How the NRA attained dominance in the 'Gunshine State'

— Gun rights supporters and gun control activists alike see Florida as one of the nation's gun-friendliest states.

Its reputation as the "Gunshine State" is rooted in politics, culture and the seemingly irresistible force of Marion Hammer, a soft-spoken grandmother who parlayed her gun rights advocacy in Florida into becoming the first female president of the National Rifle Association.

The Feb. 26 shooting death of unarmed Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford has cast a national spotlight on Florida's first-in-the-nation "stand your ground" law, which allows individuals who feel threatened to use deadly force to defend themselves in any public place where they have a right to be.

But that law is just one of a slew of pro-gun laws that Florida has put on the books in the past 25 years.

It started in 1987 when Florida became the first state to create a "shall issue" concealed weapons license.

The law, which took the NRA several years to get passed, requires Florida to issue the licenses to anyone who hasn't committed a felony, is 21 or older, and meets certain other requirements that gun control advocates say are too permissive.

Previously, laws limited the permits to certain professions or allowed counties to decide who could get them.

Florida's law became a model for the nation and helped Hammer, the NRA lobbyist in the state, to become the organization's president from 1995 to 1998.

There are now more than 900,000 people with Florida concealed weapons permits, although about 100,000 of them are held by residents of other states.

It's unclear how many residents are gun owners. A study done when 15 million people lived in Florida showed about 6 million, or 40 percent, owned guns. With Florida's population now at 19 million, Hammer estimates the percentage is about the same.

The NRA has about 4.5 million members nationally. Hammer estimates more than one-tenth of them, or nearly 500,000, live in Florida, and she says many of them vote and contribute politically.

According to a study by Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck, "the strongest and most consistent predictors of gun ownership are hunting, being male, being older, higher income, residence in rural areas or small towns, having been reared in such small places, having been reared in the South, and being Protestant."

But Hammer, who carries a Colt detective special with the first "shall issue" concealed weapons permit granted, says the main reason there are so many guns in Florida is protection.

"The only thing you can attribute it to is the way individuals feel about their individual rights," she said. "The Second Amendment is not about hunting. It's about protection. It's about defending your country and defending your family and defending yourself. The Second Amendment was never about hunting."

Others say the reasons Florida's Republican-dominated legislature is so keen on laws favoring gun owners are that the issue plays well in GOP primaries and that Hammer's influence is so formidable.

"You can't overstate the passion and tenacity of Marion Hammer," said Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose agency issues concealed weapons licenses.

"Florida is a very pro-gun state," he continued. "But Marion certainly deserves a lot of credit for her work in organizing sportsmen and gun owners to ... keep anti-gun laws from being passed and for passing pro-gun legislation."

She pushes a new bill expanding gun owners' rights or giving them special privileges nearly every year.

Though she has had a few setbacks — such as Florida's "take your guns to work" law, which passed in 2008 but in a significantly diluted form from what the NRA first proposed — Hammer usually gets what she seeks from Florida legislators.

Restricting the ability of adoption agencies and doctors to ask questions about gun ownership and keeping police agencies from using pawnshop data to solve gun crimes are examples of NRA legislation that is unnecessary other than to build support among conservative constituents, said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who voted against the stand-your-ground law and has been an outspoken critic of it since Martin's shooting.

"She's very, very good. She's serious. She's prepared. And she does not believe in compromise. Marion has won every major battle they needed to win in terms of gun ownership, possession and gun transfers," said Gelber, a former federal prosecutor. "So when you win those major battles, what else is there to do to keep their base engaged?"

That's nonsense, Hammer said. She said her proposals are need-driven.

While others call Florida a gun law laboratory, Hammer blames her opponents for

bringing attention to the state's laws.

"The anti-gunners give it so much publicity and so much play that it generally goes national. ... It's not like NRA sits down and says, ‘OK, here are a bunch of issues, let's see if we can get it passed in Florida,' " she said.

Supporters of Florida's stand-your-ground law say gun opponents and civil rights activists are doing something similar now in the aftermath of Martin's shooting.

"Unfortunately, this tragedy is being used by people with other agendas," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who sponsored several NRA-backed bills including the stand-your-ground measure.

National civil rights leaders have held rallies and marches in Sanford and throughout the nation, calling for a repeal of the law and the arrest of Zimmerman. They say the shooting raises questions about racial profiling in the state.

In response, Gov. Rick Scott, an NRA member and gun owner who has held political events at gun stores, is putting together a task force to look into the law after the shooting investigation is complete.

Impatient with what he called a delay with Scott's task force, state Sen. Chris Smith, the chamber's incoming Democratic leader, convened his own panel in his home city of Fort Lauderdale.

After taking testimony Thursday, Smith asked his panel of legal experts to send him opinions on whether the law should be repealed and, if not, recommendations for how it could be amended. He gave them a week.

Baxley accused Smith of inserting election-year politics into the shooting.

"Never let a good crisis go to waste," Baxley said. "And they're not. The Democrat Party is grabbing it to gin up turnout for elections. And that's just sad."

Mark Wilson, executive director of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, fought the NRA on the guns-at-work law and said the chamber does not have a position on stand your ground. But he noted, "Florida is ground zero for the presidential election. I think it's no secret that the Obama administration and the NRA are on opposite sides of almost every issue."

Brian Malte, director of legislation and mobilization for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said election-year politics should not scare legislators from reconsidering the law.

"If not now, when will the Florida Legislature do something the right way?" Malte asked. "If it takes as many election cycles as possible to get people in to do the right thing ... we'll do it."

The national organization's website features a photo of Zimmerman topped by the caption: "Trayvon Martin's shooting is NRA's vision for America," a quote from the group's president, Dan Gross.

The Brady Campaign also has given the name "Zimmerman Armed Vigilante Act" to a federal bill it opposes that would require states to honor other states' concealed weapons licenses.

Martin's shooting was "a wake-up call for lots of people across the country, including civil rights groups and others," Malte said. "Nothing changes overnight. But this is something over the next weeks and months and years that people will feel really compelled to do something about."

The attention to the case could give Florida legislators an easy out to change the law, said former Palm Beach County State Attorney Barry Krischer, who opposed it.

"This has gotten the public worked up. Most times the public doesn't give a damn, quite frankly. I don't think this was a racial shooting, but it's turned into a big racial debate," he said.

"I think the legislature can save face and simply remove ‘any other place that you have the right to be.' And simply leave the law on the books as it pertains to your home and your vehicle."

Staff writer John Lantigua and staff researchers Niels Heimeriks and Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.