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Lawsuit Led By Broward City May Transform Rules On Enacting Local Gun Laws

As the city of Weston's Monday commission meeting clocked out early the next morning, City Attorney Jamie Cole discussed updates on a lawsuit that could potentially change the course of gun legislation statewide. 

It’s been over a year since a coalition of Florida cities joined forces in a lawsuit against the state of Florida. That suit is in response to a 2011 state law that punishes local government officials for approving gun legislation. 

Led by Weston, about 30 Florida cities filed the suit in the wake of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre.

It challenges the NRA-backed law that allows the Florida governor to remove officials for bringing gun legislation onto local agendas. Those officials would also be subject to up to $5,000 in fines and personal lawsuits.

In July, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ruled in favor of the nearly 30 cities and a handful of counties that banded together.

"Basically the judge invalidated all of the penalties," Cole said.

"So the $5,000 personal penalty, the potential removal from office, as well as the potential damage claims against cities for up to $100,000 dollars were all invalidated based on legislative immunity, governmental function immunity and the improper expansion of the governor's removal power under the Florida Constitution."

The state immediately appealed the decision, leaving the current preemption law and the threat of punishment of city officials like Weston Mayor Daniel Stermer.

"The appeal does a stay of the decision, which means that all of the potential penalties are still in place," Cole said. 

"So as far as doing anything at this point, you would still be at the same risk as you were before the lawsuit." 

Earlier this month, Stermer spoke on WLRN's The Florida Roundupabout the possibility of his expulsion from office if he tried to bring up gun control measures. 

"It won't deter me," he said. "I have prepared an ordinance last year and I'm prepared to bring forth another one."

The city of Coral Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli is another South Florida official inspired by the lawsuit's growing impact and national attention. If the Weston-led lawsuit is victorious, he has said he plans to sponsor a law that would put a citywide ban on assault rifles. 

But Cole said it could take many more months of negotiations before the lawsuit makes any more track. Until then, city officials still face the risk of penalties. 

"Even with an expedited briefing schedule we would anticipate it's still probably six to eight months before a decision from the first district court of appeals," he said. 

Weston commissioners also voted to move forward with filing a brief with the Florida Supreme Court to support a proposed ballot question that would ban assault weapons.

Gun control organization like Ban Assault Weapons Now!led the effort to gather enough signatures to trigger a state Supreme Court review of the ballot question. If it goes through, Florida voters would decide on the November 2020 ballot whether to amend the Constitution.

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Under a Missouri School of Journalism fellowship, I spent my last college semester in New York City editing and producing videos for Mic, an innovative news startup in One World Trade Center. After late nights of deadlines, finessing video pieces, bonding with coworkers and experimenting with editing techniques, I produced and filmed my own mini-documentary focusing on evolving Mic video strategies.