Politics & Government

NRA’s influence with Florida lawmakers is powerful

Marion Hammer, lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, speaks in favor of the guns at work bill during a House committee meeting in 2007. That bill failed.
Marion Hammer, lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, speaks in favor of the guns at work bill during a House committee meeting in 2007. That bill failed. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Marion Hammer’s phone rang as news bulletins reported that five tourists were shot to death at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

The longtime Florida gun lobbyist said a friend told her that the Jan. 6 shootings probably ended any chance of the Legislature’s passing a law to allow licensed gun owners to carry weapons in airport common areas.

But Hammer said the shooting helped her cause, proving that more guns in places like airports were needed.

That rationale will find a lot of support from Republican legislators in the 2017 session.

Hammer has a powerful ally in House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who said gun-free zones that leave people defenseless are dangerous.

“If law-abiding citizens could carry a gun to a baggage claim,” Corcoran said, “I think you’re going to see gun violence rapidly decline. So why don’t we do that for a change? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

The National Rifle Association has tried for years, without success, to eliminate gun-free zones at schools, colleges campuses and common areas of airports. Those proposals failed last year but will be back in March, despite opposition from airport directors and sheriffs across the state.

The gun lobby and the Legislature have been allies for a long time, and no level of gun violence in the state appears likely to affect their relationship.

The Republicans’ dominance of state politics, now entering its third decade, has helped the NRA tighten its grip on a Legislature where the organization’s A-plus rating is coveted by candidates. The rating is political insurance for Republicans who fear being challenged from the right on issues of gun rights.

Other factors working to the NRA’s benefit are Florida’s rural pro-gun heritage; the growing popularity of concealed weapon licenses, now held by nearly 1 in 10 residents; and a lack of two-party competition in legislative elections. Districts drawn to favor the party in power have left Democratic legislators clustered mostly in major cities and almost invisible elsewhere.

Gov. Rick Scott, who opposes new gun restrictions, repeatedly cites the drop in violent crime as proof that existing laws are effective.

The enduring presence in every debate over guns for the past four decades in Tallahassee is Hammer, who will turn 78 in April.

“Legislators aren’t scared of Marion Hammer. They’re afraid of the people I represent,” she said. “They’re afraid to try to take away the rights of their constituents. I’m their voice.”

Her latest crusade: pass a law to prevent elected sheriffs from testifying while on duty, in uniform and at taxpayer expense. This would prevent them from lobbying against the NRA’s agenda, or what she calls “the rights of the taxpayers.”

But while the NRA’s clout in the state Capitol is significant, it can easily be overstated.

It had a string of political losses in the 2016 session, led by the defeats of open-carry and campus-carry laws that were opposed by sheriffs, police chiefs and college and university leaders. In addition, the House blocked a third NRA priority to shift the burden of proof from citizens to the state in cases in which people fire weapons in “stand your ground” self-defense cases.

Those defeats prompted Hammer to label, by name, a number of legislators as “betrayers” of the U.S. Constitution. She wrote in the NRA’s Florida newsletter: “We have met the enemy: We elected them!”

Hammer then activated the NRA’s vast mailing list of members to organize a successful campaign to prevent Rep. Charles McBurney of Jacksonville, a former prosecutor who blocked the self-defense bill, from being appointed to a judgeship by Scott.

McBurney couldn’t run for the House again because of term limits, so his days of fighting the NRA are over. His replacement, Republican Rep. Jason Fischer, won his race with an A rating from the NRA.

Citing the Fort Lauderdale airport attack at the hands of a mentally troubled U.S. Army veteran, Democrats will try again to build a case for new gun laws.

They and their supporters want to ban sales of semiautomatic assault weapons in Florida and require comprehensive background checks for gun buyers.

More than 100 groups make up the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, including the League of Women Voters, school districts, churches, businesses and healthcare groups. They say the NRA and its supporters in the Legislature have turned a debate over constitutional rights of gun owners into a public safety menace.

But not much happens in Tallahassee without Republican support. When Democrats made their first public push for passage for stricter controls in the state Capitol Tuesday, not one Republican lawmaker was there.

A bill can’t even come up for a hearing without Republican approval. Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer of Parkland conceded that he’s not sure that his proposals, including a stricter trigger lock requirement on guns in the home, would come up for committee votes in the session that begins March 7.

Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said nothing will change until Republican legislators stand up to the NRA.

“All they have to do is grow a spine and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t go along with an agenda that ends up with more dead Floridians,’ ” Jenne said.

If a single event would appear to have been significant enough to reopen a real political debate over Florida’s gun laws and gun violence, it was the massacre last June 12 at Pulse, the Orlando club where 49 people were killed by Omar Mateen.

A former state-licensed security guard, Mateen passed a criminal background check and legally bought the weapons he used in the Pulse attack at a gun store, even though his name had previously been on a terrorist watch list.

Democratic legislators demanded a special session to consider changes to gun laws. Their agenda was to close what they called the “terror loophole” to prevent people from buying a gun in Florida if they had been on a federal watch list, such as Mateen.

But in the throes of an election campaign, Republicans refused to give Democrats a platform for a gun debate and no session was held.

Only three of the 100-plus Republicans in the 160-member Legislature supported a special session. It was no coincidence that all three were running in competitive “swing” districts where they needed to appeal to moderate Republican voters and independents.

They were Reps. Shawn Harrison of Tampa and Mike Miller of Winter Park and Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami. All three won their elections.

“I don’t think we should be afraid to have a debate on any issue,” Flores said in an interview last week. “Unfortunately, we see now, with this latest attack, that we need to take a comprehensive look at gun laws in the state of Florida and find the best way to balance the individual rights of people to own guns versus public safety.”

Flores, who represents part of Miami-Dade and the Keys, said the time has come for the Legislature to look at whether people who are mentally ill can get concealed weapons licenses in Florida.

The Legislature considers various gun bills every year, but the only ones that gain much support are those that help gun owners, such as prohibiting insurers from denying coverage to gun owners in certain cases or expanding the local government offices that accept applications for concealed weapons licenses.

Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, said the NRA’s legislative ideas seem designed to help the gun lobby raise money from its members.

“They’re contribution-raisers,” Stark said.

Times/Herald staff writer Michael Auslen and Times staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.

Editor’s note

In the past seven months, mass shootings at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport have brought renewed scrutiny to Florida’s gun laws. The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau examined two competing ideas to change those laws: One would ease access to guns in hopes that armed bystanders could prevent more tragedies. The other would restrict gun access, making it harder for would-be killers to obtain weapons. But in a state Capitol where guns are a divisive and sometimes politically toxic topic, dramatic change is almost certain to fail.