For months last year, the shooting of an unarmed black teenager put a spotlight on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law and made the state the epicenter of the national debate on guns.
The Connecticut elementary school shooting in December intensified arguments over gun control and gun rights, leading even some gun-friendly lawmakers around the country to rethink their positions on the Second Amendment.
But back in Florida, disparaged by critics as “The Gunshine State,” lawmakers will almost certainly do nothing this year to alter what are considered the most lenient gun laws in the country.
“Our idea of gun control is a steady aim,” Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said of the Florida Panhandle region where he has lived for nearly two decades. Gaetz, a National Rifle Association member, notes that he owns a shotgun that was his father’s.
Sen. David Simmons, a co-sponsor of the 2005 Stand Your Ground law, served on a special task force created by Gov. Rick Scott in response to teenager Trayvon Martin’s death in Sanford a year ago. Simmons, adopting some of the task force recommendations, has filed a bill that would essentially leave the self-defense provisions as is but require police to issue strict guidelines about crime prevention programs. Under Simmons’ proposal, the guidelines must include a prohibition against volunteers confronting or trying to capture suspects.
Even the shooting deaths in Newtown, Conn., have not spawned a reassessment of Florida’s gun laws by GOP legislative leaders.
“They’re not even wanting the discussion,” said Florida Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who assembled his own panel to examine the Stand Your Ground law. The law lets individuals use deadly force when they feel threatened and grants immunity from prosecution or arrest.
Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman invoked that defense after killing Martin in a gated community in the town near Orlando. A judge has not decided whether the law applies in Zimmerman’s case.
Smith has filed a bill that would require individuals like Zimmerman to be arrested immediately after killing someone rather than assume a killing was justified.
Florida has issued more than 1 million concealed weapons permits — one for every 12 residents old enough to have one.
Whether residents keep them at home or carry them around, there’s no question that guns are important to GOP politicians in Florida.
Guns proudly displayed
Last year, members of the Florida House gave Speaker Dean Cannon a $1,000 double-barrel Beretta 686 shotgun for his retirement gift.
Hanging in Weatherford’s office in a glass frame is a Springfield Mil-Spec 1911 .45 caliber handgun, personalized with “Speaker Will Weatherford 2012-2014” below the House of Representatives seal. The gun was a gift from a Republican member, Weatherford said.
Weatherford, who has a concealed weapons permit, said he does not have handguns at home because he has three young daughters under age 5.
“Guns laying around the house isn’t exactly very popular with us right now. But I do believe that people should have the right to carry a gun,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Watering down Florida laws won’t do anything to prevent tragedies like the Newtown massacre, he said.
“It’s hard to legislate crazy,” said Weatherford. “If someone is crazy enough to go into an elementary school with 6- and 7-year-olds and open fire, is passing a law going to change that? I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence it would.”
Florida’s love affair with guns dates back to pioneer days, when ranchers and farmers used shotguns for work, food, recreation and protection. In some parts of the state even now, rifles resting on gun racks in the rear windows of pickups are more common than not.
NRA lobbyist a force
The legislature’s reluctance to impose new gun restrictions rests in part in the hands of Marion Hammer, whose effectiveness as the NRA’s Florida lobbyist earned her the post of president of the national association in 1995.
“There is no event, no matter how tragic or preventable, that would move the Legislature even a degree on this issue,” said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democrat who served in the House when Stand Your Ground was passed and was one of the few lawmakers to vote against it.
Hammer believes Floridians are passionate about guns not only because of the state’s history. The state’s gun laws are also attractive to retirees who come from northern states with strict gun control, she said.
“I think that what it’s about in Florida is freedom and recognition of the opportunity to enjoy rights that are yours but rights that you have been deprived of before you came here,” she said.
And although Democrats have filed a slew of gun bills, including attempts to repeal laws Hammer fought hard to get passed, she’s not on the defensive. But she isn’t pushing anything this year, either.
“I don’t think, in this emotional atmosphere, it is a good time to debate policy” about guns, said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who was the House sponsor of the Stand Your Ground Law.
Farms vs. cities
Baxley characterized the polarization over guns as an “urban/rural difference in value systems.” People in historically agricultural portions of the state “carry the view of being more personally responsible for what happens,” Baxley said.
“The more you urbanize, the more you’re dependent on somebody else. The autonomy of that history is part of the culture.”
