Despite years of negative publicity over Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law, lawmakers are close to expanding it to protect gunmen who fire warning shots or wave weapons in a threatening manner—and they're doing it with a bill written by a top NRA lobbyist, Gawker has learned.
The bill is sponsored chiefly by two National Rifle Association members, Republicans Sen. Greg Evers and Rep. Neil Combee, with a longstanding history of support for the gun lobby. But they did not write the bill, one of the legislators told Gawker in an interview: That honor fell to former NRA president and current gun lobbyist Marion Hammer.
That revelation is just the latest chapter in Hammer's nearly four-decade NRA career, marked by ever-expanding pro-gun laws in Florida that become model legislation for other states. She was instrumental in the state becoming the first to issue across-the-board concealed weapons permits to residents in the '80s, and she almost singlehandedly created Stand Your Ground in 2005 in similar fashion, feeding language for the bill to its two sponsors—one of whom was Evers' immediate predecessor in the Senate.
Now, she's put her imprint on a bill that would allow Floridians to openly brandish guns for the first time, and could lead to more permissive open-carry laws or lighter requirements for licensing in the future.
The current bill would amend the state's expansive Stand Your Ground law—which permits residents to use deadly force in numerous circumstances—so that it also allows the nebulous "threatened use of force." In effect, it means that gun owners could walk free for brandishing their gun in a threatening manner or firing a shot indiscriminately to "warn" a potential assailant.
That also means gun owners would get blanket immunity from the state's "10-20-life" law, which mandates an automatic 10-year sentence for anyone accused of flashing or using a gun in the commission of a felony. Numerous Florida politicians, including Jeb Bush, have long credited that measure with significantly decreasing the state's gun crimes.
Ironically, the NRA originally lobbied in favor of those mandatory sentencing minimums for gun-brandishing Floridians. In 1999, Hammer stood beside then-Gov. Jeb Bush as he signed "10-20-life" into law. That was part of the pro-gun lobby's longstanding dictum that "we don't need new gun laws, we need to enforce the ones that are already on the books." But in this case, the NRA wants to do away with a gun law that's been on the books for nearly 15 years—a law that it helped pass.
Evers proved eager to work with the NRA on the current warning shot bill. "This was an issue that I had been looking at for a while," Evers said, when Hammer "called me up and told me that she was working on a draft of some language that Rep. Combee was bringing to the floor of the House. I told her that I would take care of it." After Combee filed his bill last autumn, Evers said, "I just used the same language as he had."
If the NRA was looking for an ally in the legislature, it couldn't have done better than Evers, a lifetime member of the organization. When he was looking to make the jump up from a House seat to the Senate in 2009, the gun group put up 32 "membership drive" billboards in Evers' district featuring his face. The company that leased those billboards to the NRA, at a six-figure discount, had just received a sweetheart deal from then-Rep. Evers—an arrangement that resulted in a grand jury investigation for Evers and Hammer, which "concluded laws were broken, but charges were never filed because the illegal acts could not be pinned on any one person," according to the Florida Times/Union.
"A person with a firearm is a citizen," Evers said in a recent committee hearing defending the warning shot bill. "A person without a firearm is a victim."
Rep. Combee, who did not respond to requests for comment in time for this story, also is an NRA member and is endorsed by the group's "Political Victory Fund."
Combee had unexpected backup when he introduced the warning shot bill in the state House. It came from a freshman Democratic representative who hails from the bluest, most pro-gun-control part of the state, Rep. Katie Edwards of Broward County.
When she ran for office in 2012, her challenger in the Democratic primary asked why Edwards, a self-styled South Florida progressive, had an "A" rating from the NRA. Edwards reassured voters in the left-leaning district that she had disagreements with the gun lobby and saw her NRA endorsement as a distraction from other issues, like jobs, education, and finance. "This is political posturing," she said. "Of all the issues we are facing, this is not in the forefront of the voters' minds."
Yet when she became the warning shot bill's "prime co-sponsor" last fall—in effect, a wingman for Combee and a provider of bipartisan cover in the Legislature—pro-gun legislation suddenly became very important to her. "The people I represent, the people we represent, need not be required, or have imposed upon them, a duty to retreat," Edwards said. "I won't turn my back on responsible self-defense laws."
After learning of the subject of this story this week, Edwards canceled a scheduled interview with Gawker.
So far, the warning shot bill appears destined for passage. It has sailed through every committee that's reviewed it in the largely Republican-led Legislature, gaining 42 House co-sponsors, including 11 Democrats.
Bizarrely, Evers, the bill's key Senate sponsor, told Gawker that he doesn't believe in firing warning shots. When asked whether the practice was contrary to common gun-safety protocols, he said: "Does it run counter to my beliefs? Yes. You don't pull the gun unless you're willing to use it, and I don't mean [for] warning shots."
Nevertheless, he said, the right to fire wide was a "constitutional right" that "should be left up to the individual."