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How this powerful NRA lobbyist transformed U.S. gun laws

As Florida's legislature begins to consider changes to gun laws in the wake of the deadly shooting at a Parkland high school, the question of whether anything will pass has a great deal to do with the powerful voice of the NRA in that state. Mike Spies, a staff writer for The Trace who wrote about the NRA's past successes for The New Yorker, joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In the final weeks of Florida's legislative session, several proposals regarding guns are on the table.

    Republican Governor Rick Scott has said he now backs raising the age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21. State legislators are considering a law that would require a new three-day waiting period for the purchase of firearms. But will these changes pass?

    The NRA has been a powerful voice in that state. The latest issue of The New Yorker focuses on the NRA's past successes in Florida and the lobbyist behind it, Marion Hammer. She represents the NRA there and is a past national president of the gun rights group. And she was in Tallahassee today arguing against a bump stock ban during a legislative committee meeting.

    Mike Spies is a staff writer for The Trace. The piece appears in The New Yorker.

    He joins me now.

    Mike Spies, why ascribe so much power to this one woman? Tell us a little about her accomplishments.

  • Mike Spies:

    Well, she's been around for nearly four decades in the Florida legislator — or in Tallahassee, rather.

    And she has accomplished some truly amazing things, things that have actually transformed not just Florida, but also the country. Beginning in the 1980s, she helped pass — she was responsible for pushing through, rather, the country's first concealed carry law, which effectively allows people to carry concealed handguns in public if they can satisfy a very basic criteria to get a permit.

    And that law has been replicated virtually in every state in some form. So, before that, it was more or less — it was very rare for someone to be able to carry a concealed weapon in public. And now it's essentially been normalized.

    There are 1.8 million of those concealed carry permit holders in Florida alone, by far the most in the country. And going forward, her other major accomplishments include the creation and then of course enactment of stand your ground, which was in 2005.

    People are familiar with that law because there was a lot of controversy surrounding it in 2012 after Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, and Zimmerman's arrest was delayed as a result of the law.

    The law itself also figured in the jury instructions in Zimmerman's trial. Stand your ground is sort of like the defining self-defense law in the country. The most important thing is that is sort of established this idea that you could engage in almost preemptive self-defense.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Through public records requests, you looked at thousands of e-mails. What was the kind of influence that she and by extension the NRA had in the legislative process in Florida?

  • Mike Spies:

    She sort of — in every part of the process, she has a hand.

    She ultimately oversees the development of legislation. She often creates it with her NRA lawyers and then shepherds it through the legislature. And that means there are government staffers who help make sure that language in bills accords with the Constitution and stuff like that.

    And she's working directly with the staffers as if she were a lawmaker, which, of course, she's not. She's a lobbyist. But what winds up happening is that legislators ultimately abdicate their responsibilities to her, so she effectively acts as if she were a legislator, though she's more powerful than they are, and then does things like, you know, as the piece detail, sets up her own bill signing ceremonies once a bill gets to desk of the governor.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There's a quote in your article that you have.

    It says, "If you're a governor and you have won by a handful of votes and you have got great political ambitions, you are going to take Marion's call in the middle of the night. And if she needs something, you do it. And if you don't think you can do it, you try anyway."

    Given that the Florida leadership has been in the hands of one party at least for the last 20 years and the influence of the NRA, as you report, has been fairly strong, what's the likelihood that something changes, if it didn't change after Trayvon Martin, if it didn't change after the Orlando Pulse shooting?

  • Mike Spies:

    It seems like this is a very — I mean, this is a very rare moment and I sort of think we're in uncharted territory right now.

    To be clear, what's being proposed right now, raising the age limit on buying assault — or rifles from 18 to 21, expanding the three-day waiting period for all gun purchases made at private dealers, these are still really modest proposals, despite the fact that the NRA opposes them.

    What happened recently, when there was a proposal to ban assault weapons in Florida, for instance, that doesn't go anywhere. That's not even a — that's just a nonstarter.

    In this case, it seems like there's wide Republican support, not just with Rick Scott, but just sort of across the chamber — across the legislature in both chambers. And I think, in this case, there is some cover in numbers.

    Marion is very good at punishing people and getting retribution against those who violate her position. But, in this case, you can't really punish everyone, if everyone's going to go along with the proposals.

    So, it's not really — there is just not really any precedent for this. That said, it still doesn't mean that she's not going to be able to strip those provisions out of the bill or get at least one of them stripped out of the bill before it arrives on Governor Scott's desk.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, for the record, we also reached out to ®MD-BO¯Marion Hammer as a program, and we have not heard back yet. And she didn't cooperate in this profile that you wrote about her.

    Mike Spies of Trace, in collaboration with The New Yorker, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Mike Spies:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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