Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum took on the gun lobby—and won—in a case whose stakes were ultimately narrow.
Back in January, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum appeared before a federal court to defend his city against a lawsuit brought forward by Florida Carry and the Second Amendment Foundation, two guns rights organizations. The groups sued the city in 2014, arguing that a pair of decades-old city laws banning the use of firearms in public parks violated state law—retroactively.
On Friday, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Tallahassee. The appellate court confirmed that it couldn’t compel the city’s government to repeal local ordinances that the city wasn’t enforcing anyway. It was a narrow ruling, however. The court also decided against Tallahassee’s counter-claim that parts of the state’s preemption law were unconstitutional.
Mayor Gillum is nevertheless claiming the decision as a victory against the gun lobby. “We Beat the NRA and You Can, Too,” reads the headline to his Medium post published on Tuesday. A closer look at the case shows that a larger battle between progressive cities and conservative states still looms.
The appeal in January focused on two questions. Florida Carry and the Second Amendment Foundation argued that the Tallahassee government had “promulgated” invalid local firearm ordinances. By declining to repeal its 1957 and 1984 rules from its city code—laws that predated the state’s 1987 statue preempting the entire realm of firearm regulations—and republishing the city code, the city was in essence reasserting its authority, the groups claimed. Another state law, passed in 2011, exposes local officials to penalties for enforcing preempted ordinances: penalties that gun-rights lobbyists wanted to see levied against Mayor Gillum and his Tallahassee cohort.
The case hinged on the definition of “promulgation” and whether that standard was met by Tallahassee’s decision to republish its city code (with void, preempted ordinances intact). Not quite, the appellate court ruled. Since the city had never enforced these rules, it wasn’t “promulgating” them by not deleting them. The court further ruled that it had no authority to force members of the City Commission to repeal preempted ordinances, even as it framed Tallahassee’s actions as churlish.
“While Appellants’ frustration with the City’s inaction and the individual Appellees’ unwillingness to engage in what some might describe as a simple task of repealing void ordinances is understandable, section 790.33(3)(f), as it currently stands, does not prohibit the re-publication or re-printing of the void ordinances,” reads the decision.
The appellate court demurred on the second question, Tallahassee’s counter-claim over the constitutionality of the state’s 1987 law preempting local governments from regulating the use of firearms. The trial court originally decided that, since Tallahassee hadn’t done any promulgating and its officials therefore weren’t subject to any penalties, local leaders’ constitutional rights weren’t trampled on. The appellate court confirmed that decision.
So Florida’s “super-preemption” law, as Mayor Gillum describes it, still stands. That means that the battle he took up by launching the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions—a nonpartisan coalition of local leaders fighting what they see as state interference—isn’t over, even if this case (likely) is. (Florida Carry did not immediately return a request for comment.)
“I'm disappointed that the courts have failed to rule on the constitutionality of these tactics,” Mayor Gillum says in an email. “We will be reviewing our legal options to best protect the ability for our citizens to decide local solutions to local issues."
Other fights over firearms are brewing in Florida. A state lawmaker has proposed a bill that would allow concealed carry in airport terminals, an idea opposed by the Florida Airports Council, which represents 19 commercial airports and 75 general airports. A “lawmaker carry” bill could even put guns in the state Capitol when the legislature begins its session in March. “[C]ertain gun-loving legislators believe the biggest issues facing Floridians are the restrictions on where people can carry guns,” reads an editorial in the Sun-Sentinel.
It’s important to distinguish what’s at stake from what isn’t in cases such as Florida Carry v. City of Tallahassee. The city isn’t arguing for the right to pass firearm laws that reflect the needs of city residents as opposed to those of rural populations and their representatives. The actual legislative issue here is moot. Tallahassee is not arguing for positive rights, but rather against penalties for refusing to take symbolic actions to shore up the state’s support for lax gun rules. In this case, the city eked out a victory, but the stakes were always narrow.