gun laws.
Those who do risk stiff penalties of up to $5,000 under a 2011 addition to the law, while those harmed by the unlawful ordinance can sue the local government for up to $100,000 in damages.
Lawsuits against the penalties were filed by cities and counties from various parts of the state, such as Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach, Orlando, Tallahassee, Gainesville, and St. Petersburg following the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuits, which were consolidated in Leon County circuit court, argued that the penalties imposed by the law amounted to “unnecessary and unconstitutional overreach.”
Court Rules Local Officials Can Face Penalties
The lawsuit, led by the city of Weston in Broward County, Florida, did not challenge the underlying 1987 law but the penalties added in 2011.
“Without immunity from liability, officials and localities are understandably likely to refrain from acting on matters they reasonably believe are both permissible and in the interest of their constituents, for fear of professional and financial ruin if it is later determined their belief was mistaken,” the plaintiffs argued.
But in a 4–1 ruling on Thursday, the court said that local officials will not be exempt from facing stiff penalties if they attempt to implement restrictions that go beyond state law.
In their 30-page opinion (pdf), the court stated that “the imposition of these civil statutory actions for violations of the (1987) preemption statute does not violate governmental function immunity.”
“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,” the court wrote.
“Consequently, 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,” the judges added.
Cities, Counties May File Appeal
Thursday’s ruling upheld a decision (pdf) on the matter by the 1st District Court of Appeal in 2021.
In that ruling, the appeals court wrote in its opinion that “taken together, Florida’s Constitution and statutes limit counties’ and municipalities’ powers of self-government by requiring consistency with legislatively-enacted general and special law.”
Jamie Cole, Weston’s city attorney told Florida Politics that Thursday’s ruling was a “sad day for legislative immunity in Florida and a sad day for local home rule.”
Cole said the city has not yet ruled out issuing an appeal against the Supreme Court ruling.
“We feel that legislative immunity is such a strong pillar of democracy, the Legislature should not be able to simply abrogate (repudiate) it by passing a statute,” said Cole.
Elsewhere, Pompano Beach Mayor Rex Hardin, who represents one of the cities in the lawsuit told the Orlando Sentinel that the ruling was “disappointing,” adding that city lawmakers will now face “draconian measures.”
“We were asking a conservative court to disagree with a very conservative law so yeah, I assumed it would be an uphill battle but it was worth fighting because you always hope the judicial branch sides with what you believe is the right decision,” Hardin said.
However, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody wrote on Twitter on Thursday that the ruling was a “big win for our office.”
“Our attorneys fought hard to make sure local governments can’t trample on your 2nd Amendment rights,” Moody said.