In the Magazine: The Gunshine State

Florida—and its chief gun lobbyist Marion Hammer—set the bar for gun rights. But is it a legacy we can sustain?

We may live in South Florida, but this ain’t the South.

That’s Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Ocala, Pensacola and all those parts of the state where the culture and the politics have turned Florida into the “Gunshine State.” If Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties ran the Legislature and elected governors, the state likely wouldn’t have that reputation. But even after the new constitution in 1968 supposedly broke North Florida’s chokehold on power, this state has been the Deep South when it comes to the Second Amendment.

It began dramatically in 1987. The Legislature prohibited counties and cities from enacting firearms regulation and made Florida the first state that allowed residents to carry concealed weapons. For the next three decades, having laid down that marker, National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer rarely lost.

Legislators who were there 31 years ago said concealed carry would not have passed  without Hammer. Law enforcement generally opposed it. Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman who sponsored more recent Second Amendment bills in the Legislature,  called Hammer “the greatest force in Florida politics.” Others say she is the most powerful gun lobbyist in America.

Only after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Massacre last Valentine’s Day did the Republican majorities in Tallahassee cross Hammer with the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act. They raised the age for firearms sales to 21—law enforcement and active-duty military exempted—required a three-day waiting period and banned bump stocks, the $200 device that allows conversion of semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic. The legislation also made it easier to take weapons from people who pose harm to themselves or others. The NRA immediately sued. In an interview with Boca Raton magazine, Hammer calls the legislation “political eyewash” and “ridiculous.” Stoneman Douglas survivors and victims’ families “got used,” Hammer says, by legislators who favor tougher gun control.

Hammer, who is nearing 80, is a native South Carolinian with a long drawl and a longer memory. She grew up poor on her grandparents’ farm after her father was killed in World War II. She learned to shoot by the time she was 6. She got involved in politics because of her opposition to the 1968 Gun Control Act, which Congress passed after the  assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

In 1995, Hammer became the first female president of the NRA. She is tiny—under five feet tall—and favors bright blazers and a pageboy hairstyle. Her personality is resolute. Hammer raised two grandchildren after her daughter contracted inoperable cancer and her son-in-law bolted. A grandson has dyslexia, and Hammer has advocated for McKay Scholarships that go to children with learning disabilities.

As the NRA’s Florida lobbyist, Hammer makes $110,000—less than one-tenth the salary of national Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. One could argue, however, that Hammer returns far more on her investment. The NRA must agree. Between 2010 and 2016, Hammer received roughly $1 million from the NRA as a board member.

Marion Hammer, lobbyist for the National Rifle Association

Many Floridians may not know how common it is for lobbyists in Tallahassee to shape legislation. Hammer proposes the NRA’s bills, oversees their drafting and demands approval of any changes. She does not compromise. Gaetz told the New Yorker, “If you’re with Marion 95 percent of the time, you’re a damn traitor.”

Henry Flagler transformed Florida with his railroad. John Gorrie transformed Florida with his invention of air conditioning. Walt Disney transformed Florida with his theme park. And Marion Hammer has transformed Florida with her near-absolutist defense of the Second Amendment.

A New Yorker magazine profile last March correctly credited Hammer with creating laws in Florida that have reshaped attitudes nationwide. We may rank near the bottom in education and health care, but nobody beats Florida on guns.

Hammer’s language is rigid. New NRA President Oliver North called the Stoneman Douglas students “civil terrorists.” Hammer agrees. “Calling them that isn’t hate. It isn’t filth. It’s stating a fact.”

In Tallahassee, legislators come and go, especially since term limits took effect in 1994. Their power fades. Hammer’s influence endures. She doesn’t just play the long game. She plays the eternal game.

In 1985, then-Florida Senate President Harry Johnston—from Palm Beach County—killed statewide regulation of firearms. Two years later, however, Johnston was gone, after an unsuccessful run for governor.

Hammer had been preparing her bills for “several years.” With new legislative leaders and a new governor, Bob Martinez, Hammer was ready. Two years later, two pivotal and powerful Florida gun laws appeared before the Legislature: the Joe Carlucci Uniform Firearms Act (preemption of local laws) and the Jack Hagler Self Defense Act (concealed carry). Both passed, and Martinez signed them. Hammer’s legacy had begun.

Hammer recalls that firearms fees had ranged from $10 to $2,200 and that gun owners faced several hundred, sometimes conflicting, local regulations. “That bill was almost seven years in the making.”

On concealed carry, Hammer says, neither county commissioners nor sheriffs wanted responsibility for issuing permits. The job went to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam regularly has bragged about how many permits the state issues, and proclaimed himself “a proud NRA sellout” last year before his campaign for governor.

