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County may drop obsolete gun rules

A proposed ordinance would repeal local firearms regulations that have not been enforceable since the state took over gun control in 1987.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
Published October 5, 2003

NEW PORT RICHEY - The county is getting ready to take its firearms regulations off the books.

It's more of a formality than anything, officials say. The Legislature nullified local gun laws 16 years ago in favor of statewide laws that are consistent across city and county lines.

That left Pasco County with a couple of gun regulations it no longer could enforce, said Assistant County Attorney Kristi Wooden. One rule banned firearms at county parks. Another prohibited the firing of a gun within 300 feet of an occupied building.

Both rules would be repealed under a proposed ordinance coming to the County Commission Oct. 21.

"Our ordinances aren't enforceable because of this preemption issue," Wooden said. "The problem is, (the state has) come in and told the county, "It's our business, not yours.' "

(The county's 48-hour "cooling off period" for retail gun purchases remains intact, however, under state law.)

So does this pave the way for free gun-wielding at county parks? Hardly, county officials say, because a slew of state gun laws remain in effect. The state prohibits the open carrying of a firearm, the improper exhibition of a firearm and the firing of a gun in a public place, among other things.

"Most of the holes have been filled already, in that there are state statutes that will pick up the slack," Wooden said. "But we're sorry to see the firing-within-300-feet-of-an-occupied-dwelling ordinance go. That's something (the sheriff's deputies) get quite a few calls on, especially at certain times of the year when people are shooting off guns."

That law carried a modest penalty - up to 60 days in jail and up to $500 in fines - but deputies sometimes used it to "break up" rowdy gatherings before things got out of hand, said Mike Randall, attorney for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

"Law enforcement officers like to have tools they can use to break up a situation," Randall said. "We've used it sparingly, but we've used it."

They haven't used it within the past year, however. Aware of the state law preempting local gun laws, Randall took the ordinance out of the 2003 legal handbook carried by deputies. He also alerted the County Attorney's Office to the need to drop the outdated ordinances.

"I said: I don't think you're going to like this, but I don't think you have much choice," Randall said.

In 1987 the state Legislature passed the "Joe Carlucci Uniform Firearms Act," which put gun control squarely in the hands of the state. The law nullified local gun regulations, but few cities and counties actually removed their voided ordinances from the books.

"Local governments at the time should have made a point of removing those obsolete ordinances at the earliest opportunity," said Marion Hammer, executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida and past president of the National Rifle Association.

"Many of them didn't," she continued, "which is problematic because you have new commissions, new law enforcement administrators who see it on the books and don't know the Legislature nullified it. That can result in people being charged under ordinances that do not exist."

The conflict between local and state gun laws garnered new attention in March 2002, when an appeals court threw out a South Miami ordinance requiring the use of trigger locks. The court cited the state firearms law, which reserved "the whole field of regulation" for the Legislature and federal authorities.

Then Pasco County officials got a call a few months ago from Reggie Howard. The Port Richey man rides his bike several times a week at the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, and he questioned the sign at the entrance prohibiting firearms, per county ordinance.

Howard has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Citing the 1987 state law, he said he should be able to bring his gun to the park for his own protection without fear of prosecution under an outdated county ordinance.

"In wooded areas like that, you're all by yourself," Howard said of the 8,069-acre Starkey park. "You're three, four miles out on the bike path, and anything could happen."

"If something happened, I don't want to go through the hassle of being arrested, charged and having to hire an attorney to correct a problem that shouldn't have been," he added.

The county responded by drafting the proposed ordinance that would wipe those old rules off the books. Gun control advocate Arthur Hayhoe has no objection to removing the outdated language, although he questioned whether it takes an ordinance to do so.

"I don't see anything wrong with making people aware of what the real law is," said Hayhoe, head of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Floridians for Gun Safety Inc.

He did, however, question the need for anyone to bring a gun to a county park.

"I ride these bike trails myself, and I've never seen anything so dangerous you would need to carry a gun," Hayhoe said. "Why these people think they need to be armed to go down a public trail is a mystery to me, but it's perfectly legal."

County officials hope the proposed ordinance clarifies the gun laws for everyone: the residents who use guns, the deputies who enforce the rules and the people who file complaints about gun use.

"Obviously it's awkward for an officer to tell a citizen, "Sorry, the (old county) ordinance is there, but we're not enforcing it,' " Wooden said.

- Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is hall@sptimes.com

If you go

The County Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed firearm ordinance at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at the historic courthouse in Dade City.

[Last modified October 5, 2003, 01:49:47]


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