The National Rifle Association (NRA) on April 9 hailed a Florida appeals court ruling to uphold a 2011 state law that threatens tough penalties if city and county officials approve gun-related regulations that are stricter than state laws.
“MAJOR NRA COURT WIN: Florida appellate court upholds preemption statute and says that public officials can be fined for overriding state law and implementing local gun control,” the gun-rights group said on Twitter.
“The NRA was instrumental in passing this statute and filed an amicus brief in the case.”
A three-judge panel of the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee granted an appeal from the state of Florida that sought to uphold the 2011 law. The appeal by Attorney General Ashley Moody and Gov. Ron DeSantis was in response to a lower court ruling in 2019 that found the 2011 law unconstitutional.
“The trial court invalidated Florida’s statutory penalties against local governments, local officials, and agency heads for violating the Florida Legislature’s total preemption of firearm and ammunition regulation,” the ruling by Judge Susan Kelsey reads (pdf). “We find the challenged statutes valid and enforceable, and we reverse.”
Florida has had a statute since 1987, “Field of regulation of firearms and ammunition preempted,” that declares null and void any new gun control laws passed by local-level governments that would be stricter than state laws and override them. The statute sought to ensure that lawful gun owners wouldn’t inadvertently break local rules while traveling within the state.
In 2011, Florida enacted a measure providing penalties against local governmental entities or individual officials who wilfully violate the state preemption statute—effectively giving it more teeth. The penalty provisions include fines of up to $5,000 and removal of the local officials of concern from office by the governor.
The law also allows for the recovery of damages of up to $100,000 as well as court and attorney costs and fees for the prevailing party if someone successfully sues local governments over local gun laws.
The 2011 law was challenged in three separate lawsuits by 30 municipalities, three counties, and more than 70 local officials, with the argument that the penalties in the 2011 law were unconstitutional. The lawsuits came in the wake of the Parkland mass shooting in February 2018, which killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Then-Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, in a ruling in July 2019 that consolidated the three legal actions, found the 2011 law unconstitutional on a series of grounds.
“Because local governments must have what amount to small legislatures, and because courts cannot interfere in legislative processes, neither this court, nor any other court in Florida, can enforce the civil penalty provisions [of the law] against local legislators,” Dodson wrote in his order.
He also focused on how the Constitution may define the concept of “legislative immunity” and “government function immunity” that would protect local officials from penalties for making decisions in their official capacity.
His ruling didn’t affect the 1987 statute, which wasn’t challenged.
Kelsey, writing for the appellate panel, rejected the lower court ruling.
“We hold that the statutory penalty provisions disputed on appeal are valid and enforceable. Government function immunity does not shield entities that act contrary to or more restrictively than state law in the completely preempted field of firearm and ammunition regulation. Likewise, legislative immunity does not shield individuals who knowingly and willfully act contrary to or beyond the limits of state law,” she wrote.
She stated that the state Legislature is “authorized to enact general laws preempting all regulation in an area of the law.”
“As this case illustrates, the Legislature has exercised its preemption authority with respect to firearms and ammunition,” she said.
The NRA had filed an amicus brief (pdf) to the appeals court in support of Florida in the case. Amicus briefs were also filed in support of local entities that challenged the 2011 law: one brief (pdf) was filed by the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties, and another (pdf) was filed by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Brady gun-control group, and the League of Women Voters of Florida and Equality Florida Institute Inc.