The court said the ballot summary is misleading to voters.
Saying its ballot summary is misleading to voters, the Florida Supreme Court has rejected a constitutional amendment banning assault weapons from the November 2022 statewide ballot.
“This misleading language violates” Florida law that requires clear and unambiguous language, the court said in its 9-page advisory opinion issued Thursday.
Jorge Labarga, the only dissenter among the court’s current five justices, disagreed: “The ballot title clearly communicates the chief purpose of the Initiative, and the ballot summary clearly summarizes the content of the proposed amendment.”
Attorney General Ashley Moody sought the court’s opinion almost a year ago, on July 26, on whether the initiative by the group Ban Assault Weapons Now met the tests for placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
The crux of the argument was if the language exempted a legally registered assault rifle, or just its owner, and whether such a weapon would be banned once it changed ownership.
The National Rifle Association and National Shooting Sports Foundation submitted briefs along with Moody opposing the initiative.
“That’s a great victory for Florida’s law-abiding gun owners,” said Marion Hammer, a longtime gun-rights lobbyist who has represented the NRA before the Florida Legislature. “Supporters of the initiative used deceptive language to try to trick voters into believing it would have done one thing, while in fact it would have done much more.”
The initiative’s sponsor, Ban Assault Weapons Now, was supported by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, TEAM Enough and several Florida cities.
BAWN Chairwoman Gail Schwartz, whose son was killed in the Parkland high school massacre, said the Supreme Court’s rejection of the initiative doesn’t change her group’s commitment to getting rid of assault weapons in Florida.
“The Supreme Court, now controlled by the NRA in the same way as our Governor and our Legislature, has fundamentally failed the people of Florida,” Schwartz said in a news release. “Not only has the Legislature recently made it harder to pass ballot initiatives, now the people must also face a court of right-wing ideologues who will only approve initiatives they agree with politically.”
The organization failed to get enough signatures to meet the deadline to get the amendment on the 2020 ballot but got enough to trigger Supreme Court review. The organization reset its sights for 2022; it now has nearly 175,000 valid signatures.
The sponsors would need to throw out all those signatures and start the entire process over if it wanted to get a redrafted initiative on the ballot.
The initiative, if approved by 60% of voters, would have added a lengthy definition of the type of weapons that citizens would be prohibited from purchasing to the state constitution.
The court addressed only the issue of whether the ballot summary is misleading, saying it “fails (because it) … because the meaning of the text of the ballot summary does not accurately describe the meaning of the Initiative’s text.”
Specifically, the next to last sentence tells voters that the initiative exempts and requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to the effective date of the amendment. But the court said it only exempts the current owner’s possession of that assault weapon.
Ban supporters said the voters would understand the assault weapon itself would not be exempt, just the owner, but the court rejected that argument: “The initiative contemplates the eventual criminalization of the possession of assault weapons, even if the assault weapon itself was lawfully possessed and registered prior to the Initiative’s effective date.”
In his dissent, Labarga countered that the “language with which the majority takes exception — ‘[e]xempts and requires registration of assault weapons lawfully possessed prior to this provision’s effective date’ — is not affirmatively misleading. In fact, the language is accurate….”
Bill Cotterell contributed to this report. Contact Jeff Schweers at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
This story originally published to theledger.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network – Florida.