With the Trayvon Martin case raising questions about Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, the National Rifle Association has been silent on the incident, except to say SYG doesn’t apply.
If the NRA’s feeling a little defensive, it’s not surprising. According to a recent report, the organization virtually wrote Stand Your Ground, along with numerous other pro-gun bills in Florida. And even in the context of a state legislature that can be relied upon to rubber-stamp all such measures, the NRA vigilantly stomps out the merest suggestion of a challenge on the local level, as elected officials in St. Petersburg and Tampa know all too well.
The gun lobby has Florida in its pocket — and Florida, in turn, is setting an example for the nation.
When media watchdog site Media Matters spoke last week to the NRA’s powerful Florida lobbyist and former president, Marion Hammer, she acknowledged her part in the Stand Your Ground legislation, referring to it as the “Castle Doctrine”: “The NRA participated in drafting the Castle Doctrine and supporting it through the process.”
The story included an even more direct assessment from Peter Flemming, who covers the State House for the Tallahassee Democrat: “There is no doubt about it. Marion Hammer wrote the legislation and she would tell you so… All of the gun laws that come through the Florida legislature, she writes.”
And there have been a lot of gun laws coming through the Florida Legislature in recent years. According to former State Representative Dan Gelber, the NRA gets everything it wants and then some.
“In terms of the major issues, of registration, possession, and waiting periods, they’ve won all those,” said the Miami Beach Democrat, who served from 2000-2010 in Tallahassee. He says the NRA under Hammer was so successful in having lawmakers meet its demands that the organization resorted to “fringe” issues, such as restricting physicians from asking patients if they have guns at home. (A federal judge ruled that law unconstitutional last September.)
Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said since the NRA wrote SYG, it’s the NRA's responsibility to sort it out. But he blames all of the Republicans and Democrats who voted for it, saying Florida’s long-standing self-defense law had already been in effect.
“And now you’re going to create a new self-defense law by people who promote guns? This is insane. We depend on our legislators. The Republicans didn’t even read the fucking bill. It was just another bill from Marion Hammer, and they were directed to vote for it.”
The relevance of SYG to the death of Trayvon Martin has been a subject of debate ever since the story began getting scrutinized, as the law seemed to be the reason the Sanford Police Department did not arrest 28-year-old George Zimmerman following his deadly confrontation with the 17-year-old black teen.
Stand Your Ground (aka Florida Statute 776.032) states that civilians in any place where they have a legal right to be, public or private, need not retreat in the face of what they perceive as threats, but may instead use deadly force and be immune from prosecution, regardless of where the event occurs. The Tampa Bay Times reported last month that the law has been invoked at least 130 times statewide since 2005; 70 of those cases involved fatalities.
At the time of the incident, Sanford’s then police chief, Bill Lee Jr., said officers did not have probable cause to arrest Zimmerman because he claimed he acted in self-defense. Stand Your Ground expressly prohibits police from arresting someone who had a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm. Police may investigate, the statute says, “but the agency may not arrest the person” without probable cause.
Supporters of the 2005 law say that what Zimmerman is alleged to have done does not qualify for Stand Your Ground. Those supporters include the chair of the Florida Democratic Party, Rod Smith, a former prosecutor who co-sponsored the legislation.
Nevertheless, Governor Rick Scott has called on Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll to lead a task force to further study the law, which was first enacted here in Florida, and like other such gun measures in Florida, set a national example, as 20 other states now have similar statutes.
Before Stand Your Ground, Florida already had some of the broadest gun and self-defense regulations in the country, like the concealed-carry provision signed by then Governor Bob Martinez in 1987 that triggered a wave of gun-carry laws around the nation. Permit holders are also exempted from the mandatory state waiting period on handgun purchases.
Another law permits citizens to keep guns in their cars at work. And last year, the Legislature was hoping to allow guns on college campuses, but influential state Senator John Thrasher helped thwart it after his friend’s daughter was accidentally shot at an off-campus apartment at FSU.
The issue of gun control used to be as big (and divisive) as abortion in the U.S. But after the Democrats lost the House in 1994 and Al Gore lost Tennessee and Arkansas in 2000, the party dropped the issue, leaving cities to deal with it on their own.
The attempted assassination last year of Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords generated a groundswell of support for changes in gun control laws. But when New York Congresswoman Carolyn Mahoney tried to ban high-capacity ammunition clips (used by the alleged assassin, Jared Laughner, to spray over 30 bullets in his shooting spree), the legislation went nowhere.
Residents of Tampa and St. Petersburg deal with the reality of gun violence on a day-to-day basis. East Tampa businesswoman Diane Hart says, “Gun violence is on a rampage in our community, and we’ve got to do something.” She applauds Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Police Chief Jane Castor for enacting a gun buyback program last December, which resulted in 1,000 guns being bought out of the neighborhood, but maintains, “We’ve got another 1,000 out there, and we can’t possibly buy them all.”
At a news conference announcing the buyback day, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn held a toddler in his arms as he spoke. “When you can get a gun quicker than you can get a book out of the library, then something is wrong.”
Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick represents East Tampa and other parts of Tampa’s urban core. When he tried to do something about gun crime in the black community, he was inundated with emails telling him to back off.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller’s son Trey was one of five people shot during a Florida A&M University graduation party at a downtown Tallahassee nightclub in 1998 (Trey recovered). Miller was a state Senator at the time, and that same year Hammer and the NRA went after him for trying to introduce controls on gun-show promoters and assault rifles. His bills never got out of committee.
Of course, even if local legislators like Frank Reddick were able to get colleagues to sign off on a law regarding guns, it would have no impact. That’s because, since 1987, local governments in Florida have been banned from creating and enforcing their own gun ordinances.
But there’s more: In 2011 the Legislature passed a new law that imposes fines on counties and municipalities that do not repeal and stop enforcing their own firearms and ammunition ordinances. Mayors, council and commission members face a $5,000 fine and removal from office if they “knowingly and willfully violate” the law. Towns that enforce their ordinances risk a $100,000 fine.
The absurdity of these laws was pointed out in a recent ACLU-sponsored meeting to discuss the regulations for protests during the Republican National Convention: The city can ban water pistols inside the city's so-called "clean zone," but not a real live gun.
St. Petersburg representative Rick Kriseman attempted to push a bill to repeal the ’87 law, but said he couldn’t even get it through his own local delegation before the most recent session.
St. Pete City Councilman Steve Kornell, like Reddick, was inundated with hateful emails from 2nd Amendment groups last year after he called for a resolution encouraging the state to look at a ban on assault weapons in the city. But he didn’t get much support from City Council. “I couldn’t even get five votes on the council to even send a resolution because they’re so afraid of the NRA.” (Bill Dudley, Herb Polson, Jeff Danner and Leslie Curran voted against Kornell’s measure.)
That vote came after St. Pete Police Chief Chuck Harmon said, “Assault rifles are meant basically to kill human beings. There are no other uses for them.”
Kornell says the city needs help. “Regardless of what the NRA says, we’ve got real issues here.”
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says the answer is simple: “We need to show up elected officials that are more willing to be beholden to the gun lobby than to the will and the safety of the public that they’ve been elected to represent. We need to show them not only we’re watching them, but we need to make that as embarrassing as it should be.”