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Florida editorial roundup

By The Associated PressJune 19, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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June 18

The Florida Times-Union on the importance of an accurate census count:

The census produces federal funds for Florida and increased representation in Congress. In short, it means power and money for America’s third-largest state. But Florida’s power and money will be diminished if there is an undercount of Floridians in the 2020 census.

Florida’s health care, education, transportation and environment could all be hurt if our state doesn’t receive federal funds that reflect our growing population.

And how fast are we growing as a state?

Florida’s population grew by more than 322,000 residents from July 2017 to July 2018, reported Watchdog.org. That’s like adding a new small city to our state every year. But will all of these people be counted in the 2020 census?

California is working to make sure that all of its people are counted in the 2020 census, budgeting $100 million for the project. In contrast Florida is doing next to nothing: a bill to support a thorough and accurate count died in the Florida Legislature.

Sadly, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised: after all, Florida’s leaders have consistently turned down billions in federal funds to expand Medicaid and provide health care to vulnerable Floridians. So perhaps our state leaders don’t think it’s a big deal that Florida may pay a heavy price for an inaccurate census count.

That’s outrageous — and foolish.

Like California, Florida has millions of residents who are difficult to find and count: racial and ethnic minorities, non-English speakers, people with low incomes who move frequently, homeless or undocumented people, young adults who are just starting out, people who distrust the government, etc. Many of these people are the ones who will suffer the most if Florida is shortchanged on federal funds. For example, Florida has become home to thousands of American citizens from Puerto Rico who fled that island after Hurricane Maria; many Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, meanwhile, have come to Florida because of humanitarian crises.

Our state leaders should be following the lead of former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is now a Florida congressman: as governor, Crist set up a 45-member committee to ensure there was an accurate count of Floridians for the 2010 census.

—Reasons for concern

Clearly fear is one factor that may prevent Florida from having an accurate census count.

People may be afraid that census information is not confidential, though by law it is. People may fear that filling out a census form may be time-consuming, though in fact there are just seven questions.

And a proposed 2020 census question about citizenship has raised fears and court challenges alike, even though it has been asked in the past on the short census form until 1950 (and then asked in subsets of residents since then). Those concerns have only grown after The Associated Press revealed that email exchanges between a Republican consultant and a federal Census Bureau official indicated that the citizenship question is intended to reduce the participation of Hispanics and non-citizens.

The Constitution specifies that congressional districts should be based on how many people live in an area; there is no mention of citizens. In addition, there are millions of people in the U.S. who are here legally but are not citizens.

The census will not ask for Social Security numbers, money, donations, passwords, credit card information or other financial information, so be careful about scam artists.

For the first time the 2020 census will depend on a website as a primary means of response, reported the Sarasota Herald-Tribune; next spring residents will receive a mailed notice with their personal code to use for answering the census questions.

A second means of response will be a toll-free number where a census worker will help.

A mailed questionnaire can be requested by calling a toll-free number that has not been announced.

If a household hasn’t responded by April 1, 2020, a census worker will come knocking.

But before things even get that far, Florida’s leaders should take strong action to ensure that the census accurately counts everyone in this state.

Online: https://www.jacksonville.com

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June 18

The Ledger on the faults of a new gun control amendment proposed by activists:

Last week gun control activists in Florida celebrated achieving the first step toward outlawing “assault” weapons within the state.

Ban Assault Weapons NOW!, or BAWN, reportedly has gathered 103,000 signed petitions favoring a proposed state constitutional amendment that would make it illegal to own certain classifications of rifles, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Meeting that milestone is apparently enough to trigger — pardon the pun — a Florida Supreme Court review of the proposed amendment’s language. If it passes muster with the justices, BAWN must then compile about 663,000 more petitions to qualify for next year’s ballot.

Gail Schwartz, BAWN’s chairwoman and the aunt of a student killed in the February 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, told the Times she is confident the group — whose leadership includes Paula Dockery, a former state senator from Lakeland — will succeed in getting the question on the ballot, and in convincing voters to adopt it.

All of us should appreciate the grassroots effort BAWN is pushing to let the people of Florida decide this critical issue. This is why the amendment process exists — to give voters an avenue around intransigent politicians.

Moreover, Schwartz’s prophecy could be right. BAWN very well could capture support from thousands of Floridians who fear guns and are frustrated by the unwillingness of the Legislature or Congress to clamp down on gun owners in the wake of multiple mass shootings, such as occurred at Douglas High and at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, whose death toll includes two young women from Polk County.

But BAWN will have to rely on emotions to make this happen. That’s because its proposed amendment, as now written, shows the proposed ban will be wholly ineffective in stopping gun violence.

For one thing, BAWN defines an “assault weapon” as “any semiautomatic rifle or shotgun capable of holding more than ten (10) rounds of ammunition at once, either in a fixed or detachable magazine, or any other ammunition-feeding device.” It adds, “Possession of handguns is not prohibited.”

While gun control advocates condemn the AR-15 and similar military-style rifles as the weapons of choice by mass shooters, most of these villains prefer pistols. The website Statista.com noted in April that between 1982 and February 2019, 69 mass shootings were carried out with the type of weapons that the proposed amendment would ban. But shooters used pistols 92 times over that same span. Add to the list the mass murder in Virginia Beach in May, which was committed with pistols, as were other high-profile massacres in Charleston, South Carolina, Virginia Tech University, Fort Hood, Texas, and Thousand Oaks, California.

