Pistol-Packing Grandma Helps NRA Push State Pro-Gun Laws
The woman responsible for many of the nation’s most permissive gun laws is a 4-foot-11, 73-year-old grandmother who carries a Smith & Wesson .38 Special with a laser sight in her purse.
Marion Hammer, top lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in Florida, translates personal experiences into policies replicated in statehouses around the country. Among them was the Stand Your Ground law allowing deadly force in self-defense, which generated nationwide controversy after the Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teenager. She also championed a model concealed-carry law that the NRA said last year had spread to 29 other states.
Most recently, Florida lawmakers restricted doctors from asking about guns in the home after the silver-haired Hammer complained that a Tallahassee pediatrician questioned her granddaughter. At least five states are considering similar measures.
“There is no single individual responsible for enacting more pro-gun legislation in the states than Marion Hammer,” said Richard Feldman, a former political organizer for the Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA.
Hammer’s blue eyes match the brightly colored blazer she often wears to watch her bills become law, like one in 2008 that lets workers keep guns in cars parked at work. Her hair has been fashioned in a pageboy style for decades. A thin gold necklace usually accessorizes her business attire.
Hammer, who served as the first female president of the NRA for three years in the 1990s, was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in March 2005 after being nominated by then-attorney general and eventual Republican Governor Charlie Crist. A month later, she stood over then-Governor Jeb Bush’sright shoulder as he signed the Stand Your Ground bill on her 66th birthday.
“She’s a tenacious person,” said Governor Rick Scott, a Republican who credited Hammer for helping him capture his party’s 2010 nomination, a race he won by 2.8 percentage points.
Because Hammer is a registered Democrat, she can’t vote in the Republican primaries she and the NRA have influenced. Hammer has maintained her party affiliation for decades, dating to an era when North Florida Democrats ran the state. Republicans have since taken control.
A safety advocate who created Eddie Eagle, the NRA’s version of Smokey Bear, Hammer enjoys movies with the grandchildren she raises, and wakes at 4:30 each morning to read news and cook breakfast, said her sister, Carolyn Davis, of Sandy Springs, Georgia. Hammer has raised the two children since 1996 when their mother -- the youngest of Hammer’s own three children -- was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor.
Among colleagues inside the Capitol, she’s known as a relentless crusader. She can also hold a grudge.
A year after Audubon of Florida’s president backed gun-show regulations that Hammer opposed, she lobbied against one of the environmental group’s priorities: naming the scrub jay the state’s official bird. During a legislative hearing, she denounced the endangered pale blue-and-gray bird’s propensity to beg for food as epitomizing a “welfare mentality.”
Her temper can flare in front of powerful political players. She yelled at Ken Plante, then-chief of staff for Bush, a Republican, when a vote on a gun bill was canceled after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, which killed 13 people.
“She’s very committed to what she’s trying to get done and that’s all she can see,” Plante said. “She’s dogmatic.”
Hammer, who declined an interview request, retains her sway despite a decline in membership in United Sportsmen of Florida, the NRA affiliate she runs in the Sunshine State. In 2010, the group collected $31,360 in dues, down 24 percent from 2008, according to Internal Revenue Service records. Gifts and other contributions, meanwhile, totaled $238,325 in 2010, up 30 percent from two years before.
Hammer earned an average of $244,000 per year from United Sportsmen and the NRA from 2008-2010, according to IRS records.
After taking office in January 2011, Scott signed a pair of gun bills backed by Hammer within four months.
Among them was the “docs versus Glocks” law that emerged from the pediatrician visit. Hammer argued that the doctors’ questions could lead to the creation of a database of gun owners. The Florida Medical Association opposed the legislation, saying doctors ask about guns for safety reasons, the same way they inquire about where poisons are stored in the home.
U.S. District Court Judge Marcia G. Cooke in Miami blocked enforcement of the measure, approved by the Legislature last year, while a lawsuit continues by doctors claiming it violates their First Amendment rights.
Florida Representative Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican who sponsored the measure, said that Hammer described the pediatrician visit as she lobbied for it.
While personal experience often drives Hammer’s gun bills, it pushes her into other debates also.
She lobbied to let dyslexic children such as her grandson use talking computers during standardized tests. She got money in the state budget to pay for speed-limit signs in front of private schools like the one the boy attended.
Her First .22
This year, Hammer helped defeat a property-insurance bill favored by a company that dropped her as a client after she filed a claim, according to an insurance lobbyist who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Born Marion Alberta Price in Columbia, South Carolina during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term, Hammer moved to her paternal grandparents’ farm at age 5 after her father died in World War II.
