Florida Assault Weapon Measure Puts Freedom In the Crosshairs

Relatively little will change in our personal lives as the result of most elections. While I strongly supported Trump in 2016, the Democrats will survive the Trump years, just as I survived Obama.

The same is not true with respect to all ballot measures, however. And for a misleading “assault weapon ban” that may be appear on the Florida ballot in 2020, it’s especially not true. If the measure passes, it would affect millions of Floridians.

Among other things, the law would ban the transfer of so-called assault weapons and require those in existence to be registered. Noncompliance would be considered a felony.

One of the criticisms of the 1994 Brady Bill and similar assault weapon bans was that they had numerous loopholes. Collapsible stocks or bayonet lugs rendered a weapon a prohibited “assault weapon,” even as functionally identical weapons with cosmetic changes would pass muster. In almost every case, those who already owned such weapons were “grandfathered.” In the case of the federal ban, pre-ban weapons and high capacity magazines could be freely traded and exchanged during the law’s existence, although the finite supply pushed prices upward.

These compromises were typical of politics. They permitted the legislators to preen for the cameras that they were “doing something,” while preventing the impractical and controversial work of confiscation. Crime was almost entirely immune to these measures. Then as now, bad guys broke the law. Criminals pay little mind to gun control laws. Law-abiding gun owners mostly grumbled and complied, using their existing weapons for recreation or, when necessary, buying aesthetically hideous compliant firearms.

The federal assault weapon ban had its “sunset” in 2004. During the Obama years, no one seriously pushed for its renewal, particularly at the national level. Clinton’s Brady Bill law was widely blamed for tipping the balance in favor of George W. Bush in the 2000 elections. What was once thought to be a wedge issue to peel off suburban moms from the Republican coalition ended up being a liability for Democrats.

Gun Control Is Becoming Fashionable Again
Because our country has a great deal of regional variation, there have been efforts to impose even stricter gun control laws at the state level. While these laws do little good even on their own terms—there are millions of guns already in circulation, and they can be easily bought on the black market and in neighboring states—these measures allow politicians to pretend they’re doing something, and they also serve to harass the people whom the ruling class hates and fears.

When confined to certain left-leaning states such as New York and California, they do not have the same disastrous impact on Democrats’ electoral prospects as they would nationally.

Unlike legislature-driven measures, referenda do not require the same give-and-take required to assemble a political coalition, where single-issue voters can signal intensity and protect their interests. Citizen initiatives rise or fall on their merits, reflecting a snapshot view of voters on a single issue.

Florida’s constitution highly favors citizen initiatives. A mere 8 percent of voters—750,000 signatures—can petition to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. When any initiative finally goes up for a vote, it must be approved by 60 percent of voters. Last year, rather significantly, a Florida ballot measure extended the right to vote to convicted felons.

Gun control does not always fare well in referenda. Americans have some pro-gun views—concealed carry appears universally popular—but background checks are popular, and assault weapons are controversial. The Florida initiative began with the Parkland shooting, itself following on the heels of the Pulse Nightclub and Las Vegas outdoor concert shootings. Each of these horrendous mass murders caused understandable frustration and anger.

Diverse Electorate, Uncertain Prospects
California imposed an assault weapon ban, as well as other restrictions on large capacity magazines and ammunition sales, in a 2016 ballot proposal. California voters approved the measure by 63 percent. One might think California’s law is just a function of notoriously kooky California, a very different place from Republican-controlled Florida. This is too complacent. Florida does have something of a gun culture, leading the way nationwide with “shall issue” concealed carry in 1987. Today 2 million Floridians—nearly 10 percent% of the population—have concealed carry permits.

But in 1990 and 1998, Florida voters imposed a statewide handgun waiting period and permission for localities to impose broader waiting periods with 84.5 percent and 72 percent of the electorate, respectively. People’s views on guns vary depending on the proposal in question, as well as their understanding of it. In the case of the proposed assault weapon ban, extensive propaganda in favor of the law is guaranteed. The recent disarray at the NRA also increases the “x-factor” far beyond the comfort zone.

