An ongoing battle between local governments and the state over gun control has brought Monroe County into the mix. 

Last month, Monroe County Commission voted 4-1 in favor of joining Miami-Dade, Broward, and Leon counties in their lawsuit to overturn State Statute 790.33. The law not only disallows local city and county governments from legislating stricter gun control, but it also allows the removal of any city or county officials who attempt to do so. 

Even if local governments tried to pre-empt it in any way, they’d be in violation of the law. Public officials could be removed from their job, fined $5,000 and have no public funds for legal defense. 

“It’s not just about gun regulation; it’s home rule,” said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, who voted in favor of joining the other counties in the suit. “We are the only non-charter county who will have weighed in on this at all.”

The county commission’s interest in this issues stems from 2014, when Big Pine resident Doug Varrieur set up a gun range in his backyard. His range received so much local and national attention that it landed on major news outlets and shows such as “The Colbert Report.” The show visited his Big Pine Key residence to get a look at his gun range and interview neighbors who mainly spoke against it.

With a target mounted to a backstop, installed against a 12-foot-tall shed, Varrieur fired his weapon in the direction of a canal that boaters, kayakers and others used. Before he shoots, however, family members are near the canal to warn if any watercraft is approaching. 

One of the only state restrictions regarding recreational shooting on private residential property is that bullets cannot project over a road or a dwelling that’s occupied. Also, shots cannot be reckless or negligent. Not even noise ordinances could stop shooting from homes in residential neighborhoods. 

Varrieur was not the only example of a person trying the sensibilities of officials who believe in common sense gun control. He did, however, highlight the need for home rule.

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” said Carruthers, “and for local government, we should handle those issues.” She expressed disappointment in the dissenting vote, which was cast by Monroe County Mayor and Commissioner David Rice, who Carruthers said has previously voted in favor of local government control. “I was surprised at the lack of consistency supporting home rule.”

Rice said he supports the primary intent of the legal challenge, but not the secondary. The primary challenge centers on whether it is constitutional to penalize, or threaten to penalize, elected city or county officials with fines or suspension of office if they pass new gun laws.

 

“ … the Legislature hereby declares that it is occupying the whole field of regulation of firearms and ammunition, including the purchase, sale, transfer, taxation, manufacture, ownership, possession, storage, and transportation thereof, to the exclusion of all existing and future county, city, town, or municipal ordinances or any administrative regulations or rules adopted by local or state government relating thereto. Any such existing ordinances, rules, or regulations are hereby declared null and void.”

Florida State Statute 790.33

“What this is about is the constitutionality — whether we can be fined $5,000 or removed from office by the governor … little fun things like that,” said Rice. In other words, the state constitution outlines the many reasons officials can be removed from office, such as drunkenness, incompetence, or commission of a felony — but creating new, more restrictive laws about guns is not one of the reasons.

“Quite frankly, the issue of local control causes me to be sympathetic with the lawsuit because Tallahassee often creates ‘one size fits all’ solutions that don’t help us down here,” Rice said.

And yet, he said he’s looking down the line at what might happen if the challenge is successful. Then, he said, every local county and city government would be within its rights to create specific gun laws, creating a hodgepodge of laws that only exist within certain geographical boundaries. Rice cited a case in which an honorably discharged veteran was jailed after a traffic stop in New Jersey that revealed his grandfather’s shotgun stowed in the back of a moving van.

“I am not opposed to intelligent discussion and doing the best job that we can do to end gun violence,” Rice said, “But I am against putting otherwise innocent people in jail because we have created an unknowable mass of laws that trap them into a situation.”

The state statute 790.33 is otherwise known as the Joe Carlucci Uniform Firearms Act. Who was he? Carlucci was a New York transplant who spent a decade in Jacksonville city politics before going on to become a state legislator. Carlucci was a hunter and was named the National Rifle Association’s “Legislator of the Year” in the mid-‘80s.

With contributions from Sara Matthis and Sarah Thomas

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