Florida Court of Appeal Invalidates Trigger-Lock Ordinance

March 2002

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In a opinion handed down on March 20, 2002, the Florida Court of Appeal for the 3rd District held the trigger-lock ordinance of the City of South “null and void” under Florida’s preemption statute. The lawsuit against the ordinance was brought by the NRA, Unified Sportsmen of Florida, and individual plaintiffs. The trial court dismissed the suit as “unripe” because no person had been prosecuted yet. The Court of Appeal reversed, not only deciding that the case is ripe for decision but also ruling on the merits that the ordinance is invalid.

The South Miami ordinance purported to require that every firearm, without exception, be stored with a trigger lock. No exception existed for firearms stored in a safe, antiques, or firearms kept accessible for self defense. Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth issued an opinion arguing that the ordinance was valid.

The NRA and other plaintiffs filed an action for a declaratory judgment that the ordinance is ultra vires because the legislature expressly preempted the entire field of firearm and ammunition regulation in Florida Statutes § 790.33, which states:

(1) PREEMPTION. – Except as expressly provided by general law, the Legislature hereby declares that it is occupying the whole field of regulation of firearms and ammunition, including the purchase, sale, transfer, taxation, manufacture, ownership, possession, and transportation thereof, to the exclusion of all existing and future county, city, town, or municipal ordinances or regulations relating thereto. Any such existing ordinances are hereby declared null and void.

. . . .

(3) POLICY AND INTENT. – (a) It is the intent of this section to provide uniform firearms laws in the state; to declare all ordinances and regulations null and void which have been enacted by any jurisdictions other than state and federal, which regulate firearms, ammunition, or components thereof; to prohibit the enactment of any future ordinances or regulations relating to firearms, ammunition, or components thereof unless specifically authorized by this section or general law; and to require local jurisdictions to enforce state firearms laws.

Quoting the above, the Court of Appeal noted its recent decision in Penelas v. Arms Technology holding that the legislature “has indeed expressly preempted the entire field of firearms and ammunition regulation.” That case dismissed Miami’s suit against firearms manufacturers based on the claim that firearms are subject to misuse by criminals.

Florida law provides that persons whose rights are affected by a municipal ordinance may challenge its validity and have their rights declared. The Florida Supreme Court has held that the provisions for declaratory judgement should be liberally construed so that rights can be declared before being violated and controversies may be resolved before more drastic relief becomes urgent.

Based on the above considerations, the Court of Appeal held:

Here we have various well-meaning litigants eye-ball to eye-ball across counsel table, the City wondering whether its ordinance has been preempted or whether it can enforce its own collective will over firearms, others wondering whether they are going to be illegally prosecuted by the City come next dove hunting season, and the Florida Attorney General wondering whether the judiciary will agree with his opinion on municipal regulation of firearms (AGO 2000-42). In light of these doubts and confrontations and in the liberal spirit of the Declaratory Judgment Act, we hold that this action is not premature and that the trial court erred in entering its final summary judgment for the City. We also hold that the City’s ordinance no. 14-00-1716 is null and void as it is in conflict with section 790.33, Florida Statutes.

The reference above to those “wondering whether they are going to be illegally prosecuted by the City come next dove hunting season” was made in reaction to NRA’s argument that the ordinance prohibited any access to firearms by minors. However, Florida law allows minors aged 16 and 17 to possess and transport firearms for hunting and target use. Any parent who allowed such a teenager to take the family car and shotgun dove hunting after school would have been in violation of the ordinance.

The Court concluded by reversing the decision of the trial court and remanding the case there for further proceedings consistent with the opinion, i.e., entry of a formal judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and against the City.

Oral argument in the appeal had taken place on February 28, and the decision was rendered in what must be a record time of 20 days. Stephen Halbrook argued the appeal on behalf of the NRA. Separate attorneys representing the City and the Attorney General argued in favor of the ordinance.

Similar trigger-lock ordinances were passed by other jurisdictions besides the City of South Miami. The decision of the Court of Appeal in this case makes clear that these ordinances are also void.