Tom Petty, a favorite son of our state was taken literally by the Florida legislature in his famous song ” I won’t back down,” when he talks about standing his ground. Petty’s lyrics were perhaps the inspiration for Dennis Baxley from Ocala, near to Petty’s Gainesville home to file a bill that became a national sensation.
Florida became the first state to pass the Stand Your Ground law in 2005. The reactionary legislature whose slavish obedience to the wishes of Marianne Hammer and the NRA overwhelmingly passed the law by a vote of 92-20 in the House and 39-0 in the Senate. While the Democrats can point the finger at the GOP following the tragic killing of Travon Martin, it was the “me too” attitude of the Democrats that allowed the offensive bill to sail through the Legislature. Florida’s passage of the bill has been followed up by NRA successes in 30 other states, but as has been the case with other conservative legislation such as school choice and various tort reform measures, Florida has served as a conservative laboratory.
While their were some heroes of the fight against what was mocked at the time as “typically Floridian” legislation such as Dan Gelber and Chris Smith, the majority of Democrats in legislature supported the measure. Skip Campbell, the 2006 Democratic nominee for Attorney General voted for the bill as did current FDP Chairman Rod Smith and several black caucus members.
Charlie Crist’s Attorney General’s office advocated for the law. This was no surprise as Crist was from his very first run for State Senate in 1992 a close ally of Hammer and the NRA. In the State Senate Crist had a strong pro-NRA voting record despite representing an urban district. Governor Jeb Bush who used cynically used crime and the spate of tourist killings as the theme of his failed 1994 race against Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, advocated 10-20-life and lax gun control laws when he took office.
Florida’s gun laws, already the butt of jokes around the country, even among some Republicans got looser and looser under GOP rule. Bush advocated a law preventing Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas from suing gun manufactures. The bill boasted the support of many Democrats but the shame of the Columbine tragedy forced legislative leaders to pull the bill. Bush also pushed legislation that would make it easier for non citizens to legally buy guns in Florida as well as those previously convicted of a crime. Not all of these initiatives passed, but in just about every effort, Bush’s Republicans faced only token Democratic opposition.
Blaming the Republicans for the weakening gun laws and the death of Travon Martin is too simple. When the chips were down and the Democrats had opportunities to take a stand, too many stood down. So many leaders of the opposition party felt going along to get along on many fundamental progressive issues (gun control was just one of them) was the best way to be good legislators. But Democracy is only vibrant when the opposition party provides alternative policy ideas and adheres to an ideology that differs from the majority.
Florida’s gun laws are a disgrace. Our state continues to be a national embarrassment in so many ways even though as a microcosm of the nation we should be the leading the way in the 21st Century. Florida’s Democrats with a few notable and brave exceptions have been allies of the GOP in the fight to make Florida a national embarrassment. They deserve to be called out for it.