Ban “assault” rifles, and killers will simply switch weapons — necessitating further gun control.

In that regard, BAWN must answer how another law will be effective when current ones aren’t. Another gun control group, Everytown for Gun Safety, issued a report in December that found shooters in 59 of the 173 mass shootings it identified between 2009 and 2017 was prohibited from owning a gun at the time of the crime. Congress banned assault weapons, as have some individual states, like California and Connecticut. Yet the U.S. Justice Department reported in 2004 that a federal ban on assault weapons over the previous decade did little to stop crime. And bans failed to prevent massacres with semiautomatic military-style rifles in San Bernardino, California, and Newtown, Connecticut.

Lastly, BAWN’s amendment should generate substantial opposition because it would mandate something most gun owners fear short of confiscation: get rid of the weapons within a year of the law taking effect, or record the weapons with a state gun registry. Those who fail to comply with either provision face a draconian penalty: up to five years in prison.

Despite its shortcomings, BAWN’s cause undoubtedly will gain considerable traction. The proposal will garner support from leading state and national media that rarely miss an opportunity to paint gun owners as crazed loons, and the National Rifle Association as the most powerful, demonic Gepetto operating in so many state capitals, including Tallahassee.

Emotions and hysteria are not enough, however. As with any law that seeks to restrict human freedom, we must first ask if it will be effective in achieving its stated goal.

As it now stands, BAWN’s amendment fails that most fundamental test.

Online: https://www.theledger.com

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June 14

The Orlando Sentinel on transparency issues with a Florida victims’ rights law:

In early May, a man broke into a Fort Myers house and attacked a woman who was sleeping inside.

The woman, however, invoked her privacy rights as a victim under a new Florida constitutional amendment, so the Fort Myers Police Department refused to reveal important details about the crime, keeping under wraps a sketch of a suspect who was on the loose.

That was a bridge too far even for the group that advocated for the victim rights amendment known as Marsy’s Law. After reading about a local TV station’s failed attempts to get information to the public about the home invasion, Marsy’s Law for Florida fired off a press release.

“This is an overly extreme interpretation of the law,” wrote Paul Hawkes, a lawyer for Marsy’s Law for Florida. “While crime victims’ rights should never be compromised, and the ability for victims to prevent the release of information that could be used to locate or harass them is critical, law enforcement agencies should continue to provide information that is in the best interest of public safety.”

Glad that’s settled. Except it’s not.

Law enforcement agencies across the state are each interpreting the amendment as they see fit. It’s the wild West, with some agencies asking crime victims or relatives if they want to remain unnamed, while others leave it to the victims to bring it up. Some agencies are releasing the very information that others are withholding.

Here are some examples — many of them tracked by the First Amendment Foundation — of how law enforcement is using Marsy’s Law to deny information:

In January, after five people were shot to death in Sebring, police refused to identify the victims, citing the new constitutional protections for crime victims.

Earlier this month, Altamonte Springs police refused to identify a young girl who died after being struck by a car. The girl was riding in a trailer behind a bicycle her father was riding.

In New Smyrna Beach, police wouldn’t name a clerk who was robbed at a convenience store.

In Brevard County, the sheriff’s office refused to name a deputy who shot into a car, saying the deputy was the victim of an assault and didn’t want to be identified.

The Tallahassee Police Department refused to name the victim or the suspect in a DUI homicide case.

In Volusia County, the medical examiner isn’t naming any homicide victims it examines.

After a woman was charged with neglecting her children, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office refused to reveal the name of a day-care center where she worked.

Martin County wouldn’t reveal where a man was arrested because it was “too close” to the victim’s address.

Hillsborough County won’t release the name of a 17-year-old shot in the head by a deputy.

Many of these and other examples are in direct conflict with the state’s Sunshine Law and the constitutional right of access to public records.

Police, however, are often deferring to Marsy’s Law, at the expense of the public’s right to know.

The state Legislature had a chance this past spring to pass a law that could have brought some clarity to the victims rights amendment, and maybe preserve to some degree the public’s right to information.

Didn’t happen. And we’re not surprised, considering the Legislature’s bipartisan enthusiasm for eroding the state’s Sunshine Law, which includes public records. Some lawmakers may be quite pleased law enforcement is withholding information.

We can’t help but contrast lawmakers’ nonchalance about the consequences of the Marsy’s Law amendment with their zeal to pass a law that ensured Amendment 4 — which gave ex-felons the right to vote — was defined to the nth degree.

Which brings us to another comparison: The Marsy’s Law amendment came to voters courtesy of the deeply flawed Constitution Revision Commission, which bundled victim rights with two other amendments, including changing the mandatory retirement age for judges. The three unrelated amendments were presented to voters as one big, confusing question.

A bill this past spring to stop the commission from bundling unrelated amendments — a known problem — went nowhere.

But, oh, you had to stand in awe at the Legislature’s determination to make changes in the way citizens put questions on the ballot to address fraudulent petition gathering — a non-existent problem in Florida. That one passed and just got signed into law by the governor.

Our best hope right now for fixing Marsy’s Law is that the courts will eventually intervene and restore some order and consistency so that Floridians’ right to information is a matter of law, not a matter of law enforcement’s whim.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com

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