Fla. county governments try to sidestep gun control laws by forming militias

May 29, 1994|By New York Times News Service

MILTON, Fla. -- Gun control has never been the most popular of concepts in the Florida Panhandle, and Santa Rosa County is no exception to that rule.

So, to protest what they see as recent encroachments by the federal government on a citizen's right to bear arms, the county government here has established a militia and made every able-bodied man, woman and child a member.

The action has been ridiculed by gun control groups that say the county measure is based on an erroneous reading of the Constitution.

But some supporters say the measure should exempt them from gun control laws under the Second Amendment, which reads, "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

The measure's sponsor, H. Byrd Mapoles, suggesting the resolution had more symbolic than legal weight, said he did not expect citizen-soldiers to start drills on the courthouse lawn anytime soon. Nevertheless, county commissioners are planning to distribute membership cards and wall plaques to anyone who wants to make a statement of support for the Second Amendment.

"Most folks in this part of the country are not willing to give up their guns," said Mr. Mapoles, chairman of the Santa Rosa County Commission. "This is simply a way for us to say that Santa Rosa County is united and stands its ground."

Since the measure was unanimously passed by the five-member commission last month, other officials in the Florida Panhandle have seized upon the idea. Commissions in neighboring Escambia and Okaloosa counties later passed almost identical resolutions.

And, not content to rely on the interpretation of the Second Amendment, the Escambia officials are considering establishing a "posse comitatus," an armed sheriff's auxiliary open to interested county residents. The right of the sheriff to create such a posse is codified in state law.

Both opponents and advocates of gun control said that they thought the actions of Florida's three westernmost counties, which have a combined population of just over 500,000, were the first of their kind in the nation. They also said they were not surprised a militia movement had emerged in the Panhandle, whose population comprises the highest percentage of military retirees of any region. in the United States.

"We in northwest Florida believe that we have certain rights given us by the United States Constitution," said Mr. Mapoles. "We want those folks in Washington and Tallahassee to recognize those rights and not be taking them away from us."

Mr. Mapoles raised the possibility of Panhandle residents having to fight off a foreign invasion on Florida beaches.

Largely because of opposition from the Panhandle, the Florida Legislature earlier this spring defeated bills, supported by many legislators from the Miami area, that would have imposed restrictions on assault weapons. It was at rallies organized by the National Rifle Association and similar groups that the county militia movement was popularized.

Thomas V. Dannheisser, the Santa Rosa county attorney, said that he backed the militia measure as a purely "symbolic gesture" that "does not establish any official entity whatsoever" and, because it is a resolution rather than an ordinance, is merely "an expression of something like an opinion."

The most ardent supporters of the militia measures disagree. They assert that the Second Amendment confers special privileges to members of the militia, exempting them from federal gun laws such as the Brady law, which sets a waiting period on gun purchases, or the assault weapon ban that was approved by the House earlier this month and sent to conference with the Senate.

Dennis Henigan, director of the Legal Action Project of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, an Washington advocacy group that defends gun control laws against legal challenges, said that that argument would not pass muster in the courts. He called the militia measures "imaginative" but of dubious legality, in view of previous disputes over state militias and federal authority.

"If these folks think this is going to give them constitutional protection for the ownership of guns as militiamen, it's not going to work," Mr. Henigan said. "The courts have repeatedly held that members of the so-called unorganized militia get no special constitutional protection under the Second Amendment."

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