2017 was a somewhat slow year when it came to Second Amendment issues, and while the year handed some victories to pro-gun groups, it also handed them several losses, with roadblocks all the way from Tallahassee to Washington, D.C.
Pro-gun groups didn’t make much headway in passing pro-gun legislation, nor did they taste victory in the legal system, but the groups didn’t back down and have vowed to press forward to expand Second Amendment rights despite the setbacks seen this year.
The Wrath of South Florida Republicans: Anitere Flores Edition
2016 was a notable year for gun legislation in Tallahassee primarily as a result of the influence of Miami Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who single-handedly killed off the National Rifle Association’s top legislative priorities (campus carry and open carry) when he refused to hear them in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In 2017, State Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, was the one who led the charge against pro-gun legislation. In March, Flores effectively said she wouldn’t support Sen. Greg Steube’s 10 gun proposals, which would have included airport carry, campus carry and open carry in Florida.
Flores, a key vote on the Judiciary Committee, vowed she wouldn’t support Steube’s 10 other bills, which means they would have had virtually no chance of making it onto the Senate floor.
“Throughout my personal, professional, and legislative career I have expressed concerns with the reduction of traditional gun-free zones,” Flores said. “This is not something new nor should it be a surprise to those who follow the legislative process.”
The National Rifle Association was furious over Flores’ action, vowing they wouldn’t be quick to forget Flores’ axing of the bills.
Glimmer of Hope for Gun Advocates: State Passes Burden of Proof Bill
In June, Florida officially shifted the burden of proof in "Stand Your Ground" cases, handing gun rights groups a long-awaited legislative victory in Tallahassee.
The new law gives defendants more protection from prosecution in “Stand Your Ground” cases by requiring prosecutors to prove whether a defendant is entitled to immunity at a pretrial hearing in order to disprove a claim of self-defense immunity.
The legislation flipped the responsibility onto the prosecutor to prove why a defendant shouldn’t be allowed to use the Stand Your Ground defense in court.
For years, Republicans tried to pass the measure but didn’t have much success until this year’s regular legislative session, when lawmakers finally passed the shift along party lines.
The proposal came on the heels of a Florida Supreme Court decision in 2016 which ruled defendants would be responsible for the burden of proof showing they shouldn’t be prosecuted in “Stand Your Ground” cases.
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, filed identical legislation during last year’s legislative session and initially, the bill’s future seemed promising.
The measure had a relatively easy time making its way through the Senate, but it did not fare as well in the House, where it stalled out in the House Justice Committee, flopping due to a 6-6 vote.
This year state reps pushed the bill through the Legislature once and for all. Rep. bobby Payne, R-Palatka spearheaded the bill in the House while Bradley once again sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
Miami Judge Rules ‘Burden of Proof’ Bill Unconstitutional; NRA Fires Back
In July, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch said Florida lawmakers overstepped their boundaries in shifting the burden of proof in "Stand Your Ground" cases, contending the responsibility to shift the burden of proof actually rests with the Florida Supreme Court rather than state legislators.
“As a matter of constitutional separation of powers, that procedure cannot be legislatively modified,” Hirsch wrote in a 14-page order.
Speaking exclusively with Sunshine State News, former NRA president and current Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer said Hirsch had crossed the line of a simple legal ruling into political territory -- all on his own accord.
“This is a whole new level of judicial activism,” Hammer told SSN. “Judge Hirsch made a unilateral decision to attack the constitutional authority of the Legislature to pass laws even though neither of the attorneys in the case asked him to rule on such an issue...this is just an activist judge who disagreed with the law so he decided to create issues that were not raised by either party.”
A spokesperson for Attorney General Pam Bondi said Bondi’s office would appeal Hirsch’s decision and the NRA is expected to follow suit.
U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Florida's Open Carry Appeal
The nation’s highest court didn’t give gun rights advocates a win in November when it refused to hear the appeal in the Dale Norman vs. Florida case following a lengthy legal battle which has weaved its way to Washington after several years.
In July, Florida Carry Inc. filed an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dale Norman vs. Florida case, which revolved around how Florida regulates concealed weapons permit holders and the accidental brandishing of firearms.
It all started in 2012 when Dale Norman was found guilty of a second-degree misdemeanor after his firearm accidentally became exposed outside of his house. Norman was walking down the street in Fort Pierce carrying his handgun, which was not covered by his clothing. When a passerby saw the gun, the police were called and Norman was arrested.
A lower court found Norman guilty of violating the state’s open carry ban, even though Norman had a concealed weapons permit for his handgun.
The court slapped Norman with a $300 fine and court costs, but the legal challenges didn’t end there.
Norman alleged state lawmakers were wrong in banning open carry because it requires people looking to defend themselves to first get a concealed weapons permit if they ever want to protect themselves while outside the four walls of their homes.
The state, on the other hand, believed that if open carry were to be legal, legislators would have already passed a bill allowing it.
The Norman case weaved its way through the court system until it was ultimately heard by the Florida Supreme Court last year, which backed the state in the appeal -- an action which caused Florida Carry and Norman to take the case all the way to the nation’s highest court, alleging Florida erred in its 30-year open carry ban.
A federal judge who denied the appeal had no further comment on the ruling.
Florida Carry said the ban on open carry goes against the spirit of America, which typically tends to support the right to bear arms.
“Traditionally this Court and the State courts have viewed the right to bear arms as categorically protecting the carrying of firearms openly,” the group wrote. “Florida and the other four States that generally ban open carry are outliers in conflict with American traditions.”
Gun Bills Silenced -- Once Again -- For 2018?
The Miami Republican delegation once again struck again -- this time early on -- for the 2018 legislative session when Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, said in a committee meeting earlier this month that he wouldn’t support pro-gun measures that didn’t address mental health issues.
The Senate Judiciary Committee considered three proposals in Tallahassee at the beginning of the month to expand either the presence of guns or the rights of gun owners in the Sunshine State.
One of the bills, SB 274, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would have allowed concealed carry permit holders to bring their firearms to church for protection. Two of the other bills, sponsored by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would have allowed gun owners to bring and check their firearms to courthouses in Florida and would have allowed for the inadvertent display of firearms.
All three measures failed in the committee, which narrowly rejected the proposals with the votes of Garcia and Flores, who sent pro-gun legislation to the boneyard earlier this year.
Steuebe, perhaps sensing a dead-end road, said he wouldn’t be pursuing more controversial gun measures like campus carry and airport carry, as a result.
“You saw what happened here,” Steube said at the meeting.
“We don’t view this bill as a gun bill,” said National Rifle Association lobbyist and former president Marion Hammer. “This is a private property right and it restores private property rights to churches, synagogues and other religious institutions and private schools. The keyword is private.”
Hammer went on to say she was glad members had voted on the measures -- since the NRA could go after lawmakers who they believed weren’t fully supporting Second Amendment rights.
“They've been outed, and now we can report it,” she said.
Reach reporter Allison Nielsen by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @AllisonNielsen.