She got her first gun then, too: her father’s .22 single-shot rifle.
“Your dad died for our freedoms,” Hammer’s grandfather told her, as she recalled during her 2005 Hall of Fame induction speech. “Protecting these freedoms is part of your heritage.”
A champion long-gun shooter as a youngster, Hammer dropped out of college in 1958 to marry a U.S. Coast Guard member, according to Davis. They settled in Tallahassee in 1974. Her husband, whom she divorced in 1980, was hired to build the state’s 22-story Capitol and Hammer may end up spending parts of six decades walking its halls. She plans to keep lobbying for at least another 10 years, said Lori Weems, a lobbyist in Tallahassee whom Hammer has mentored.
Her office, three blocks from the Capitol, is cluttered with awards and gun paraphernalia.
A replica Charleville musket is mounted above her desk. On one wall hangs a silhouette target, its 2-inch-wide center ring riddled by bullet holes. Eagles made of brass, clay or crushed pecan shells are displayed in various poses.
Among more than a dozen framed certificates are the “First Ever Award for Ass Kicking” from the Florida Police Benevolent Association and her state permit to carry a concealed weapon, license No. 0000001.
In her most recent family portrait, Hammer smiles as she and the grandchildren each hold one of their three Ragdoll cats. Hammer cradles hers just below the NRA logo stitched across the left breast of her button-down shirt.
Hammer speaks publicly about the NRA as a second family, and she has blended both.
Her grandchildren were lifetime NRA members at birth. The entire family would tag along at conventions when Hammer was president, Davis said.
“We met Rush Limbaugh, Barbara Mandrell, Chuck Norris,” Davis said. “We’d sit up front with all the movie stars.”
Like much of the career that followed, Hammer’s first taste of legislative action was personal. In 1974, she helped fellow enthusiasts defeat a proposed ban on black powder.
The bill was crafted to eliminate an ingredient in pipe bombs. Hammer argued it would also wipe out one of her favorite pastimes, shooting muzzleloaders -- guns in which ammunition and gun powder are loaded into the barrel’s open end.
By 1978, Hammer was running the United Sportsmen of Florida.
Repelling a Threat
The Stand Your Ground law started with a Hammer anecdote: She was alone in a parking garage at night when a car full of men threatened to assault her with their long-neck beer bottles, she would later tell lawmakers.
Hammer pulled a Colt Detective .38 Special from her purse and aimed at the driver. She exhaled as the vehicle sped away.
A television debate in the 1990s in which she retold the story foreshadowed her lobbying for the Stand Your Ground law.
Hammer was debating federal background checks for gun purchases with then-Tallahassee Police Chief Melvin Tucker. Had Hammer pulled the trigger, he told her, she would’ve been arrested for using deadly force. Tucker, a gun-control supporter, recalled the moment in an interview.
Tucker remembers saying to Hammer: “You cannot just shoot at somebody because you think, ’What if he comes up to me?’”
After the television appearance, Hammer persuaded Tallahassee’s mayor to stop Tucker from taking a public position on the federal proposal, Tucker said.
She later started researching self-defense cases and eventually drafted Stand Your Ground.
The law has been replicated by about half the states. After the shooting death of Martin, 17, in Sanford, outside Orlando, several states are considering amending or repealing the law. Attorney Mark O’Mara says he might use the Florida law to defend George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer charged in Martin’s killing. Zimmerman, who faces a count of second-degree murder, said he fired in self-defense.
Hammer’s story about the law’s inspiration is the “dark and dangerous mission” of the pro-gun lobby made manifest, said Dan Gross of the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“It’s always these nebulous instances they use to conjure up fear in the name of protecting innocent lives,” Gross said. “It seems like in the case of Trayvon Martin, all it did was cost an innocent life.”
With the push to amend Stand Your Ground, Hammer will be busy holding her gains. Scott said new gun laws are not among his priorities when lawmakers return to Tallahassee in 2013. A task force he assembled is traveling the state now taking testimony about self-defense laws.
Even so, the gun-wielding grandmother shouldn’t be underestimated, said Republican state Senator Charlie Dean, who survived a primary challenge from a Hammer-backed candidate in 2007.
“Marion is a very strong-willed person and has a lot of drive to do what she wants to do,” said Dean, a former sheriff in central Florida’s Citrus County. “If she gets something in her sights, get ready for a fight.”
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