1. Florida Politics

Bill on Gov. Rick Scott's desk divides gun rights activists

Marion Hammer is the National Rifle Association’s longtime Florida lobbyist.
Marion Hammer is the National Rifle Association’s longtime Florida lobbyist.
Published Jun. 22, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — The former president of the National Rifle Association and Florida's most powerful gun rights lobbyist is urging Gov. Rick Scott to sign a bill restricting gun purchases.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Marion Hammer, the NRA's longtime Florida lobbyist and founder of the United Sportsmen of Florida, emailed about 200,000 gun rights supporters this week asking them to show support for HB 1355, which would prevent some mentally ill people from buying guns.

Though it passed the Legislature with just one "no" vote, the bill has sharply divided gun rights activists. Scott, who has until July 2 to sign or veto the measure, has already received more than 17,000 emails and nearly 3,000 phone calls in opposition.

The source of much of the opposition, Hammer says, is out-of-state gun rights groups who are presenting "patently false" information.

"Gun owners are being deceived by reckless people who are sending out email blasts attacking the bill as being anti-Second Amendment," Hammer wrote.

The premise of the bill is relatively simple. It would extend a ban on purchasing firearms to people who voluntarily seek mental health treatment after being examined under Florida's Baker Act statutes. The Baker Act applies to people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Under current law, people involuntarily committed for treatment are prohibited from purchasing a firearm, but those who volunteer are not.

Volunteering for treatment is more common. Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman told the Times/Herald that only 1 percent of the 115,000 people processed under the Baker Act last year were involuntarily committed. The other 99 percent voluntarily submitted to treatment, which means they could purchase guns upon their release.

Leifman said the change would prevent suicides as much as it might prevent violent crime.

The opposition is a "gimmick" and a fundraising stunt on the part of a Colorado group called the National Association for Gun Rights, Hammer said. The group did not respond to requests seeking comment.

"These are not organizations that are here on the ground, working the issue," said Hammer, who worked with the bill's sponsors during the legislative session. "They are full of disinformation designed to inflame and upset people and help them raise money."

A second group from Virginia called Gun Owners of America also is urging a Scott veto. But the group said it was not part of the most recent email campaign.

The legislation is "taking away people's rights without due process," said Michael Hammond, the group's legislative counselor. "You don't lose your constitutional rights because a shrink says I have to report some guy because if I don't, and he shoots up a school, then I'm going to be in a whole lot of trouble."

Hammond also said an individual whose name was in a mental health database could possibly have his or her weapons confiscated.

That's not true, Hammer said.

"All it does is stop people who are a danger to themselves or others from being able to buy a gun," she said.

Bills that would restrict gun ownership in Florida — for any reason — are typically nonstarters in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Democrats sponsored more than a dozen gun-related bills this year, many in response to the mass shooting of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn. But only this proposal — sponsored by Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville — passed.

Opponents "have a lack of understanding of the bill and what it actually does," Watson said. "It has nothing to do with the sale of guns to any rational and responsible gun owner."

The emails to Scott urging a veto paint a different picture.

"HB 1355 would vastly expand the growing list of 'prohibited persons' in Florida who are blocked from possessing firearms. Don't be painted with the same brush as Mayor Bloomberg," wrote Kenneth A. Jenkins, referring to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has pushed for gun restrictions. "Remember you are the governor of FLORIDA!"