South Florida cities sue state over right to regulate guns

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(CNN)Ten South Florida cities have filed a lawsuit challenging a law that gives the state of Florida the authority to regulate firearms and imposes strict penalties on local officials who pass their own gun laws.

In announcing the lawsuit Monday, the mayors of some of those cities said constituents demanded action after the February 14 massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland near Fort Lauderdale.
"We get phone calls every day, 'What are you going to do?' " MIramar Mayor Wayne Messam said at a news conference.
"This is about doing the right thing," Weston Mayor Daniel Stermer said. "If not now, when? If this tragedy wasn't enough in our own backyard, what has to happen to have something change?"
    The lawsuit was filed Monday in Leon County Circuit Court in Tallahassee, the state capital. Ten cities and 31 local officials joined the suit. The municipalities are Weston, Cutler Bay, Lauderhill, Miami Beach, Miami Gardens, Miramar, Pinecrest, Pompano Beach, South Miami and Coral Gables. Parkland is not a plaintiff.
    Gov. Rick Scott's office said Tuesday it was reviewing the lawsuit but had no further comment. State Attorney General Pam Bondi's office said it had not been served yet.
    CNN asked the National Rifle Association for comment but received no reply. The NRA is not a defendant in the suit, but some plaintiffs say the NRA promoted the law being challenged.
    The state law passed in 1987 says that "the Legislature hereby declares that it is occupying the whole field of regulation of firearms and ammunition ... to the exclusion of all existing and future county, city, town or municipal ordinances."
    Penalties were added in 2011. Municipal leaders who pass gun laws could be removed from office, fined up to $5,000 and sued personally for damages, said Jamie Cole, city attorney for the city of Weston and the lead attorney for the cities in the lawsuit. If they were sued, the local officials could not use public funds in their legal defense, Cole said.
    "The Legislature's stated intent in imposing these penalties was to chill and deter local governments from taking any action at all that might affect firearms," the lawsuit says.
    The mayors said they want the power to regulate guns in public spaces in their cities.
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    Messam noted that Miramar recently opened a 5,000-seat amphitheater but cannot prohibit people from bring guns inside.
    "In my own City Hall, somebody can walk in with a concealed weapon, and there's legally nothing I can do about it, nothing," Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said.
    Coral Gables considered a firearms regulation in February but got an email from an unnamed "guns rights organization" that threatened legal action if the law passed, the lawsuit says. The city backed off, the suit says.
    Some groups in Florida like the gun law, saying it creates uniformity and eliminates confusion.
    "Counties with 25 cities, it would be impossible to enforce" different ordinances, Mike Adkinson, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said in February. "It would be confusing." He's also the sheriff of Walton County, Florida.
    But Stermer said the law creates a "one-size-fits-all" system that doesn't really work in a state as diverse as Florida. South Florida is very urban, he said, whereas parts of northern and central Florida are rural. Those areas need different laws, he said.
    The mayors also complained that the state law infringes on their rights of free speech, plus their ability to govern.
    "It's not that it's an insult to public officials," Gelber said. "It tries to gag us. It tries to bind us, it tries to handcuff us from doing the fundamental purpose of government -- protecting our citizens -- and that's just wrong."
    Cole said the cities want the law struck down but are not seeking monetary damages or compensation for attorneys' fees. No hearing dates have been set, he said.
    The state law has been the subject of legal action in the past.
    When he was a Tallahassee city commissioner, Andrew Gillum was sued personally by gun advocates after voting against repealing an ordinance that banned shooting firearms in public parks. His defense costs were $200,000, but his attorneys worked pro bono.
    "Basically, they are suppressing local governments from pushing back, which has a chilling effect," Gillum said.
    The case ended in an appeals court ruling for Gillum, who is now the city's mayor, and other city commissioners. The courts did not reach a conclusion on whether the state statute was overreaching.
    The governor recently signed a law that raises the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21 from 18. The NRA immediately filed a lawsuit to stop the law.