Assault weapons: Will FL lawmakers ban “the most lethal weapons in our society?”

Potential buyers try out guns which are displayed on an exhibitor's table during the Nation's Gun Show on Nov. 18, 2016 at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. | Alex Wong, Getty Images

Prohibiting military-style assault weapons in Florida appears to be out of the picture this year, with advocates unable to get enough signatures to place a Constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot.

Now, the advocacy groups are focusing their hopes on legislation in the Florida Legislature that would require background checks and other requirements for firearms sold at public places, such as gun shows and flea markets.

The legislation, SB 7028, has received bipartisan support, said Beth DuMond, a volunteer for the gun violence prevention organization, Moms Demands Action.

“We are not an anti-gun group, we support responsible gun ownership,” DuMond told the Florida Phoenix. “We know lawmakers can come together and recognize the common-sense laws; we are hopeful.”

Whether that will happen is unclear – anti-gun legislation thus far hasn’t moved much in the Florida House and Senate during the 2020 legislative session. The session ends in mid-March.

Meanwhile, advocates for banning assault weapons say they will continue the fight.

Ban Assault Weapons Now, the organization sponsoring the petition, say that all signatures collected for the 2020 ballot proposal will be applied to the 2022 ballot.

The original petition “prohibits possession of assault weapons, defined as semiautomatic rifles and shotguns capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition at once, either in fixed or detachable magazine, or any other ammunition-feeding device. Possession of handguns is not prohibited.”

That petition also “exempts military and law enforcement personnel in their official duties. Exempts and requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to this provision’s effective date. Creates criminal penalties for violations of this amendment.”

Currently, only a handful of states ban certain assault weapons, according to the BAWN organization.

Despite the group’s inability to get enough signatures, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday held oral arguments about the petition, with proponents arguing to leave the Constitutional amendment that would ban assault weapons in the hands of the voters.

“Despite the best efforts of the NRA (National Rifle Association) and politicians in Tallahassee to place obstacles in our path, we will continue our fight to save lives by working hard to ensure voters have the final say over their safety in 2022,” Gail Schwartz, chairwoman Ban Assault Weapons Now (BAWN), said in a statement.

She is the aunt of Parkland victim Alex Schachter, one of 17 students and staff killed in a mass shooting in February 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County.

“Hundreds of thousands of Floridians from across the state are behind this critical movement and it’s up to us to make sure we succeed where our so-called ‘leaders’ have repeatedly failed,” said Schwartz.

At the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday, lawyers for the Florida attorney general and the NRA argued over the language and text in the ballot summary, noting an “inconsistency of the text” that could mislead voters.

“The average voter is going to be confused and unlikely to understand the nature of the ban,” an NRA lawyer said.  And the term assault weapon was considered too ambiguous, according to the lawyers opposing the petition.

But Justice Carlos Muñiz responded by saying “assault weapon is defined in the ballot summary.

BAWN members, advocates of the Constitutional amendment, and families affected by gun violence, spoke to reporters at the Florida Supreme Court following the oral arguments.

“We are confident that this amendment presents a clear, common-sense question to voters, as to whether they want to ban dangerous weapons in Florida and keep our communities safe,” said Jon L. Mills, constitutional lawyer and former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

Dan Oates, a former Miami Beach police chief said:

“As we told the court this morning, this amendment clearly and narrowly targets the most lethal weapons in our society, the ones that kill and maim so many people so quickly. I have worked in law enforcement my whole life. I have seen how these weapons can devastate communities, rip apart families, and make it so much harder for our police to protect the innocent.

Very simply, this is a common-sense amendment that will make Floridians safer – and without infringing on any constitutional rights. This is among the most important public policy questions of our time. The voters should decide. Why is it that the gun lobby and the Attorney General are so afraid of trusting the democratic process?”

Schwartz said: “Over a year ago, I lost my wonderful nephew Alex in a senseless mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Since then, we have seen a mass shooting occur in our country on a seemingly weekly basis, with the common denominator being the types of deadly weapons used.

We are confident that ultimately, the families affected by these weapons of mass destruction will be able to decide directly on the amendment, and not the NRA gun industry lobby and the politicians paid by them.”