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The NRA's influential Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, is retiring

NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer takes notes at a Senate committee meeting at the Florida Capitol.
Phil Sears
Florida National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer listens Jan. 13, 2020 during a Senate committee meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. The NRA says its longtime lobbyist in Florida will retire but remain an advisor to the organization.

Marion Hammer, a fierce gun-rights advocate whose career spanned almost half a century, is retiring from her post as the Florida lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, the organization announced Thursday.

Hammer, 83, successfully shepherded a host of measures that helped to earn Florida the “Gunshine State” moniker and made it a launching pad for gun-related laws that later took hold throughout the country.

Hammer spent 44 years as a lobbyist for the NRA and served as the first woman president of the national gun-rights group. In the Florida Capitol, she earned a reputation as a no-nonsense, blunt advocate whose tenacity was unmatched.

“Marion Hammer’s name has become synonymous with the Second Amendment and with the NRA. She is a dynamic and legendary advocate who has led the way with many laws that started in Florida and then served as a blueprint across the country,” NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre said in a statement Thursday announcing Hammer’s retirement.

According to the announcement, Hammer will continue to serve as an adviser to the NRA “so our members can continue to benefit from her expertise and defense of their freedoms.”

Hammer was the driving force behind the state’s 2005 “stand your ground law,” an expansion of the more-traditional “Castle Doctrine,” which allowed people to use deadly force to defend themselves in their homes.

The “stand your ground” law, the first of its kind in the nation, more broadly said people are justified in using deadly force and do not have a “duty to retreat” if they believe it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. When the defense is successfully raised in pre-trial hearings, defendants are granted immunity from prosecution.

In 1987, Hammer pushed through a law requiring the state to issue concealed-weapon licenses to people who meet certain requirements. Every state in the nation now has laws on the books allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons. Florida has more than 2.7 million active concealed-weapons licenses.

The Florida law marked a watershed policy shift in the relaxation of gun regulations amid the NRA’s ascendent political power in the 1980s.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Hammer called the “shall issue” license policy her biggest achievement.

“It was a turning point because people started realizing that government is supposed to follow the Constitution, and to take away your right and not give you the opportunity to exercise a right if they didn’t like you, was wrong. The law says that criminals can’t carry guns. So they were not issuing licenses to carry if they didn’t like you in some areas. If you’re not a criminal, and you’re not prohibited under federal law from owning or possessing a firearm, you should be able to get a license to carry concealed. It’s not at the whim of government. It’s a qualification issue,” Hammer said.

In 1996, Hammer was elected NRA president, a position she held for two years. She recently was re-elected to another three-year term on the organization’s board of directors, a position she has held since 1982.

Thursday’s retirement announcement elicited praise for Hammer from Republicans, including Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who called her a “friend and mentor to so many.”

“Standing in the breach against left-wing extremists who want to take our guns, Marion has successfully advocated for critical self-defense and firearm safety programs and requirements that educate families about the responsibilities associated with owning a firearm,” Simpson, who is running this year for state agriculture commissioner, said in a Twitter post.

But Hammer also could be a lightning-rod figure. Gun-control advocates celebrated her retirement.

“Marion Hammer has been a driving force to weaken Florida’s gun laws for decades, working to pass deadly policies and then conspiring with the NRA to extrapolate worst practices to other states,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a prepared statement Thursday. “But, ultimately, Moms Demand Action volunteers have outlasted Hammer. The movement for gun safety has never been stronger and our volunteers will continue to outwork and out-organize the gun lobby, and undo the damage they’ve done while saving lives.”

With her trademark bowl-shaped gray haircut, bright blue or red blazers and soft Southern drawl, Hammer --- an inch shy of 5 feet tall --- was a force to be reckoned with in the Capitol.

Her clashes with gun-control advocates and Democrats over a panoply of legislation, including the “stand your ground” bill, might have reached a crescendo following the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 14 students and three faculty members were killed.

The massacre occurred while Florida lawmakers were holding a legislative session. Amid pressure from students and parents, Republican leaders quickly passed one of the first measures to limit gun rights in the state’s modern history.

A sweeping school-safety bill raised from 18 to 21 the age to purchase long guns such as rifles and created a “red-flag” law allowing authorities to remove guns from people who pose a threat to themselves or others for up to a year.

At the time, Hammer criticized the legislation, accusing lawmakers of floating “political eyewash” that “punishes” gun owners.

“This is a betrayal of law-abiding gun owners who did absolutely nothing. All of the laws in place to identify and stop this kind of activity failed. So since they can’t actually punish those failures, they’re going to punish law-abiding gun owners. And of course, we always obey the law, so they don’t have to worry about us before or after they pass this gratuitous gun control,” Hammer told the News Service in 2018.

The NRA filed a lawsuit challenging the part of the law that raised the age to 21 to purchase long guns. A federal district judge upheld the law, but the case is pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The litigation revealed that Hammer had been the subject of threatening emails, including some that were too explicit to reprint in newspapers.

“When people cannot support their personal feelings with facts and reality, they resort to personal attacks on other people. So when someone who supports gun control attacks me and blames me, they are diverting attention away from the fact that they’re wrong. They’re absolutely wrong. They don’t like guns. It’s not what they like. They cannot prove that guns are the problem. Because guns aren’t the problem. People are the problem, and they don’t want to admit it,” Hammer said Thursday. “These nonviolent people threatened to kill me and my family. Now what does that tell you about them?”

Hammer also displayed her feistiness Thursday as she again criticized the “red-flag” law, which is being considered as a model for other states in the aftermath of mass shootings in Texas and New York.

“It is a model for nobody. It has been abused many, many times in the state of Florida and I would stress the importance of finding a way to stop abuse of average law-abiding citizens,” she said.