5 takeaways from the blockbuster New Yorker profile on NRA’s Marion Hammer

The story looked at how the National Rifle Association lobbyist asserts her control over Tallahassee.
State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, left, confers with gun-rights lobbyists -- Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association's longtime Tallahassee representative, and Florida Carry's attorney Eric Friday -- about a late-filed amendment proposed to Gaetz’s open-carry gun legislation on Jan. 28, 2016, during a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee. (Kristen M. Clark / Times/Herald)
State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, left, confers with gun-rights lobbyists -- Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association's longtime Tallahassee representative, and Florida Carry's attorney Eric Friday -- about a late-filed amendment proposed to Gaetz’s open-carry gun legislation on Jan. 28, 2016, during a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee. (Kristen M. Clark / Times/Herald)
Published Feb. 27, 2018|Updated Feb. 27, 2018

If you haven't read it yet, read it.

The Trace's Mike Spies published a story in the New Yorker's March 5 issue that outlines how the National Rifle Association's Marion Hammer dominates Tallahassee. Spies spent a year interviewing key legislative players and combing through thousands of pages of emails between Hammer and state officials that he obtained via public records requests.

Spies' story gives readers a stunning look at how the NRA influences the Florida Legislature. Again, read it.  (Hammer didn't agree to an interview for Spies' story, but she told the writer that "facts are being misrepresented and false stuff is being presented as fact.")

Here are the five biggest takeaways from the blockbuster story.

1. Florida is a breeding ground for NRA-backed, state-level gun policies. 

Concealed carry gun permits? Started in Florida. Now dozens of states allow them. "Stand Your Ground?" Florida had it first. Now half the country does. Florida is the perfect breeding ground for gun rights legislation, in part due to the tireless work of Marion Hammer — and in part because the state House, Senate and Governor's Mansion have been dominated by Second Amendment Republicans since 1998.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: NRA's Marion Hammer honored, decried for work on guns

The state-by-state strategy benefits the NRA in a number of ways. With it, the NRA has found a workaround to congressional gridlock. It's also found an effective way to mobilize its vast grassroots network at the local level while avoiding unfavorable national press coverage.

"This strategy is far more effective than trying to overhaul federal laws," Spies writes, "a complicated process that draws the scrutiny of the national media."

2. Legislative term limits tilt the balance of power in Tallahassee toward lobbyists like Hammer.

Support for term limits knows no ideology. President Barack Obama famously supported congressional term limits. So did President Donald Trump. Tallahassee has had term limits for a quarter century. But as Spies' story shows, they can pose challenges, too.

Marion Hammer — whom no voter ever elected — didn't become one of the most powerful figures in Tallahassee by accident. If a lawmaker gets in Hammer's way, she can simply wait until he or she has left office.

Take this passage from Spies' story:

"Hammer takes a long view of the legislative process. In the past few years, the Senate Judiciary Committee has been a persistent nuisance to her. Several of its legislators are Republicans from Miami, where an N.R.A. endorsement does not mean much, and may even harm a candidate. These lawmakers have blocked legislation that would sanction the open carrying of firearms in public and require state universities and colleges to allow guns on campus. Hammer sees such developments as temporary setbacks. 'Eventually, everything passes,' she has said."

If lawmakers were in Tallahassee for the long haul, the lobbyist might wield considerably less power.

3. Marion Hammer, NRA lobbyist, basically drafts Florida law.

Spies lists multiple examples of government officials emailing Hammer to get her approval on legislation. One eye-popping exchange between Hammer and the then-policy chief of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Katie Cunningham, shows how much power Hammer has over the legislative process.

"You are changing the whole thrust of the bill by gratuitously removing language that is important to purpose of the bill," Hammer wrote Cunningham in 2011 about the so-called Docs vs. Glocks bill. "Please, put the first section back as it was and amend it as I suggested."

As Spies writes, "Cunningham was contrite. 'Believe me—I had no intent to change the thrust of anything,' she replied, adding, 'See attached and let me know if that'll work.'"

Read more: Senate panel moves to raise Florida gun age, rejects ban on semi-automatic rifles

Current lawmakers went on the record in Spies' story with similar accounts of Hammer's stranglehold on Tallahassee. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who supports Hammer's pro-gun rights mission, told Spies that Hammer works diligently with policy analysts on legislation he sponsors. Then, he said, "I look it over and file it. I'm not picky on the details."

4. An anonymous former official in Gov. Rick Scott's administration told Spies, "The administration got prostituted to keep Marion Hammer happy."

Spies interviewed an unnamed former Scott administration official who said Hammer was involved in "the worst (incident) I've ever witnessed by way of government."  It's a single-source, anonymous account, and Gov. Scott's office denied it.

In 2014, Hammer got upset at Captain Terrence Gorman, then the general counsel for the Florida Department of Military Affairs. Gorman gave what Hammer perceived to be unduly negative testimony before a Senate committee about legislation that would allow citizens to carry a concealed weapon without a permit during a mandatory evacuation. The lobbyist was reportedly furious. Within a day, she arranged a meeting with Scott's chief of staff, Spies writes.

According to Spies, Scott's government bent over backward to mend the rift caused by Gorman's testimony. Emmett Titshaw, Florida's adjutant general at the time, wrote a letter to then-Sen. Thad Altman that said not only did Gorman have no authority to testify on the bill, but that the DMA was in full support of it.

Hammer still wanted Gorman fired. Titshaw sent yet another letter, this time to the House Judiciary Committee, reiterating the DMA's support for the law. And all of this happened, Spies writes, because a government official gave his two cents about a piece of legislation. (Gov. Scott eventually signed the legislation into law.)

"The administration got prostituted to keep Marion Hammer happy," the official told Spies.

5. Crossing Marion Hammer is a terrible idea. 

There's a reason the Scott administration reportedly went to such extraordinary lengths to keep Marion Hammer happy. For Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee, crossing Hammer is career suicide. The lobbyist has a direct line of communication with 300,000 Florida NRA members — some of the most politically active voters in the state.

"Using supercharged, provocative language, she keeps her followers apprised of who has been 'loyal' to the Second Amendment and who has committed unforgivable 'betrayals,' " Spies writes. " 'If you're with Marion ninety-five per cent of the time, you're a damn traitor,' (former Florida House member) Matt Gaetz said."

Spies lists more than one example of a lawmaker who saw his political fortune destroyed by Hammer. One former House representative, Charles McBurney, may have lost a circuit-court judgeship after crossing the lobbyist. Former Rep. Ray Pilon drew Hammer's ire — then lost a Republican primary after the NRA dropped his grade from an A-plus to a C.

Marion Hammer might be the country's most important state lobbyist. Underestimate her at your own risk.

Read more: Florida House panel rejects ban on assault weapons

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