FL Supreme Court kills proposed constitutional amendment to ban assault weapons

Students and alumni from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, parents, and Parkland residents march together for the March For Our Lives protest in Parkland on March 24, 2018. Credit: rmackman via Wikimedia Commons

Conservatives on the Florida Supreme Court disqualified a proposed assault-weapon ban for a place on the ballot Thursday, ruling that the ballot summary circulated by a group including survivors of the Parkland shooting would mislead voters.

The ruling was a victory for Attorney General Ashley Moody, who asked the court to decide whether the ballot summary would mislead voters. Also opposed were the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The group Ban Assault Weapons Now — led by a number of political leaders plus survivors of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and relatives of some of the 17 people killed — was behind the proposal.  Also in favor were the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Team Enough, a youth-oriented gun-control organization.

Proponents have collected 174,564 signatures thus far — enough to merit the court’s review under the rules governing proposed constitutional amendments but well short of the 766,200 needed to land on the ballot.

But the Florida Supreme Court killed the proposed amendment.

“The ballot summary informs voters that registered assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to the initiative’s effective date are exempt from the scope of the initiative altogether, which misleads voters to believe that any lawfully possessed assault weapons will continue to remain lawful,” the court said in an unsigned opinion.

“However, the Initiative contemplates the eventual criminalization of the possession of assault weapons, even if the assault weapon itself was lawfully possessed and registered prior to the Initiative’s effective date.”

The proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution would, in fact, allow people to keep assault weapons already in their possession, but they’d have a year to register them with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

However, “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,” the court said.

Joining the ruling were Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson, and Carlos Muñiz. John Couriel, placed on the court only last week by Gov. Ron DeSantis, did not participate. Since entering office, the governor has cemented conservative control of the court through his appointments.

Renatha Francis, another DeSantis appointee, won’t join the court until September, when she will have belonged to the Florida Bar for the required 10 years.

Justice Jorge Labarga dissented, writing that the court has never demanded that the ballot summaries, which are limited to 75 words, offer a comprehensive description of what an initiative would do.

The language at issue, he wrote, “is not affirmatively misleading. In fact, the language is accurate, and the majority simply concludes that the language is insufficiently narrow.”

The proposal would have amended the Florida Constitution as follows:

“The possession of an assault weapon, as that term is defined in this subsection, is prohibited in Florida except as provided in this subsection. This subsection shall be construed in conformity with the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court.”

It defines the weapons as “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.”