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  1. Florida Politics

From the archives: NRA's Marion Hammer honored, decried for work on guns

Editor's note: This story was part of the Times' coverage in 2005 during the debate over legislation that became Florida's "stand your ground" law. It published on the day Hammer was inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame. She remains a force in Tallahassee.

To some, Marion Hammer is a Florida folk hero, a fighter for the Second Amendment, a throwback to the state's pioneer days when muzzle-loading skills were essential.

To others, she is a right-wing extremist, a symbol of the National Rifle Association, an anathema to women's rights.

Now, those two perspectives are clashing as Hammer, the first woman president of the NRA and a longtime gun lobbyist, awaits induction today into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

2018 FIGHT: NRA's Marion Hammer: Governor and legislative plans to limit gun access are "political eyewash."

A small band of gun-control advocates protested Monday on the steps of the state Capitol. And the National Organization for Women's state chapter passed a resolution denouncing Hammer's induction.

She has been called antiwoman, antifamily, antienvironment and antitaxpayer. But Hammer, 65, said she's untroubled by the insults. She has been attracting controversy for most of her life.

"I've got big shoulders," said the 4-foot-11 grandmother. "It doesn't bother me a bit."

• • •

Hammer grew up in Columbia, S.C., where her grandfather taught her to shoot at age 6. She said her passion for the Second Amendment came from her father, who died on Okinawa while fighting during World War II.

"The least I could do is help promote the freedom that he fought for on foreign shores," Hammer said.

In 1978, she became executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, the state's leading progun lobbying group.

She was known for her formidable grass-roots organizational skills, and few significant gun-control bills were passed by the Florida Legislature during her watch.

Hammer's critics accuse her of "pistol-whipping" the Legislature into submission.

"It's an outrage," said Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "No other single individual has been able to demand and receive what they want from this Legislature and governor, most of which are assaults on public safety and the taxpayers' pocketbooks."

After fighting to pass Florida's "right to carry" bill in 1987, Hammer was awarded the state's first concealed weapons permit and still totes a Colt Detective .38 special.

A longtime NRA member, Hammer was elected to the board in the 1980s and named president in 1995. She held the position for almost three years.

She used her pulpit to promote gun-safety education for children. Hammer also developed a women's crime-prevention seminar in 1993 called Refuse to Be a Victim. The program expanded to include men in 1997.

More recently, Hammer began working pro bono on behalf of children with learning disabilities after her grandson was diagnosed with severe dyslexia. She was appointed by former Senate President John McKay to sit on a task force for scholarships for disabled children.

While she's reluctant to talk about her achievements, Hammer said her gender may have opened some doors for her.

"I had opportunities that perhaps were not available to men," Hammer said, "because being a woman gave me a certain amount of recognition and media attention."

• • •

The Florida Women's Hall of Fame was created in 1982. Past inductees include novelist Zora Neale Hurston, civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, tennis player Chris Evert and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings.

Hammer was nominated by Attorney General Charlie Crist, who called her a "freedom fighter."

"She is such a courageous woman," Crist said. "She's done so much for freedom and the Second Amendment of the Constitution."

Nominations are sent to the Florida Commission on the Status of Women, a branch of the Attorney General's Office. The commission narrows the candidates to 10 and the governor picks the final three.

Being inducted today with Hammer are Shirley D. Coletti of Clearwater, the founder of Operation PAR, a drug treatment and abuse prevention program, and Judith Kersey of Cape Canaveral, a scientist and engineer who has worked with the space program.

Clarice Pickwell, president of Florida NOW, said Hammer doesn't belong with the other honorees because she hasn't done anything to advance the cause of women.

"There are so many other important, wonderful women in Florida to recognize for the Hall of Fame. She should not be on the list, " Pickwell said. "The NRA is a force for conservatism. They only really care about guns. That, to me, is outrageous. They're against banning assault rifles. Now you tell me, how does that serve women?"

But Anita Mitchell, a lobbyist from West Palm Beach who is chairwoman of the Hall of Fame Committee and a member of the Florida Commission on the Status of Women, said there was never any hesitation over Hammer's selection.

"We looked at how she contributed to make Florida a better place," Mitchell said. "It doesn't matter what a person's political affiliation is. What matters is what she does, and she can stand up with any of those women in the Hall of Fame."

Mitchell called the protests "totally inappropriate."

Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime friend of Hammer's, also defended his selection.

"She is an extraordinary woman in a man's world, and she's one of most effective advocates in the political process over a long period of time," Bush said. "I think she's cool."

• • •

Hammer won't have long to dwell on the commotion over her induction. The Legislature is in session and she is once again lobbying for both the NRA and Unified Sportsmen.

She said she'll proudly attend the induction ceremony today with her children and grandchildren at her side, payback for the sacrifices they have made and the long hours she has worked over the years.

And if there are protests, she has learned to live with it.

"Some folks have never learned that it's okay to disagree without being disagreeable," Hammer said.

"Just because you disagree with someone's philosophy doesn't mean you should deny that person an opportunity to be recognized."

Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report.