It’s too bad the Florida Supreme Court shot down the public petition campaign for a ban on military-style “assault weapons” last week.
Not because the justices ruled, 4-1, that the amendment’s ballot summary had some deceptive wording. That sort of legal technicality is what the court is there for, a process to keep both sides from waging long and costly campaigns for a flawed amendment that doesn’t comply with public-initiative rules.
And opposing gun control was hardly surprising for a court steeped in the credo of the Federalist Society. If Andrew Gillum had polled about 33,000 more votes in 2018, we wouldn’t have three of the court’s new members — although, even post-Parkland, a gun amendment would still have been a tough sell.
What’s mildly lamentable about the high court’s ruling against the referendum is that Florida’s 2022 campaign just became a little less interesting. Public petition campaigns have sometimes been the most interesting, even important, elements of an election and now we’re not going to have the gun thing.
Oh, we’ll still have Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio up for re-election. If control of the Senate is at stake again — Republicans trying to take it back, or Democrats fighting to keep control — Florida will be exciting. And our big elections are usually close, really close.
But, with all due respect to the Florida Democratic Party, it hasn’t been fielding many giant killers lately. There are no front rank challengers on the horizon for DeSantis or Rubio, at the moment.
Opinion polls all over the country show public support for gun control, including bans on rifles like the AR-15 and AK-47. Organizations like Ban Assault Weapons NOW, which sponsored the stymied Florida campaign, are good at rallying public support but the National Rifle Association is better at persuading state legislators and members of Congress.
Florida legislators, and Republican governors for the past 22 years, have opposed any major gun legislation. Gov. Rick Scott signed some tepid restrictions after the murders of 17 people, and wounding of 17 others, at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High school two years ago, but that was a very rare exception born of white-hot public outrage.
So the Constitution was the only option for BAWN, and a successful petition campaign is even more challenging than persuading state legislators. For one thing, getting an amendment on the ballot takes 677,200 signatures of registered voters, and BAWN was able to get only 174,000 so far.
That was more than enough to get the amendment before the state Supreme Court for technical vetting. But the signature pace was so slow that organizers, who’d hoped for the general election next November, had to go for 2022.
Oh, and the Legislature decided to make it harder to collect all those signatures and certify them with county elections supervisors. They never like having voters tell them what to do, anyway, and would probably abolish public initiative if they dared.
And, finally, if the court had green-lighted the petition proposal, it would have needed 60 percent of the vote at the polls. Gun control polls well, but three-fifths is a steep climb for any idea.
An assault-weapons debate in volatile Florida could have been hot. Well-financed national gun-control organizations would have campaigned for the amendment and the NRA would have fought back hard. All the candidates in every race would be asked how they intended to vote in the referendum.
Initiative petitions usually make for pretty tame campaigns. There was little heated discussion about creating the Lottery, or the eight-year term limits for elected officers, or even the “defense of marriage” amendment (later voided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage-equality ruling).
A hot gun contest might have been the most excitement we could expect in two years, and now the Supreme Court has called it off.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat capitol reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org