TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Pushing back against arguments raised by Attorney General Ashley Moody and the National Rifle Association, gun-control supporters contend the Florida Supreme Court should sign off on a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at blocking possession of assault weapons.
The political committee Ban Assault Weapons NOW, the gun-control group Brady and a coalition of 13 cities filed briefs Friday saying that the proposal meets legal tests to go before voters. The Supreme Court must sign off on proposed constitutional amendments and looks at the wording of ballot titles and summaries --- the parts of amendments that voters see when they go to the polls.
Moody’s office, the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation filed briefs last month raising a series of objections to the proposed amendment, including the NRA taking issue with the term “assault weapons,” which it described as impermissible political rhetoric.
But the backers of the proposed amendment disputed such arguments in the briefs filed Friday and said the wording clearly informs voters about the intent of the measure. The proposal emerged after the February 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people.
“The intent of the sponsor and supporters, which include law enforcement and military veterans, is to prevent future tragedies by restricting the possession of the most lethal firearms that may be used to commit mass killings,” the Ban Assault Weapons NOW brief said. “The proposal specifically targets semiautomatic rifles and shotguns that are capable of accepting more than 10 rounds at once and does not include any firearms that do not meet the definition of an assault weapon.”
Ban Assault Weapons NOW has proposed placing the amendment on the November 2020 ballot, though it is unclear whether the committee can meet a February deadline for submitting 766,200 valid petition signatures to the state. As of Monday morning, it had submitted 124,683, according to the state Division of Elections website.
If it does not meet the signature deadline, the committee could try to put the proposal on the 2022 ballot. Backers of another amendment that seeks to expand Medicaid eligibility, for example, are seeking Supreme Court approval of their ballot wording but have already shifted their efforts to the 2022 election.
The Ban Assault Weapons NOW proposal calls for prohibiting “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.” The measure builds in certain exemptions, including for assault weapons legally owned before the ban would take effect, though those guns would face a registration requirement.
In their brief last month, attorneys for Moody argued that the ballot wording would not give an adequate explanation of the effects of the proposal.
“The proposed amendment is, in practical application, a ban on virtually all semi-automatic long guns. This is so because virtually all semi-automatic long guns --- either off-the-shelf or by virtue of broadly available accessories --- hold, or are ‘capable’ of holding, more than 10 rounds of ammunition,” Moody’s lawyers wrote. “The ballot summary does not disclose this effect, which Florida voters are unlikely to understand absent explanation.”
The NRA meanwhile, focused heavily on the term “assault weapons.”
“The amendment hides behind political rhetoric and a misleading ballot summary to coax voters into abridging their existing right under the Florida Constitution to keep and bear arms and criminalizing the most commonly owned rifles and shotguns in America,” lawyers for the gun-rights organization wrote.
But attorneys for Brady, formerly known as the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, wrote that assault weapons is a “neutral descriptor” and not political rhetoric.
“Not only is the history of the term ‘assault weapons’ much more complicated than is presented by opponents, that history is a red herring intended to distract from what is actually at issue --- that the term ‘assault weapons’ is currently widely used and understood by both voters and legislators to describe a particular category of semi-automatic long gun,” the brief said.
Also, supporters of the measure said its effects would be clear to voters.
“The proposal defines weapons with the most lethal characteristics. That purpose is clear and explicit to the voters,” the Ban Assault Weapons NOW brief said. “A reasonable voter can determine whether the possession of (a) particular weapon is prohibited or whether that particular weapon is exempt under the proposal. Further, the speculation about how many weapons will be banned ignores the exemption for currently possessed assault weapons that are registered.”