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How the NRA and Its Allies Helped Spread a Radical Gun Law Nationwide

Years before Trayvon Martin was killed, gun lobbyists conspired to give Stand Your Ground shooters immunity everywhere.

| Thu Jun. 7, 2012 6:10 AM EDT

The shall-issue law would allow thousands of ex-convicts and spouse beaters to pack heat; a Florida state attorney called it "one of the dumbest laws I have ever seen." A 1988 investigation by the St. Petersburg Times found permits had been given to two fugitives with outstanding arrest warrants, a disgraced cop who'd been convicted of a DUI and turned down for a county gun license, a man charged with fondling an eight-year-old girl, and a dead man. Florida has since issued more than 2 million concealed-weapons permits.

Hammer called Florida lawmakers "a modern-day Gestapo" for trying to keep guns away from violent criminals and the mentally ill.

That same year Hammer called a panel of Florida legislators "a modern-day Gestapo" for considering legislation to keep guns away from violent criminals and the mentally ill. ("This is the lowest standard of integrity I have ever seen for a lobbyist in Tallahassee," one pro-gun Republican responded at the time.)

But Hammer's efforts really picked up steam when she served as the NRA's first female president from 1995 to 1998—by the end of which time Bush had been elected governor and the GOP had taken firm control of the Statehouse. Hammer and her allies have since barred city and county governments from banning guns in public buildings; forced businesses to let employees keep guns in cars parked in company lots; made it illegal for doctors to warn patients about the hazards of gun ownership (this controversial "Docs versus Glocks" law was overturned by a George W. Bush-appointed federal judge); and secured an exemption to Florida's celebrated open-records laws in order to keep gun permit holders' names a secret. (Baxley had cosponsored a similar bill, explaining in its original text that such lists had been used "to confiscate firearms and render the disarmed population helpless in the face of Nazi atrocities" and Fidel Castro's "tyranny.")

As Florida became known to some as the "Gunshine State," it began exporting its laws, with ALEC's help, to other statehouses. This effort was no doubt aided by the fact that the vice president of Hammer's Unified Sportsmen of Florida is John Patronis, cousin to Republican state Rep. Jimmy Patronis—sponsor of the aforementioned bill that kept names of concealed-weapons license holders secret and ALEC's current Florida chairman. The organization would also be instrumental to spreading Stand Your Ground nationwide. "We definitely brought that bill forward to ALEC," said Baxley, a member of the group. "It's a place where you can share ideas. I don't see anything nefarious about sharing good ideas." The NRA has served as "corporate co-chair" of ALEC's Public Safety and Elections task force, which pushed Stand Your Ground and other gun laws. Since 2005, the year Florida's law was passed, gun manufacturers like Beretta, Remington, and Glock have poured as much as $39 million into the NRA's lobbying coffers.

Baxley defends the NRA's involvement: "They have lots of members who want this statute. They're people who live in my district. They're concerned about turning back this lawless chaos and anarchy in our society." Records show that the NRA's Political Victory Fund has long supported Baxley—from a $500 contribution in 2000 (the state's maximum allowable donation) to $35,000 spent on radio ads in support of his state Senate bid in 2007. Peaden received at least $2,500 from the NRA and allied groups over the years. The NRA also maxed out on direct contributions to Jeb Bush's gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 and 2002, and it gave $125,000 to the Florida GOP between 2004 and 2010—more than it gave to any other state party. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the NRA spent $729,863 to influence Florida politics in the 2010 election cycle alone.

Once fairly open to speaking with the media, Hammer has proved elusive since the Trayvon Martin killing. When I approached her for this story, explaining that I was a third-generation gun collector with a Florida carry permit, she declined to comment on the record. "Unfortunately," she wrote in an email, "if you did a truly honest article on the law, it would either never be printed in Mother Jones, or if they did publish it, it would not be believed by the mag's audience!"

A climate of fear helped spread Stand Your Ground, according to the National District Attorneys Association. In 2007, it conducted the first in-depth study on the expansion of the Castle Doctrine and found that it took root in part because "there was a change in perceptions of public safety after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many citizens...became concerned that government agencies could not protect every citizen in the event of subsequent terror attacks." Indeed, the NRA used 9/11 to promote its legislative agenda, most notably in its unsuccessful push to let all commercial airline pilots pack heat. "What would have made 9/11 impossible?" LaPierre asked a crowd at the 2002 NRA convention in Reno, Nevada. "If those pilots on those four airplanes had the right to be armed."

Steven Jansen, vice president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and a former prosecutor in Detroit, was one of the study's authors. He first noticed the Stand Your Ground movement in early 2006 when it spread from Florida to Michigan, sponsored there by Republican state Sen. Rick Jones, an ALEC member. The law was "troublesome to me," Jansen told me. "We didn't really see a public safety need for it, and it could only muddy the legal waters."

With a confrontation like the one between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, cops and prosecutors would now be forced to make judgment calls about which participant felt like he was in more peril. That raised serious questions about whether real-world situations would ever be as clear-cut as the lawmakers assumed. Jansen pointed to scenarios ranging from road rage to scuffles between rival fraternities: "To presume from the outset, as Florida's law arguably does, that a deadly response in these situations is justified would be at best irresponsible; at worst, that assumption could create a new protected set of behaviors that might otherwise be considered hate crimes or vigilantism."

But legislators across the country nevertheless ignored objections from law enforcement. Indeed, Stand Your Ground gives armed civilians rights that even cops don't enjoy: "Society hesitates to grant blanket immunity to police officers, who are well-trained in the use of deadly force and require yearly testing of their qualifications to carry a firearm," Jansen has written. "Yet the expansion of the Castle Doctrine has given such immunity to citizens."

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