You can find part one of the series here
Following a successful 2001 legislative session and the horrific attacks of September 11th, the NRA was in the catbird’s seat with regards to Florida politics. Jeb Bush was the Governor and the GOP enjoyed large majorities in both houses of the legislature. Long-gone were the days when committee chairmen from liberal southeast Florida and other urban areas controlled the NRA’s fate.
While other conservative leaning interest groups, most notably the Florida Medical Association and Associated Industries of Florida, had large influence legislatively, nobody had the pull of the NRA in early 2000s Florida.
Many in the GOP establishment considered Charlie Crist a lightweight. Running statewide for an office about to be abolished (Commissioner of Education) did not bother many, but his decision to seek the Attorney General post shook up both the GOP establishment and professional lawyers across the state. Crist had failed the Florida Bar exam on his first two tries and had become more of a professional politician than a lawyer.
Crist was opposed in the GOP Primary by Senator Locke Burt, a favorite of the Insurance industry, and Tom Warner, the moderate Solicitor General who had served in the House from a Martin County based district. But Crist had a powerful ally in the NRA and its leader Marion P. Hammer.
In 1998 as Lawton Chiles pushed a sweeping measure based on the national Brady Law, Crist went after the issue in committee where the bill died and used it as a centerpiece of his US Senate campaign. “Unfortunately we’re in a state that’s No. 1 in violent crime in America,” said Crist, at the time. “And for us to make moves that would disarm our law-abiding citizens would be inappropriate.”
The weakening of gun laws under Republican Governor Bob Martinez and a complicit Democratic legislature in the late 1980s led Florida to national shame (though much of this shame came from the spate of tourist killings in 1993 which happened during Lawton Chiles Governorship and after the GOP had reached 20 Senators) and the number one rating in violent crime described in the 2002 campaign by Crist. While many Republican Congressmen from urban parts of the state charted a moderate course on gun related legislation at the Federal level, ambitious Florida based Republicans were becoming more and more gun crazy.
The consolidation of conservative and pro gun power in Tallahassee continued with the 2002 election. Crist overcame the establishment to win the GOP nomination and Democrat Buddy Dyer in the General Election. Jeb Bush was resoundingly reelected against a pathetically weak Democratic nominee, Bill McBride. The GOP also increased their majorities in both the House and Senate to where two thirds of the elected legislators in the state were Republicans.
In this GOP dominated Tallahassee, increasingly relevant was Marion P. Hammer. Her counsel was sought on such things as the state bird and even budget and tax matters by members of the GOP leadership. Charlie Crist as the new Attorney General charted a centrist course on consumer issues while fully embracing the gun rights mantra pushed by Hammer and the NRA. In the meantime, Democrats seemingly unable to adjust to minority status and potential legislative irrelevance failed to publicly counter the NRA message.
So complete was Republican influence over Tallahassee that new member training was conducted by J. Stanley Marshall’s right wing think tank, the James Madison Institute and legislators were encouraged to join the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) . ALEC which is largely funded by the Koch Brothers and has regularly pushed the NRA agenda on the state level since the early 1990s. It was ALEC that pushed states to liberalize gun laws in response to increased violent crime and to counter the Clinton/Gore moves to restrict gun sales on the national level.
The efforts of these organizations led to several Republicans from urban areas that were similarly represented by Republicans in Congress who supported many forms of gun control to become themselves zealots in opposition to any form of gun control. These legislators were voting directly against their constituents views and the established position of fellow local Republicans who were elected to Congress. Legislators such as Marco Rubio, Ellyn Bogdanoff , Lesley Waters and Adam Hasner from districts where polling showed wide support for gun control helped lead the fight to weaken Florida’s laws regulating firearms.
With the Republicans firmly in control of Florida state government at a level unseen in any other state east of the Mississippi in 2003 and the popular Hammer ever present in the capitol, Florida became the right wing laboratory for further liberalizing gun laws.
In part III we will discuss the legislative battle to pass “the stand your ground” law as well as other highlights from the second Bush term and the Crist/Scott years.