(Michael Nigro/Pacific Press via Zuma Wire)

Guns & Ammo magazine ranks Florida as one of the easiest states in which to obtain a concealed carry permit. Roughly 1.7 million Floridians have permits, nearly double that of Texas, which ranks second. It got really easy for a year to obtain one because Putnam’s office failed to review national background checks for applicants. That period followed the Pulse nightclub shooting, which caused applications to spike. Having made Florida a pioneer in concealed carry, the NRA came back in 2005 with legislation known as “Stand Your Ground,” NRA-backed legislation that made Florida the first state to change the rules on self-defense. People who felt threatened no longer had a duty to retreat before using deadly force. “Stand Your Ground” also expanded the “castle doctrine” from one’s home to anywhere one happened to be. Twenty-three states have since approved similar legislation.

At the time, Hammer could cite no case of someone being wrongfully prosecuted for self-defense. She now says, “What does it matter how many cases?” Hammer then cites the story she tells about men approaching her in a Tallahassee parking garage four decades ago and fleeing when she showed her gun.

“That is the case,” Hammer declares. “That started the research.” If she had shot, Hammer claims, she would have been prosecuted. To Hammer, “Stand Your Ground” opponents were “bleeding-heart criminal coddlers.”

Last year, against the recommendation of most state attorneys, the Legislature expanded “Stand Your Ground.” Previously, defendants or those “standing their ground” had to prove  they deserved immunity. Now, prosecutors must prove based on “clear and convincing evidence” that they don’t. That change makes self-defense different from any other case.

Gov. Rick Scott, who approved the expansion, had been one of Hammer’s favorite  governors until this year’s legislation. In 2011, during his first session, Gov. Scott signed three major bills that the NRA favored.

One exempted holders of concealed carry permits from prosecution if they had “briefly displayed” their weapon. Another prohibited pediatricians from asking patients about firearms in the home. (The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down most of what became known as “Docs vs. Glocks.”)

Finally, Scott signed legislation that punishes—through fines and possible removal from office—county or city elected officials whom the NRA or any other party believes is trying to get around that ban on local firearms regulation. No other statewide preemption carries such penalties. After the Parkland shooting, as their constituents demanded action on gun violence, Boca Raton City Council members and their counterparts in about a dozen other cities challenged the 2011 law in court.

At a rally in Delray Beach after the Parkland shooting, former Mayor Cary Glickstein spoke so passionately on behalf of stricter gun control that people urged him to run for governor. A lawyer by training, Glickstein sympathizes with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. But he’s skeptical about their chances. Tallahassee, Glickstein says, “can turn the screws as much as they want, as much as it stinks.”

March for Our Lives in Boca Raton (Photo by Randy Schultz)

And Tallahassee does turn the screws. For all the recent focus on “Stand Your Ground,” multiple Second Amendment bills arise almost every year. In 2014, Scott signed a record five. One made it easier to threaten deadly force. One prohibited insurers from discriminating against gun owners. One fast-tracked applications for concealed carry permits. One further restricted public information about gun owners. Why has it happened so dramatically and so quickly in Florida? Hammer (the name is apt) is a big reason, but she also has benefited from seismic political changes in Florida.

In 1992, five years after those first landmark Second Amendment laws, Republicans began to establish dominance in Florida through three straight redistrictings. Among Republicans, the Second Amendment has become a signature issue. The voter-approved Fair Districts amendments in 2010 led to a successful court challenge of the 2012 redistricting and new maps for Congress and the Florida Senate.

But the lawsuit didn’t address the Florida House, in which Democrats haven’t been a factor for decades. Here, as in the rest of the country, Democrats have tended to cluster in cities while Republicans favor suburban and rural counties. Almost every significant NRA-backed bill in the last 20 years has had a sponsor from north of the Interstate 4 corridor.

Still, such is Hammer’s aura that both parties often fall in line. Stand Your Ground passed 94-20 in the House—well above a party-line vote—and 39-0 in the Senate. Democratic senators said they went along to show the NRA that their party could embrace the Second Amendment.

Cut to this year. Because of Stand Your Ground and last year’s expansion, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office had to rebut former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja’s claim that he shot Corey Jones in self-defense. Prosecutors prevailed before the trial judge, but Raja has appealed.

Around Florida, expansion of Stand Your Ground has produced what the Tampa Bay Times called“chaos” in a review last March of self-defense cases. Example: In 2014, former cop Curtis Reeves fatally shot a man who threw popcorn at him in a movie theater. Reeves had left the theater and retrieved a gun from his car. He retreated and then advanced.

The trial court judge denied Reeves’ “Stand Your Ground” claim. At deadline for this article, though, Reeves’ lawyers were arguing that the 2017 expansion was retroactive and Reeves deserves a new hearing.

We don’t know where this Second Amendment experience is taking Florida. We know that when U.S. News and World Report ranked states by their safety, Florida ranked only 35th. In the last two years, Florida has witnessed the second-deadliest mass shooting—at Pulse nightclub in Orlando—and the second-deadliest school shooting—at Stoneman Douglas. The Pulse shooter had a concealed weapons permit.

In this election year, the Stoneman Douglas students and their supporters seek to change Florida’s political culture when it comes to guns. To do that, they must get past Marion Hammer. For the “Gunshine State,” will the Parkland shooting be a turning point or a just a pause?


This story comes from our September/October 2018 issue of Boca magazine. For the full piece and more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.