Banning guns from parks or other public places within a city would be reasonable gun safety measures for local governments to enact. But reason is hard to come by in the polarizing gun control debate, and state law prohibits even modest local protections and includes punitive steps against any local officials who dare to try. A lawsuit challenging parts of that law by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and other Florida mayors is another protest against top-down government and another push for commonsense gun controls that would be more effective if they were statewide or national.
At issue is a 2011 state law creating unprecedented penalties against local elected officials — mayors, city council members and county commissioners — who try to enact stricter firearms regulations than state law provides. The sanctions, as the suit describes them, are "vindictive and expressly intended to be punitive" and include removal from office and a $5,000 fine. They’re also insidiously unique: Any other local ordinance that attempts to supersede state law is simply declared null and void.
In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre and the public outcry for more effective gun controls, mayors and council members from 10 South Florida cities sued Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials seeking to have the law overturned. Kriseman said Wednesday he is joining the lawsuit, and the mayors’ reasons are not just philosophical. Miami Beach is prevented from banning guns in City Hall. Miramar cannot establish its new 5,000-seat amphitheater as a gun-free zone. It’s not because residents of those cities don’t want it — it’s because Tallahassee has decreed such local regulations to be illegal.
It’s known as pre-emption, and it’s a favorite pastime in the Florida Legislature. Bills filed this legislative session would have pre-empted local governments from passing tree removal ordinances or any regulation affecting any business. Thankfully, those didn’t pass. Statewide regulation does have its place. Rideshare companies, for instance, should not be subject to different regulations from city to city when their drivers cross city boundaries, and the Legislature passed statewide regulations last year.
Gun regulations straddle the line between pre-emption and home rule. Cities and counties should have the authority to set the rules for venues within their boundaries, including determining whether guns are allowed in public spaces such as parks or civic centers. And of course, they should be able to pass such regulations without the threat of a fine or being kicked out of office. But far-reaching actions such as a ban on assault-style rifles should be handled at the state or, better yet, national level. A ban in Georgia is rendered meaningless if AR-15s are easily purchased next door in Alabama. That futility would be even more pronounced if St. Petersburg could ban weapons that still could be purchased in Pinellas Park or Gulfport or Largo. Yet Kriseman floated that idea in a news conference Wednesday, weakening his otherwise credible stand for the importance of home rule.
If the cities’ lawsuit succeeds, it could ultimately give Floridians more power to determine how guns are regulated in their communities while putting some needed restraint on the pre-emption zeal coming from Tallahassee. Even better, the mayors’ efforts should send another clear signal to state legislators that local communities want them to enact more sweeping gun controls.