How the NRA Hijacked Florida Gun Policy Over the Years
How did Florida gun culture get so out of control? That’s the question people have been asking since long before Marjory Stoneman Douglas High massacre in Parkland took place.
In March 2018, with students from Parkland leading the charge, Florida residents saw something unusual happen: The state legislature passed a gun control measure. Like clockwork, the National Rifle Association (NRA) immediately filed a lawsuit to strike the law down.
As a report published in The New Yorker and The Trace showed, the NRA is not used to losing gun battles in Florida. Here’s how the nation’s most powerful gun lobby — and one woman in particular — ran roughshod over state lawmakers to pass 30 laws in the past decades.
1. The rise of concealed carry
While concealed carry laws did not begin in Florida, most agree the effort there by the NRA sparked a national movement. The publicity surrounding the bill, and the NRA’s victory in a subsequent legal challenge, led to similar laws passing quickly in other states.
Some 30 years later, we couldn’t find any state in America where gun owners can’t legally carry weapons concealed on their person. In many cases, you can even carry your weapon into another state due to reciprocity laws.
In this way, Florida has become a sort of laboratory for state gun laws. When the NRA made it there, they figured out the system for making it anywhere.
Next: A challenge to carrying semi-automatic weapons became a ‘modern-day Gestapo movement’ to this NRA lobbyist.
2. The NRA fights for semi-automatic weapons in Florida — in 1988.
While people cringe at the NRA’s Dana Loesch ominously telling Americans “Time’s up” on TV, it’s nothing new for the organization. Back in 1988, when Florida lawmakers wanted to close loopholes on the concealed-carry law, the state’s top lobbyist described the effort as a “modern-day Gestapo movement.”
The speaker was Marion Hammer, a former NRA president who’s been the most powerful gun lobbyist in America for decades. Her goal was to shoot down a law that would ban revolvers and semi-automatic handguns. Many Republicans bristled at Hammer’s “half-truths” and overall aggression, but she was too determined (and well-funded) to stop.
A police chief summed up the state of affairs in ’88: “[The NRA] has abandoned its old hunting and gun safety priorities and is spending millions of dollars to lobby for measures that jeopardize public safety and police officers’ lives.”
Next: Hammer makes the case for ‘Stand Your Ground.’
3. The ‘ringmaster’ for Stand Your Ground
In describing Hammer’s influence across the state, The Trace’s Mike Spies quoted Florida’s Dan Gelber, a Florida House representative who followed the introduction of the Stand Your Ground law. “Marion was the ringleader,” he said of Hammer and her bill. “She was telling everyone where to go and what hoops to jump through.”
The measure, which Hammer pushed in the Florida legislature in 2004, eliminated any obligation to flee when you felt threatened by someone. If you believed you were in danger, you could shoot an intruder or anyone you feared might harm you in public.
It was a license to kill — and do so without standing trial. And Floridians began to kill.
Next: Stand Your Ground goes national with the killing of Trayvon Martin.
4. Stand Your Ground’s role in the death of Trayvon Martin
Governor Jeb Bush signed Stand Your Ground into law in 2005, with only 20 Democrats opposing it. However, if you weren’t following Florida gun policy debates, you may not have heard about it until 2012.
That year, a Sanford man named George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, while volunteering on the neighborhood watch. Despite the national uproar over Martin’s death, it took nearly two months and the appointing of a special prosecutor to charge Zimmerman with a crime.
It was par from the course. Some 70% of shooters had gone free in Florida since Stand Your Ground became law, according to a study that year by the Tampa Bay Times.
Next: Florida’s Stand Your Ground task force features Hammer’s preferred lawmakers and Hammer herself as a witness.
5. The NRA ran the Stand Your Ground task force.
Before Zimmerman went to trial (and was found not guilty of any crime), pressure on Governor Rick Scott forced him to launch a task force on the law. As Spies points out in his report, one of Stand Your Ground’s primary sponsors (and four others who voted for it) sat on the commission.
In the words of a Republican lawmaker, the task force was “window dressing,” an NRA-sponsored affair from top to bottom. To make the proceedings more one-sided, Hammer herself — the former NRA president — appeared as a key witness. Naturally, nothing about the Stand Your Ground law changed.
Next: Hammer saw her opening with Rick Scott earlier — and took the opportunity.
6. Hammer’s 2011 open-carry bill got Scott’s signature.
In 2011, Hammer went to work on a bill that would allow people to carry guns in public without a safety holster. When Florida sheriffs opposed it, Hammer was asked if these men and women of law enforcement were “anti-gun radicals.” She replied, “Yep, a lot of ’em are.”
She and the NRA got their law through the statehouse in this fashion. Governor Scott signed it in June of that year.
Next: If local officials passed a gun law stricter than Florida laws, they could lose their jobs and face fines.
7. Another 2011 law pre-empted local gun regulations in Florida. Scott signed it.
What if the mayor of Miami or another Florida city (say, Parkland) wanted to pass a gun law that made sense for the community? After yet another law Hammer pushed in 2011, that local leader could face thousands in fines and even lose their job.
Municipal leaders all across the state objected to this policy, but Hammer dismissed them as “gun-hating liberals” in a clip collected by NRA on the Record. In another interview, Hammer made it clear who runs Florida gun policy.
“We never file legislation or ask to have legislation filed that isn’t needed, and when we file it, we plan to pass it,” she said. Once again, Scott signed her bill into law in October 2011.
Next: Following a college shooting, Hammer and the NRA pushed to get guns in college classrooms.
8. Hammer also lobbied to get guns on college campuses.
If someone tells you it’s too soon to talk about the horror at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, you can bring up a 2011 shooting at a Florida college. After a student’s AK-74 assault rifle accidentally killed another student, Hammer brought up a bill that would allow guns in college classrooms and dorms.
Again, Florida police chiefs and campus security officials opposed it. The father of the slain college student spoke at a committee hearing before the campus provision was removed.
Next: When you don’t support the NRA on a single measure, you are a target for revenge.
9. NRA vengeance on display
In 2015, when Hammer and the NRA wanted Stand Your Ground shooters to avoid any trial whatsoever, they added that provision to the law. (Spoiler: It eventually passed, and Rick Scott signed it into law.)
However, Charles McBurney, a Republican lawmaker looking to become a state judge, could not support it. When his name appeared on the list of candidates for the position, emails began flooding Scott’s office in opposition to McBurney, The Trace reported.
McBurney was one of the NRA’s most loyal foot soldiers for nine years. When he crossed Hammer once, he lost his shot at the judgeship. Governor Scott feared Hammer’s wrath too much to do otherwise.
Next: ‘Get rid of all liberals?’
10. ‘Get rid of all liberals.’
In 1996, when The New York Times profiled Hammer as she took over at the NRA, she had an idea that was a match for getting rid of all the guns. Why not “get rid of all liberals?” she asked.
The reporter noted it was a joke, “mostly.” Maybe, but you’ll find that same line said in complete seriousness any day on the internet in 2018 — right near a story about the latest shooting and a quick accounting of the dead.
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