Florida is a mixed state with hybrid culture. As I noted elsewhere, “Florida was and remains a peculiar place. For a long time, it was the only state in the union in which the majority of residents were born out-of-state. . . . a mélange of transients, newcomers, retirees, and people starting over, each reflecting the various regional cultures from their states of origin.” Because of Florida’s cultural mix and the controversial place of so-called assault weapons even among people otherwise averse to gun control, it is not clear how this will play out if it goes on the ballot. 

Notably, the head of the organization promoting this measure, Gail Schwartz, has a tragic connection to the Parkland shooting. Her nephew was killed at Parkland, a suburb located in Florida’s “cultural North,” which happens to be in South Florida. Many of the donors to her PAC are from out of state, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Americans for Gun Safety (which donated $100,000) and New York hedge fund manager and Democratic mega-donor, Donald Sussman (who donated $75,000). You can look it all up here.

Don’t read too much into Trump’s 2016 victory in Florida. Many issues were at play in the campaign beyond gun rights. In spite of the Sunshine State’s “gun culture,” Obama also won twice in Florida, and Florida voters approved the expansion of voting rights to felons in the same year they elected Trump. On an issue-by-issue basis, voters do not match either party’s orthodoxy, and assault weapons support is more tenuous than support for other aspects of gun rights.

Gun Owners Must Fight a Rearguard Action
Showing real moral courage, there has been some legal pushback from Florida’s Republican attorney general, Ashley Moody.

One requirement of any ballot initiative is that it must deal with a single subject and also contain a clear summary. In her words, the title of the ballot initiative is flawed and misleading, failing to inform voters that it would ban “virtually every semi-automatic long gun.” While Schwartz has promised that the assault weapon ban wouldn’t affect hunting arms, the law’s definition would include 50-year-old SKS rifles and your granddad’s Ruger 10/22. Demonstrating the arbitrary nature of these bans, the Florida law would exclude AR-15 pistols, which have become increasingly popular.

Any constitution is supposed to be semi-permanent and resistant to change. Florida’s initiative process, however, makes the state constitution malleable and impermanent. Floridians infamously amended their constitution nearly 20 years ago to protect “pregnant pigs.” 

Even if there were more obstacles to the assault weapon ballot measure, constitutional rights cannot endure forever amidst changes to the character and views of the people. At most, explicit constitutional rights can delay a “run amuck majority”; they cannot be expected to do miracles and hold back left-wing majorities forever. And the character of the people is being deliberately changed by our ruling class to ensure exactly that.

The Second Amendment grew out of our nation’s revolutionary origins and expressed an inherent distrust of centralized government and the corresponding principle of self-reliance in the character of the American people. These values are in short supply both among New Americans and the left-leaning transplants to Florida.

If this law were to pass, it would create a crisis of conscience both for gun-owners and law enforcement, many of whom are opposed to gun control. Guns are supposed to be a doomsday option, a means of protection and resistance when all lawful options are no longer viable. But if they are registered, then they could more easily be confiscated, defeating their value and permitting an acceleration of other forms of government malfeasance.

Is there any reason to think the Gail Schwartzes of the world would not take all of our guns through a referendum or the legislature someday when the political environment is ripe? After all, there will no doubt continue to be gun crimes after any “assault weapon ban,” much like we saw in the shooting spree in Gilroy, California, in spite of California’s restrictive regime. Freedom isn’t free.

It is worrisome to have one’s fundamental and historical rights in the crosshairs of a referendum. At the same time, constitutions do not function automatically. They depend upon the commitment, understanding, and character of the people. Our universities and schools have done little to educate new and old Americans about our nation’s heroic origins and the purpose of our constitutional rights. They are treated as musty parchment—or worse mere tools of oppression—and their enduring relevancy is obscured by fads and endless media propaganda.

If this law goes forward, it will not be only a referendum on the legality of semi-automatic firearms, it will answer the question of whether Floridians still believe in and are willing to stand up for their precious liberties as Americans.

Photo Credit: Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

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