A proposed ban on so-called assault weapons will not appear on the 2022 ballot in Florida, after the state supreme court issued a 4-1 decision stating that the language of the ballot initiative doesn’t meet the legal requirements to appear before voters. Organizers for the ban originally hoped to get the ballot before voters this fall, but failed to get enough signatures from Florida residents to qualify this year. The anti-gun campaigners then set their sights on the 2022 election, but the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody questioned the language in the initiative, and on Thursday a majority of justices on the court found that wording used by gun control advocates was indeed misleading to voters.
Thursday’s 4-1 decision focused on part of the ballot summary that said the initiative “exempts and requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to this provision’s effective date.”
The court majority, made up of Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muniz, said that provision “affirmatively misleads voters regarding the exemption” because of a contradiction with the broader text of the proposed constitutional amendment.
The contradiction involves whether the exemption would apply to weapons or to the people who possess the weapons. The distinction could be important, for instance, if a gun owner dies.
“Specifically, the next to last sentence of the ballot summary informs voters that the initiative ‘exempts and requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to this provision’s effective date’ … when in fact the initiative does no such thing,” the majority opinion said. “Contrary to the ballot summary, the initiative’s text exempts only ‘the person’s,’ meaning the current owner’s, possession of that assault weapon.”
The proposal “does not categorically exempt the assault weapon, only the current owner’s possession of that assault weapon,” the majority added.
Gun control groups claimed that the average voter in Florida would be able to understand the difference between the legal possession of the firearm, and the fact that the firearm itself would be illegal for anyone other than the current owner to possess. The justices on the state’s highest court didn’t buy the argument.
During oral arguments in February, Jon Mills, an attorney for Ban Assault Weapons NOW, said the exemption would apply to people who have the guns.
He said “possession is the continual issue. It does not make sense to say that a weapon lawfully possessed itself.”
But the ballot proposal “misleads voters to believe that any lawfully possessed assault weapons will continue to remain lawful,” the majority wrote.
“As the opponents argue, if an individual registers and attests to lawful possession of an assault weapon, and then lends, gifts, or leaves in a will that assault weapon to a family member or friend, then that family member or friend would be in criminal violation of the initiative —- a felony offense,” Thursday’s ruling said.
In other words, if the gun ban proposal actually became law, only existing owners of the banned guns would be grandfathered in, and the firearm could not be handed down to children or grandchildren, nor could it legally be sold to someone legally allowed to possess firearms.
Gun control advocates are taking the loss hard and blaming the court for being in the pocked of the “gun lobby.”
Gail Schwartz, the chairwoman of the political committee behind the proposal, is the aunt of Alex Schachter, who was among the students slain during the school shooting.
“The Supreme Court, now controlled by the NRA in the same way as our governor and our Legislature, has fundamentally failed the people of Florida,” Schwartz said in a prepared statement Thursday.
The court’s rejection of the amendment “does not change our commitment to rid Florida of these killing machines,” she added.
“After striving for two years for a safer state for our families, we’re just getting started,” Schwartz said.
But George Levesque, an attorney for the NRA, praised the Supreme Court decision.
“I think it is a huge victory for those who enjoy their 2nd Amendment rights,” Levesque sad. “But it is also a victory for the people of Florida, in terms of making sure that when they are asked to amend their Constitution, they are going to get an accurate description of what the amendment does.”
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorial board, meanwhile, went after Attorney General Ashley Moody for challenging the language of the ballot initiative in the first place.
Not only did the gun lobby ask the justices to reject the citizen’s petition drive, so did Attorney General Ashley Moody. She’s supposed to be the people’s lawyer, but she is arm-in-arm with gun manufacturers and others who believe the Second Amendment allows no limits on personal ownership of weapons of mass destruction.
Remember Moody the next time there’s a Florida dateline on news of a mass murder.
The paper’s reporters have done great work on covering the murders in Parkland, Florida and the failures of law enforcement that led to the attack, but the editorial board is off base with their attack on the Attorney General. Yes, she’s the people’s lawyer, and as such she wanted to make sure that the people weren’t being misled about something they might be voting on. That’s not a dereliction of duty. Quite the opposite.
Thursday, those who support sensible gun laws saw four justices engage in mischievous wordplay to deny the people an opportunity to vote on the issue.
It came down to a strained — and in our view discreditable — interpretation of 15 words in the initiative’s ballot summary.
Those words informed voters that the initiative “exempts and requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to this provision’s effective date.”
Aha, said the four justices, the amendment “does no such thing.” It exempts only “the current owner’s possession of that assault weapon.”
To most people, that would be a distinction without a difference.
Maybe to most non-gun owners it’s a distinction without a difference, but to those who actually own the firearms that the editorial would like to ban, the difference is a matter of complying with the law or committing a felony for transferring the firearm. I know that gun control advocates are often far more interested in putting laws on the books than they are in figuring out how to actually enforce them, but it’s ridiculous to assert that the details simply don’t matter.
Expect anti-gun advocates to go back to the drawing board and come up with new language for their gun ban proposal, but between the lack of interest from Florida voters and the judicial smackdown by the state Supreme Court, I’d say they already have two strikes against them.