Florida AG seeks to block assault weapons ban ballot drive

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Arguing the proposed ballot language is “clearly and conclusively defective,” Attorney General Ashley Moody wants the Florida Supreme Court to block a proposed constitutional amendment that seeks to prevent possession of assault weapons.

Moody late Friday filed a document that is a first step in arguing before the Supreme Court, which reviews the wording of ballot proposals to make sure they are not misleading and meet other legal standards. The political committee Ban Assault Weapons NOW is trying to get the assault-weapons measure on the November 2020 ballot.

In part, Moody focused on a section of the proposed constitutional amendment that would define assault weapons as “any semiautomatic rifle or shotgun capable of holding more than ten (10) rounds of ammunition at once, either in a fixed or detachable magazine, or any other ammunition-feeding device.”

Moody wrote that the proposed amendment would “ban the possession of virtually every semi-automatic long-gun. To be included on the ballot, the sprawling practical effect of the amendment must be revealed in the ballot language. Because that effect is not revealed, the ballot language is deficient.”

But Gail Schwartz, who chairs the Ban Assault Weapons NOW committee, disputed Moody’s arguments.

“This bipartisan ballot measure has been vetted extensively by legal experts and is supported by hundreds of thousands of Floridians across the state,” Schwartz said in a statement Monday. “We are confident with our chances at the Supreme Court, and presented with the choice to do so, we are confident that the people of Florida will overwhelmingly support this common-sense measure to ban weapons of war to make our communities safer.” 

The possibility of banning of assault weapons has long been controversial in Florida, but it gained renewed attention last year after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people. State lawmakers have repeatedly rejected calls to ban the weapons, including after the Parkland school shooting.

Ban Assault Weapons NOW needs to clear two major requirements to get the proposal on the 2020 ballot. It needs the Supreme Court to sign off on the wording of the ballot summary and title --- the wording that voters see when they go to the polls --- and needs to submit at least 766,200 valid petition signatures to the state. As of Monday, the state had received 99,266 valid petition signatures, according to the Florida Division of Elections website.

It was not immediately clear Monday when the Supreme Court might hear arguments on the wording of the proposal.

The amendment would bar possession of assault weapons, though it includes exceptions such as for military or law-enforcement use.

Also, it includes what Moody describes as a “grandfathering provision” for people who had the weapons before the amendment would take effect. Those people, in part, would be able to retain possession if they register with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Registration records would be available to local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies “for valid law enforcement purposes but shall otherwise be confidential,” the text of the proposed amendment says.

In the document filed Friday with the Supreme Court, Moody contended that the ballot title and summary do not adequately explain issues related to grandfathering.

“Moreover, the ballot title and summary do not inform Florida's electorate that virtually every lawful owner of a semi-automatic long-gun will be forced to register with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, or that this registry would be available to all local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies,” Moody wrote. “Nor do the ballot title and summary state the time within which preexisting long-gun owners must register their firearms that meet the proposed amendment's definition of ‘assault weapon’ and avail themselves of the amendment's grandfathering provision.”

But Schwartz, the aunt of Parkland shooting victim Alex Schachter, accused Moody of “playing politics.”

“It’s not surprising that the attorney general is now openly opposing measures to protect families, playing politics with Floridians’ lives in order to appease the gun lobby,” Schwartz said. “Year after year, elected officials like Ashley Moody have done nothing on this issue, as more and more families like my own are forced to reckon with the loss of our loved ones due to military-grade assault weapons at Parkland, at Pulse (nightclub in Orlando), or at the next mass shooting.”