This is the first of a two part series on how Florida’s gun laws became so wacky.
We are told Florida is a conservative state and because of that in many cases Democrats must support the right to bear arms, and in the case of the stand your ground law the right to use arms indiscriminately. Despite being the most urban southern state, Florida’s gun laws are worse than most of the states in the region. The Florida Legislature, under Democratic leadership and influenced by north Florida conservatives and the NRA, passed lax gun laws that helped make the state a crime ridden embarrassment throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. The 1987 passage of the “right to carry” law ushered in an era of increased crime in Florida’s urban centers and continued national shame.
Bill Nelson’s failed 1990 Gubernatorial campaign was the first in modern Florida history to discuss gun control. It was surprising given Nelson’s own mixed record on the subject as a member of Congress, and he was smashed by Lawton Chiles in any event. In the Chiles’ years, the Governor was perennially to the left of a legislature becoming increasingly GOP dominated. The last few years of Chiles’ life were spent playing defense against the dogmatic conservatism of the legislature by using the veto pen and at times escaping the Capitol altogether to go turkey hunting in southern Georgia.
In the mid 1990’s, as conservatism was surging around the country, Florida was being overrun by those who were more interested in pushing ideology than good public policy. The emergence of Floridian Marion P. Hammer as a national figure furthered the ideological zeal of Florida’s Republicans. Hammer became NRA President in 1995, coinciding with the growing influence of the state GOP. Many legislators who represented urban areas were more loyal to partisan dogma than to their constituents.
Under Hammer, the NRA consistently spun that Florida citizens were against all forms of reasonable gun control. But elections where gun control was a central issue refuted this claim. In 1994 Jeb Bush embraced the NRA mantra accusing Lawton Chiles of being soft on crime. Bush lost. In 1996, Bill Clinton touted his strong record on gun control and he crushed GOP nominee Bob Dole who was closely allied with the NRA. In 2000, Bill Nelson defeated Bill McCollum, one of the NRA’s most celebrated champions in Congress for the US Senate. Also that year Al Gore ran the most pro-gun control campaign in the history of the United States Presidential Elections: Gore was denied Florida’s electoral votes by court intervention and other political games but he almost without question was the choice of the majority of Floridians who turned out on November 7, 2000. While Gore’s strong stand in favor of gun control likely cost him New Hampshire, West Virginia and his home state of Tennessee (all of which had voted Democratic in 1992 & 1996) it probably won him Florida.
Chiles, Clinton, Nelson and Gore all won the majority of urbanized I-4 corridor counties, yet legislators representing those counties often times sat at the forefront of any NRA led effort to weaken Florida’s gun laws. Republican legislators, aided by weak-willed Democratic allies, literally proved they could not read policy papers, studies about crime rates, poll numbers or election results. The only sources of information that mattered to them were the GOP platform and NRA legislative bulletins.
In 1999, both Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas took on the gun lobby locally and won. Both sailed to re-election after their efforts to fight the NRA became campaign issues. The legislature, eager to stop urban south Florida counties from actually protecting their citizens, pushed forward a number of legislative proposals backed by new Governor Jeb Bush. Mayor Penelas’ lawsuit against the gun manufacturers and the effort of Jenne to pass a locally strong county ordinance were stopped by the legislature. In 2001, when Jeb Bush signed a bill denying local governments from protecting their citizens by initiating legal action against the firearms industry, (pictured above) the NRA had effectively taken complete control of state government.
Part II covering post 2001 Florida will run on Tuesday