Saturday, January 20, 2018
Politics

Hillsborough sheriff tweaks state NRA

TAMPA — David Gee grew up hunting deer and hogs in eastern Hillsborough County. He has antique Western rifles in his office, participates in quick-draw competitions and hosts a skeet shooting event each year.

But Hillsborough's gun-toting sheriff made one thing clear this week: Though he's a member of the National Rifle Association, it's not his job to have gun lobbyists' backs.

Last month, Florida NRA director Marion Hammer sent a questionnaire to candidates in Florida sheriff elections.

"There are no trick questions," she wrote, before listing several winding queries that appear to angle for particular responses.

When Hammer asks about the controversial "stand your ground" law — the one at the center of the Trayvon Martin shooting — she writes:

"Do you agree that no victim of crime should be required to surrender his life, health, safety, personal dignity, autonomy or property to a criminal, nor should a victim be required to retreat in the face of attack from any place he or she has a right to be?"

Like a middle-school love note, she asks for a check: yes or no.

Gee didn't play.

Instead, in a three-page letter referencing statutes and legal precedent, he explains his stance. It boils down to this: Gee says it's his job to enforce the law, whatever it is, not to answer "misleading" questions. He didn't share any opinions.

Hammer's letter starts with a few questions about the Second Amendment.

Would you support legislation to restrict or ban the lawful manufacture, sale, transfer, ownership or possession of firearms? she asks.

Gee replies with examples of how courts have restricted the Second Amendment. Kids can't own guns; felons can't own guns.

"Since I am legally and morally bound to follow the law as defined by the Supreme Court of the United States, I freely accept their decision," he writes.

Later, Hammer writes that privacy is a growing issue.

"Businesses have been using off-duty law enforcement officers — in their official uniforms — as private security and have been SEARCHING private vehicles that are parked in business parking lots."

People are being intimidated by the uniform and coerced into giving permission for searches, she writes. Would you allow your deputies to do that?

That question, Gee responds, implies that when an officer asks for permission to search a vehicle, that officer is being "inherently coercive."

Courts allow these consent searches, he writes.

"They are not controversial in any way," he adds. "Your obvious objection to them does not make them unlawful or unconstitutional."

And when it comes to "stand your ground," the sheriff deflected, choosing not to share his opinion.

"The Legislature has spoken on this issue," he writes. "HCSO deputies always follow the law."

This wasn't the first time Gee has stood up to the Florida NRA.

In 2011, he spoke out against a proposed bill in the Legislature that would have allowed people with concealed weapons permits to openly carry guns.

The NRA pushed the "open carry law." Many sheriffs opposed it. The bill eventually failed.

Gee declined to comment for this article. Sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said Gee thought it would be better to explain his responsibilities as sheriff, rather than answer Hammer's questions.

"They were very suggestive," McKinnon said, "and he wanted to make sure the proper context was maintained."

Hammer could not be reached late Wednesday, when the Tampa Bay Times received a copy of the questionnaire and Gee's response.

The Florida Sheriff's Association drafted its own response to Hammer's questionnaire.

"The Sheriffs in our state have long defended a citizen's right to keep and bear arms as outlined in the Second Amendment of the Constitution," it reads. "However, the Sheriffs also have a duty to oppose legislation that would reduce public safety and place citizens and law enforcement officers at greater risk.

"It is unfortunate that some would view this common sense approach as being anti-Second Amendment, as this is far from our position as our history has shown."

At the end of his letter, Gee writes that he hopes Hammer finds his responses helpful.

"Thank you again for the opportunity to clarify my position on these issues for you," he writes. "I assure you that there are no trick answers in this response."

Times staff writer Keeley Sheehan contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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