Florida citizen campaign to bring assault weapon ban before voters in 2020 is on track, organizers say

Students protest at the FL Capitol in 2018 after the Parkland school shooting tragedy. Julie Hauserman photo

Three days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law that makes it harder for citizen-led constitutional amendments to get on the ballot, the organizers behind a measure to ban assault weapons say they are on track to get a legal review from the Florida Supreme Court, the first step towards qualifying for the 2020 ballot.

“We won’t be deterred from saving lives and making our state a safer place to live,” said Gail Schwartz, whose nephew Alex Schachter was killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Schwartz is the chairwoman of Ban Assault Weapons Now! (BAWN), the group pushing for the 2020 ballot initiative.

“We have a large group of mobilized and motivated volunteers willing to help us collect the signatures,” she said.

Schwartz says her group has collected more than 103,000 signatures, breaking the threshold required to trigger a review of the proposed ballot language by the Florida Supreme Court.

However, the group still has a lot of work to do even if the high court approves the ballot language. BAWN will need to submit 766,200 valid petition signatures to the state Division of Elections office by next February to get on the November 2020 ballot.

That’s a formidable challenge that has become even harder since DeSantis signed a new law that, among other things, makes it illegal to pay petition gatherers based on the number of petitions they collect.

The law also requires that signed petitions be turned into county supervisors of elections within 30 days,  and imposes fines of up to $50 for each late submission.

Schwartz – who was part of a news conference this week – called the legislative proposal “sad.”

“I think it’s very unfortunate that they want to muzzle Florida citizens from conducting democracy and giving us a voice. It is going to make things harder and it is going to make things more expensive, but we are determined,” she said.

Seven states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia ban assault weapons. Congress passed a federal ban on assault weapons in 1994, but the ban expired in 2004 and has never been renewed by Congress, leading individual states to address the matter.

“It’s important to remember that people’s desire to be safe from the slaughter by assault weapons is stronger than the Legislature’s desire to limit citizen-led democracy,” added Boca Raton Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch. “Yes, it may be harder to collect petitions, but the desire to be safe is stronger than any of those roadblocks.”

Schwartz said that BAWN doesn’t have any “angel investors” but is working with a variety of groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, March For Our Lives and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence to work to get the necessary signatures by next year’s deadline.

Fred Wright, whose son Jerry Wright and 48 others were killed when a man opened fire with an assault-rifle in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub three years ago, is also working on the ballot initiative.

At the time his son Jerry was killed, the Pulse nightclub tragedy was considered the deadliest mass shooting by a single person in modern U.S. history. That record lasted until the fall of 2017, when a man in Las Vegas shot and killed 58 people at a country music concert.

Fred Wright said those two incidents, and the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, had something in common:  assault weapons.

“This is why I support BAWN,” Wright said. “Because enough is enough. Thoughts and prayers will not bring my son back. Nothing will. But I will work hard to keep all the families from having to endure the pain that we have to endure every single day.”

Democratic Congresswoman Val Demings, who made history when she was appointed to serve as Orlando’s first female chief of police in 2007, said she has personally seen the destruction from gun violence.

“Guns kill, but let me clear,” she said. “Assault weapons significantly increase the odds that death will be imminent, that the victims will die.”

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