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Florida group pushes assault weapons ban for November 2020 ballot

AR-15. (Michael Guio/Flickr)

The weapons used to kill 31 people in El Paso and Dayton may be illegal to possess in Florida by the end of 2020.

A proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban “assault weapons” — defined as semi-automatic rifles and shotguns capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition at once — will appear on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot if it collects the required petition signatures and survives challenges from opponents.

“I feel that we are living in a constant state of fear,” said Al Hoffman Jr., a North Palm Beach resident and a major Republican donor who formed the bipartisan group Americans for Gun Safety Now to push for the gun-control legislation. “We are just for waiting for the next mass shooting to occur if we don’t take actions into our own hands. How many more shootings will it take?”

Among the firearms that would be outlawed in Florida is the AK-47-style weapon used by a 21-year-old man to kill 22 people Saturday afternoon at a Walmart in El Paso. The measure also would ban the AR-15 used to gun down 17 students and staffers at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Valentine’s Day 2018.

“To have that level of weaponry in a civilian environment, unregulated, is problematic,” Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said at a news conference Monday.

Floridians generally agree, according to polling done last year by FAU’s Business and Economics Polling Initiative. Immediately after the Stoneman Douglas mass shooting, 69 percent of those queried said they supported prohibiting assault weapons. By October, backers of a ban had fallen to just under 43 percent but were still comfortably ahead of those opposed to the amendment.

But at least one major state official is not on board.

Last Friday, Attorney General Ashley Moody asked the state Supreme Court to block the ballot initiative because the language in the legislation was “deficient” and would mislead voters. Moody argued that voters are unaware the amendment would outlaw “virtually every firearm” including “guns like the gun my grandfather gave my father and his brother when they were 9 and 10, 60 years ago.”

The proposed amendment would not prohibit the possession of handguns. Military and law-enforcement personnel would be exempted while on official duty and those already in possession of assault weapons would get to keep them under a grandfather provision as long as they registered the guns.

If the amendment becomes law, those in violation could be charged with a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

Seven states — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — and the District of Columbia have enacted laws banning assault weapons, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

A federal law adopted in 1994 to ban assault weapons included a sunset provision that caused the law to expire in 2004.

Jim Tooker, chairman of the Friends of the NRA in Palm Beach County, says a Florida ban on semiautomatics and shotguns would affect only law-abiding citizens because a third-degree felony charge will not deter those with the intention of inflicting harm on a large scale.

The 19-year-old man who killed three people in Gilroy, Calif., on July 28 during an outdoor festival bought the AK-47-style rifle he used in neighboring Nevada — where assault weapons are legal to purchase — and then carried it illegally into California, which has among the toughest gun-control laws in the country.

Opponents of the amendment say a ban can’t stop a Florida resident from buying an assault rifle by crossing into Georgia, ranked by the online publication Guns & Ammo as the nation’s 10th-best state for gun owners in 2018. Florida was No. 23.

“It will do nothing to increase safety,” said Tooker, 71, who is a certified firearms instructor. “It just makes no sense because people with evil intents are going to do it anyway. They’re going to find some way to do it whether it’s long guns, hand guns, knives, explosives — they’re going to find a way to hurt people. Evil is evil.”

Hoffman, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman and U.S. ambassador to Portugal, announced last year that he was cutting off donations to candidates who did not support an assault-weapons ban and formed Americans for Gun Safety Now, whose stated aim is “real reform, protections and changes to our nation’s gun laws.”

“How can we ensure the safety of every American from the threat of assault weapons if not every state has a ban?” Hoffman said.

As of July 29, the state reported supporters had collected nearly 100,000 of the 766,200 valid petition signatures required to place the amendment on the 2020 ballot.

Kevin Wagner, a professor of political science at FAU, compares the assault weapons ban proposal to a voter-approved constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in 2016. State politicians strongly opposed the medical marijuana provision, but it was approved by 71 percent of the electorate, well above the 60 percent required by law.

The same scenario could take place in November 2020, according to Wagmer.

Sarah Lerner, a teacher at Stoneman Douglas High School, said she supports any law “that will make America safer.” Lerner authored “Parkland Speaks,” a collection of photography, poems, artwork and essays from students who survived the mass shooting on Feb. 14, 2018.

Keeping those children safe, Lerner said, requires a multipronged approach that includes universal background checks and voting out lawmakers who don’t push for “common sense gun reform.”

“Banning high-capacity weapons is a step, but isn’t the whole answer.” Lerner said. “We need to do something major, so that parents don’t feel a need to buy bulletproof backpacks for their children.”


© 2019 The Palm Beach Post