Palm Beach County commissioners may challenge new state gun law preventing local firearm regulation

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Palm Beach County commissioners may challenge a new state law that is forcing them to repeal at least seven local rules regulating guns and ammunition.

The commission directed County Attorney Denise Neiman to research whether the county can mount a legal challenge to the law, enacted this spring, which prevents local governments from regulating firearms and ammunition.

It takes effect Oct. 1. After that, local elected officials or agency heads could face civil fines of as much as $5,000 for trying to enforce ordinances they know are in violation of the state law. Gov. Rick Scott could also remove elected and appointed officials who violate the rules.

"We are sworn in to uphold the health, safety and welfare," Commissioner Burt Aaronson said. "And this certainly does not allow us to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people we serve."

County attorneys have spent weeks combing through the county's ordinances and laws looking for regulations that restrict firearms.

Commissioners have already overturned a provision that banned guns in county parks.

On Tuesday the commission took the final step to repeal a county rule that prevented people from bringing guns into child-care centers. Instead, gun owners must now keep their firearms in a locked box to bring them into the centers, Chief Assistant County Attorney Jim Mize said.

The commission also took preliminary steps to repeal several other gun regulations, including a provision that blocked people from discharging a firearm east of 20-Mile Bend.

Commissioners said the unanimous decisions were made "under duress."

"It is the Wild West here in Palm Beach County," Aaronson said. "West Palm Beach may become known as Wild West Palm Beach."

The National Rifle Association has disputed safety concerns, saying lifting local bans will allow people with state-issued concealed weapon permits to carry firearms into places where they should have been allowed all along.

Carrying firearms into schools or shooting in public places, which could include parks and other crowded areas, would still be banned under state law.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said Tuesday the repeal of local laws would not affect residents' safety.

"There is still a state statute," Bradshaw said. "What the public has got to understand is that you can't just go firing your gun off."

Palm Beach County leaders have spent years pushing for stronger gun regulations.

In 1999, the county signed off on a rule that required people buying firearms at gun shows or flea markets to undergo the same criminal background checks as those purchasing guns from licensed dealers.

The next year, county commissioners signed off on a local law requiring gun owners to lock their weapons while children were nearby or face a $500 fine. Gun owners opposed the ordinance and protested loudly at the meeting where the Palm Beach County Commission passed the law.

And in January, Aaronson called for a statewide ban on the sale of high-capacity gun magazines like the one used to wound U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and kill six others.

The new state law was among three measures pushed by the politically powerful NRA that were approved this year by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

One measure restricts doctors from asking patients about gun ownership and another decriminalizes the accidental showing of a concealed weapon. Doctors' organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, sued Scott this summer over the gun ownership law.

But supporters of the law prohibiting local governments from passing stricter gun laws than the state say it was designed merely to force cities and counties to comply with a 1987 law that placed the right to impose gun regulations with the Legislature.

"There's been a steady creep, an erosion of gun rights by cities and counties," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, who sponsored the law (HB 45) approved this spring, on a mostly party-line vote with Democrats opposed.

"All we're trying to do is enforce the existing laws," Gaetz added.

Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities, said that the county's 38 municipalities are also searching their laws for gun restrictions. The task is challenging because gun rules are often buried in other regulations, such as those dictating appropriate noise levels in an area.

It is unclear how many cities and towns will have to repeal local rules as a result of the new state law, Radcliffe said. "Everybody is in the process of going through all of their code books," he said.

Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties, said that many county officials are unhappy with the Legislature's action. But none has stepped forward to challenge the measure. "I think we've always felt the government closest to the people is the one that governs best," Mosteller said.

Palm Beach Post staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.

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