TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Supreme Court is blocking an assault weapons ban from going to voters in 2022, saying in a Thursday ruling that the ballot summary is deceptive because it doesn't clearly state that a grandfathering clause applies to the owner, not the gun itself.
A group called Ban Assault Weapons Now sponsored the proposed constitutional amendment, inspired by the mass shooting at a Parkland high school that left 17 people dead. It would have banned the possession of any semiautomatic rifle or shotgun capable of holding more than ten rounds of ammunition.
The amendment language would have made an exception for anyone who already lawfully owned an assault weapon as long as they registered it with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
But the court in a 4-1 opinion said the ballot summary was misleading because it said weapons lawfully possessed before the initiative was passed would be exempted.
The court ruled that voters would be deceived because the initiative wouldn't have protected the weapon itself, but rather the person who lawfully owned it. In other words, people who legally owned a weapon wouldn't be able to sell it or give it to someone else.
“While the ballot summary purports to exempt registered assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to the Initiative’s effective date, the Initiative does not categorically exempt the assault weapon, only the current owner’s possession of that assault weapon. The ballot summary is therefore affirmatively misleading,” the court wrote in its opinion.
Volunteers hang banners around the perimeter of Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Fla., to welcome back students who will be returning to school Wednesday two weeks after the mass shooting that killed 17 students and staff. (Associated Press)
Justice Jorge Labarga disagreed with the majority, and said the 75-word limit on the ballot summary can't provide every detail of the entire initiative. But he said the language was clear.
“The ballot title and summary provide fair notice and equip voters to educate themselves about the details of the Initiative,” Labarga wrote. “Consequently, the Initiative should be placed on the ballot.”
If the language was approved and group had gathered enough petitions to place it on the ballot, it would have needed 60% voter approval to pass,
The ruling prompted a strong reaction from Ban Assault Weapons now. The group is chaired by Gail Schwartz, whose 14-year-old nephew Alex Schachter was killed during the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Valentine's Day 2018.
“The Supreme Court, now controlled by the NRA in the same way as our Governor and our Legislature, has fundamentally failed the people of Florida," Schwartz said in a news release. “Not only has the Legislature recently made it harder to pass ballot initiatives, now the people must also face a Court of rightwing ideologues who will only approve initiatives they agree with politically.”
The state had certified about 175,000 of the more than 766,000 voter signatures needed to place the proposal on the ballot. But since the petitions used the language the court says is invalid, the group can’t simply tweak the ballot summary. It would have to start over.
Attorney General Ashley Moody opposed the ballot initiative, as did the National Rifle Association, which hired a legal team to fight it.
“We are pleased with the Court’s ruling. It is extraordinarily important that when a voter steps into the voting booth, they know what they are voting on,” said Moody spokeswoman Lauren Cassedy.
The group that launched the initiative raised about $2 million in the effort to get it on the 2022 ballot, including more than 300 donations from Parkland residents. The group Americans for Gun Safety Now contributed at least $260,000 to the effort, but a spokeswoman said it had no comment because it wasn't involved in the legal proceedings.