Tallahassee - It isn’t often that Florida sheriffs back down from a fight.
But the National Rifle Association isn’t any ordinary combatant.
The NRA’s Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer sent a survey on behalf of the NRA and the United Sportsmen of Florida, whom she also represents, to sheriffs candidates around the state for the first time ever earlier this month. The questions, which critics say are lopsided, involve often controversial issues such as the state’s Stand Your Ground law and the sheriffs’ opposition to an “open carry” bill.
But the Florida Sheriffs Association is staying out of the fight, at least officially. The group decided last week it would be best to let candidates decide on their own whether they want to complete the questionnaire, FSA Executive Director Steve Casey said.
That hasn’t stopped Casey from criticizing the survey.
“This is definitely a political tool,” he said. “This is not your standard survey. This is a tool they plan to use to sway the election towards one candidate over another based on the things they were asking. They’re telling you what their agenda is on the survey and what your answers should be. It potentially could affect the primary and the general election.”
The survey erroneously creates two kinds of sheriffs, Casey said: “pro-gun” sheriffs and “anti-gun.” But he says they are neither. “They’re pro-public safety,” he said.
Hammer, however, said, “Candidate questionnaires are traditionally how most organizations find out where candidates stand on issues that are important to their members. This is an educational process. Voters have a right and a responsibility to know who they are voting for. I’m not apologetic if that offends the Florida Sheriffs Association and anti-gun sheriffs.”
Like other special-interest groups, including the League of Women Voters and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the NRA has long sent similar questionnaires to legislative candidates.
But it’s the first time Hammer has asked sheriffs candidates to give their written views on weapons and gun owners, whom she repeatedly calls “law-abiding citizens” in the questionnaire.
More than half of the state’s 66 elected sheriffs, including Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, are running for re-election and have opposition in this year’s Aug. 14 primary or Nov. 6 general election. With an estimated 6 million NRA members in Florida, many of them active voters, an NRA endorsement or castigation can make or break a candidate.
Hammer says she plans to rate the sheriffs and their opponents “and we will let our people know.”
Not answering may not be a way out for candidates. The cover sheet attached to the four-page survey warns in bold letters, “No endorsement or support will be provided to a candidate who fails to return the questionnaire.”
“They’re smart enough to read it and understand that there are some questions that appear to be somewhat slanted and there’s kind of an implied threat regarding how you answer it and then if you don’t answer it you’ll get no support from the NRA or the United Sportsmen of America,” Casey said.
He said he’s heard from sheriffs who said they plan to respond and others who are “considering their options.”
Bradshaw could not be reached for comment, but his campaign manager said he had not received the survey.
Duval County Sheriff John Rutherford, the legislative chairman of the FSA, just got reelected last year but he’s filling out the form anyway, he said, because he’s a Second Amendment supporter and NRA member.
Still, he said he’s disappointed with the questionnaire.
“I think it’s unreasonable the way that some of the questions read,” he said. “You’re given choices that aren’t choices.”
For example, the candidate answering the question about Florida’s first-in-the-nation Stand Your Ground law has the option of checking “Yes, I believe the ‘Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground’ is appropriate and victims have a right to fight back without a duty to retreat,” or “No, I oppose the ‘Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground’ and believe victims should surrender to criminals or retreat to avoid fighting back.”
The survey received media attention when it was released June 5 as a task force assembled by Gov. Scott was preparing to meet in Orlando to consider whether Florida’s use of deadly force law need to be repealed, amended or left alone in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford in February. Zimmerman invoked the Stand Your Ground defense after shooting Martin, who was walking with an iced tea and a bag of candy on a rainy night in a gated community.
Another question asks if candidates support a law that would allow someone with a concealed weapons permit to openly display a gun. Those in favor can answer, “Yes, I support open carry…as a means to stop harassment by those anti-gun law enforcement officers.”
Critics says this is a veiled reference