Commissioners in Palm Beach County, which has both urban and rural areas, have a different perspective. The county commission sued the state in 2011 over a law passed that year that prohibits local governments from enacting gun ordinances stricter than those of the state. The state provision, which carries hefty fines for local officials who violate it, has forced municipalities and counties to repeal laws prohibiting people from bringing guns into public meetings or public buildings, including the state Capitol.
County Democrats have filed repeal bills that would be lucky to even get a committee hearing.
“It’s not about what they want; it’s not about their personal fears,” Hammer said. “It’s about a document called the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Just because commissioners in Palm Beach County don’t like guns doesn’t mean they should legislate against them and violate the Constitution and the rights of citizens in their jurisdiction.”
Even Hammer’s critics say it is impossible to overstate the clout wielded by the squat, gray-haired grandmother with piercing blue eyes.
Smith said he was optimistic that lawmakers would do something about Stand Your Ground even before Newtown. “But I’ve seen recently the power of the NRA and the fear it strikes in the hearts of these members,” he said.
GOP members are avoiding debate on the issue because they “may say something or be forced to make a public decision choosing the safety of their constituents or the NRA and its very vocal followers,” Smith said.
“It’s scary. It’s very scary that members are scared to do something,” he said. “Anything you bring up, they have an argument against, so they’re afraid to even discuss anything.”
Sen. John Thrasher, a former House Speaker who butted heads with Hammer over a bill that would have allowed guns on college and university campuses, acknowledges that lawmakers are worried about a poor ranking from the NRA.
“There are a lot of people out there who believe strongly in the Second Amendment. And they’re the kind of voters who go to the polls,” said Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.
Gun bills for lawmakers
Gun rights: Endorsed by the NRA, HM 545 would urge Congress and the president “to preserve the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.”
Gun regulations: Democrats have filed bills that would weaken or do away with current laws. Among them:
- Guns in public: HB 97, SB 374 would repeal law prohibiting local governments from banning firearms in public buildings or meetings and imposing fines on local officials who pass ordinances related to guns.
- Local control: SB 1018 would give counties and municipalities instead of the state the authority to regulate firearms.
- School safety: HB 325, HB 327 would require state sales and use taxes collected on firearms and ammo to be spent on the Safe Schools Trust Fund.
- Docs and Glocks: HB 4017, SB 314 would repeal law prohibiting doctors from asking patients about firearm ownership.
- Mental health: SB 1000 would create mental health “preventive assessments,” giving psychiatrists or psychologists the power to determine if someone is mentally unfit to possess a gun. Would lead to a 90-day suspension of a concealed weapons permit or restriction on purchasing a firearm.
Stand Your Ground bills:
- Neighborhood watch: SB 930 would require county sheriffs or police departments to issue guidelines regarding neighborhood watch programs that prohibit volunteers from confronting or trying to capture someone suspected of unlawful activity; would clarify that law enforcement is not restricted from fully investigating cases in which immunity may be claimed.
- Bystanders: HB 123, SB 362 would take away immunity from prosecution or civil lawsuits if a child or bystander is injured.
- Defending property: HB 331, SB 136 would eliminate provision allowing aggressors to later claim Stand Your Ground defense; would remove automatic immunity from prosecution and do away with the prohibition against detaining or arresting someone who claims the Stand Your Ground defense.
- Arrest: HB 799 would require immediate arrest and detainment of someone when a death occurs; would require Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate all Stand Your Ground cases; the person would be held until FDLE determines that deadly force was justified or charges are filed.
- Castles, not cars: HB 4009, SB 622 would repeal the law altogether and allow the use of deadly force in self-defense in homes or dwellings, including tents, but excluding cars.
Keeping watch on power
Florida lawmakers return to the Capitol on March 5, and The Palm Beach Post will be there. Look to our veteran reporters — John Kennedy and Dara Kam on state government and George Bennett on Palm Beach County politics – for in-depth coverage of the decisions that affect your communities, your businesses, your lives.
Post coverage wall to wall
Today we give you the outlooks for gun control and expanded health care in Florida – two issues that have torn the nation apart for the past few years.
Next week we will detail the goals of the governor and the state’s top legislative leaders.
Throughout the two-month session we’ll give you a weekly glimpse of the real people who are your lawmakers with a new Q&A feature in addition to daily in-depth coverage of what they are up to.
Of course, if daily is not often enough for you, rest assured you’ll continue to find the same up-to-the-moment coverage of important state events that we’ve always provided at PostonPolitics.com and on Twitter. Start now by following @gbennettpost, @dkpbpost and @JKennedyReport.