Commentary: NRA will stand its ground over 'Stand Your Ground' laws

The Miami HeraldMarch 31, 2012 

With Trayvon Martin’s death, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and the National Rifle Association’s agenda are in the crosshairs.

And the NRA probably couldn’t be happier to stand its ground.

Chances state lawmakers will strike the deadly force law from the books: Nil.

Chances it will be amended: Slight.

Chances the NRA will get to boast of a win: High.

That means bragging rights, a happy membership and, ultimately, more money for an organization that can boast of its effectiveness in the state Capitol.

The NRA relishes a fight. But it has gotten nearly everything it wanted out of Florida’s Legislature. And that could become a strange problem — for the NRA.

“The NRA is a victim of its own success,” said one of its longtime opponents, former Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. “There’s not much more for the NRA to win. It’s running out of people to pick fights with.”

So, in recent years, the NRA’s fights in the state Capitol have become, relatively speaking, more small bore and geared toward waging turf battles with other special-interest lobbies.

In the past decade, the NRA successfully took on: the Florida Chamber of Commerce over the right to allow employees to store locked guns in the cars at workplace parking lots; police departments that compiled data on firearms purchases at pawn shops; adoption agencies that would ask prospective parents about guns; environmentalists who wanted to sue over gun-range lead clean-up; local governments that want to regulate guns; doctors who ask patients about firearms, and colleges that ban firearms on campus. The college gun law is its only legislative loss — for now.

Trayvon’s hometown senator, Miami Gardens Democrat Oscar Braynon, is bringing the fight to the NRA — a rarity in the state Capitol — by simply asking for legislative hearings into Stand Your Ground.

The senator also wants the law changed to make sure that a suspect can’t be immune from arrest if he pursues another, provokes a confrontation and then uses force. That could have happened in Trayvon’s Feb. 26 shooting death by neighbor George Zimmerman.

Zimmerman has not been arrested. Sanford police cited an immunity clause in Stand Your Ground.

The law’s authors say the police are misconstruing Stand Your Ground. But Rep. Dennis Baxley said he doesn’t want the law touched.

“There’s nothing in the law that says you can pursue and confront people,” said Baxley, R-Ocala. “There’s nothing to clarify.”

The NRA’s lead lobbyist, Marion Hammer, has praised the law for giving citizens the right to defend themselves.

“It has become very emotional and political,” she told the Tallahassee Democrat. “Politicians who say we need to rewrite the law are politically grandstanding.”

She also has decried the “rush to judgment” and the use of “one incident” to change the law. Hammer is an expert in just that type of emotional politics where one anecdote leads to a wholesale change in law.

In 2005, for instance, she got the Stand Your Ground law passed based on just one case, that of 77 year-old James Workman. He shot and killed an intruder in his hurricane-ravaged home near Pensacola.

Workman was never charged. The state attorney specifically said Workman had a right to defend himself on his property — a concept known as the “Castle Doctrine,” a reference to the old saying that “a man’s home is his castle.”

But Hammer persuaded legislators that citizens needed to have the doctrine enshrined in statute. And they decided to expand the right to use deadly force almost anywhere a person feels reasonably threatened.

Hammer’s successes are a result of her tenacity and the fact that gun owners are passionate. They email. And they vote.

In nearly every debate, gun-control advocates have predicted “blood in the streets” and a “wild West” atmosphere.

But violent crime has fallen 19 percent in Florida and firearm crimes have declined 9 percent between 2005 and 2010 (the most recent year for which crime data is fully available.) Still, murders increased overall by 12 percent – to 987 – and the reports of justifiable homicides have tripled, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Braynon is up against more than just the NRA. There’s a cultural divide between the constituents of rural white representatives like Baxley and the constituents of urban black senators like Braynon, who are outnumbered in the Legislature.

“For many of the people in my district, only criminals and police carry guns,” he said. “In North Florida, it’s a whole different story.”

And it’s the NRA that usually dictates the storyline in Florida’s Capitol.

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