Justices on Florida’s highest court questioned Tuesday whether a proposed ballot initiative to restrict assault weapons is too confusing for voters. Justices worried that voters might be confused about what happens to such a firearm when the legal owner dies.
The Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments about a proposed citizens’ initiative to amend the state constitution to ban assault weapons. Those arguing against it – including the state’s Republican attorney general – said its language was ambiguous and voters would be confused about its scope. Groups supporting the initiative said the initiative’s meaning is clear.
This initiative was originally proposed for the 2020 ballot, but it failed to get the required 766,200 signatures by Saturday’s deadline, falling far short with 147,304. Supporters said they would try again in 2022.
The court’s advisory opinion in this case was expected to influence whether organizers rewrite the ballot proposal, or keep the same wording for 2022.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who asked for the opinion, said voters would be confused by the meaning and ramifications of the proposal.
Her office, the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation argued against the initiative. Those defending the initiative included Ban Assault Weapons Now, Brady Team Enough and a coalition of 13 Florida municipalities.
Critics said the ballot summary did not clarify that currently owned assault weapons, which can be legally registered under the amendment, would no longer be legal after the owner dies.
George Levesque, who represented the NRA, said the summary appeared to allow assault weapons to be passed down to heirs, but the language in the amendment would have banned the practice.
Jon Mills, a former University of Florida law-school dean who represents Ban Assault Weapons Now, argued that voters would understand that the only person who could register the weapon would be someone who possessed it before the provision takes effect.
Justice Ricky Polston agreed with Levesque, saying that not allowing inheritance of the weapon is “contrary” to what the summary says. Chief Justice Charles Canady said the “natural understanding” is that assault weapons would be exempt if they were registered.
“I don’t know how anybody would get an idea from that that when that person dies it is no longer legal,” Canady said.
James Percival, who argued for the attorney general, also said the definition of assault weapons was not clear because there are add-ons that can change the characteristics of a gun.
The initiative defines assault weapons as semi-automatic rifles or shotguns capable of accepting 10 or more rounds of ammunition. Percival said a rifle that might be lawful under the ban could become illegal if a larger ammunition magazine were used. Some popular magazines can carry 30 or more rounds.
Both sides on the gun rights issue are closely watching the case.
Chris Wagoner, a Gainesville law enforcement trainer and firearms instructor, said an assault weapons ban would infringe on one of the only rights that allows individuals to protect themselves. He said the proposed amendment would violate the Second Amendment.
Kelly Sampson, an attorney for Brady Team Enough, said assault weapons allow shooters to “wreak havoc,” when compared to the one or two shots usually fired in self defense during home shootings. There are ways for people to defend themselves without using an assault weapon, she said. She said the ballot initiative would allow citizens, not lawmakers, to determine whether assault weapons should be banned.
Alina Alvarez, the secretary of Never Again UF, said the group was not trying to ban guns like hunting rifles and handguns, but instead attempting to add measures that could save lives. Never Again UF is a chapter of March for Our Lives, which was created by victims of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 people were killed by a former student on Valentines Day.
Alvarez, who grew up in Parkland, said the assault weapons ban would be fair because it would not force those who already own such weapons to sell them back to the state. She said no one should have to go through the horrors that those in Parkland experienced to realize that there should be measures in place to prevent more shootings.
Gun rights advocate Jack Pickett, co-owner of Pickett Weaponry in Newberry, said violent crime would not decrease as a result of the ban. He said those who aim to kill would switch to a new weapon if assault weapons were banned.
“You can’t legislate morality,” he said.
Pickett said there were other ways to prevent violent crime. He said when a minor commits a violent crime using a parent’s weapon, parents should be punished for allowing a child access to the gun. He also said punishments should be harsher for those who commit violent crimes, which would deter more criminals.