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State Supreme Court Rejects Assault Weapons Ban

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a proposed constitutional amendment seeking to ban possession of assault-style weapons in the state does not meet the requirements to go for a public vote.

Supporters of the Ban Assault Weapons NOW initiative did not submit enough petition signatures to make it on this year’s ballot. In addition, they will need support from the Supreme Court in order to go before voters in 2022. The group began the initiative following the 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead.

Attorney General Ashley Moody, the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation opposed the amendment at the Supreme Court, while national gun-control groups such as Brady and numerous South Florida cities supported it.

The Supreme Court reviews initiatives to determine whether ballot titles and summaries meet legal requirements before getting on the ballot. However, the court does not decide on the merits of the initiatives.

Thursday’s 4-1 decision focused on part of the ballot summary that read the initiative “exempts and requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to this provision’s effective date.”

The court majority, comprised of Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muniz, said that provision “affirmatively misleads voters regarding the exemption” due to a contradiction within the text of the proposed amendment.

That contradiction revolves around whether the exemption would apply to weapons or to the people who possess those weapons. The distinction could be important in situations such as if a gun owner dies.

“Specifically, the next to last sentence of the ballot summary informs voters that the initiative ‘exempts and requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to this provision’s effective date’ when in fact the initiative does no such thing,” the majority opinion said. “Contrary to the ballot summary, the initiative’s text exempts only ‘the person’s,’ meaning the current owner’s, possession of that assault weapon.”

The proposal “does not categorically exempt the assault weapon, only the current owner’s possession of that assault weapon,” the majority added.

The justices rejected arguments by supporters that voters would automatically understand that owners’ possession of the firearms, and not the weapon, would be exempt.

However, during oral arguments last February, Jon Mills, an attorney for Ban Assault Weapons NOW, said the exemption would apply to people who have the guns.

He said “possession is the continual issue. It does not make sense to say that a weapon lawfully possessed itself.”

Still, the ballot proposal “misleads voters to believe that any lawfully possessed assault weapons will continue to remain lawful,” the majority wrote.

“As the opponents argue, if an individual registers and attests to lawful possession of an assault weapon, and then lends, gifts, or leaves in a will that assault weapon to a family member or friend, then that family member or friend would be in criminal violation of the initiative — a felony offense,” Thursday’s ruling said.

Justice Jorge Labarga disagreed with the majority, writing in his dissent that “the ballot summary clearly summarizes the content of the proposed amendment.”

The language objected to by the majority “is not affirmatively misleading,” Labarga wrote.

“In fact, the language is accurate, and the majority simply concludes that the language is insufficiently narrow,” he added. “The ballot title and summary provide fair notice and equip voters to educate themselves about the details of the initiative. Consequently, the initiative should be placed on the ballot.”

Gail Schwartz, the chairwoman of the political committee that is behind the proposal, is the aunt of Parkland student and victim Alex Schachter.

“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 prepared statement Thursday.

The court’s rejection of the amendment “does not change our commitment to rid Florida of these killing machines,” Schwartz continued. “After striving for two years for a safer state for our families, we’re just getting started.

On the other hand, George Levesque, an attorney for the NRA, praised the Supreme Court decision.

“I think it is a huge victory for those who enjoy their 2nd Amendment rights,” Levesque sad. “But it is also a victory for the people of Florida, in terms of making sure that when they are asked to amend their Constitution, they are going to get an accurate description of what the amendment does.”