A small but scrappy blue jay variant was on its way to becoming Florida’s state bird some years ago ― until it was suddenly blasted out of the sky by the state’s gun lobby.
The Florida scrub jay had behind it the state’s biggest environmental groups, 10,000 schoolchildren who’d signed petitions, even a Republican sponsor in the all GOP-run statehouse. The bill never made it out of committee.
Wait … what does this scrub jay have to do with guns?
Actually, nothing ― except that the longtime chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in the state hated the bird, and made that distaste clear to everyone in the Tallahassee state Capitol. By 1999, Marion Hammer had already pushed through a string of gun-rights laws and would in the coming years shepherd many more onto the books, including Florida’s notorious “stand your ground” act. The two-and-a-half-ounce bird, the only avian species endemic to peninsular Florida, never stood a chance.
“She was apoplectic about it,” said Charlie Crist, who as a Republican was elected the state’s education commissioner in 2000, would later become a GOP governor, and is now a Democratic congressman from the St. Petersburg area. “I couldn’t understand it.”
In a committee hearing, Hammer ― who earlier in the 1990s served as the national NRA’s president ― praised the mockingbird, which had been the state bird for decades and which she liked personally, while ridiculing the scrub jay.
“They eat the eggs of other birds. That’s robbery and murder,” she testified. Responding to scrub jay supporters’ statements that they were so gentle as to eat out of people’s hands, she said: “Begging for food isn’t sweet. It’s lazy and it’s a welfare mentality.”
Neither Hammer nor NRA national officials responded to HuffPost’s queries on Thursday.
The real problem here is the Republican incumbent worried about getting primaried
Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.)
Hammer, of course, is just the group’s liaison to the state legislature. Behind her is the familiar well-oiled machine of gun industry money doling out campaign contributions and ― more important ― a turnout operation that each election brings to the polls legions of voters more interested in firearms than any other issue.
In an entirely Republican-run state like Florida, the NRA has been able to get what it wants by keeping GOP lawmakers scared of challenges in the party primaries. “The real problem here is the Republican incumbent worried about getting primaried,” he said Thursday. “That’s the chokehold.”
He said the NRA’s power, long recognized in Congress, is perhaps even more entrenched in Tallahassee, meaning even the shooting deaths of 17 students and staff in a well-to-do Fort Lauderdale suburb will likely change nothing.
“It is unfortunate,” Crist said. “It breaks your heart.”
Rick Wilson, a longtime GOP consultant in Tallahassee and a gun enthusiast himself, said the state has a long history of protecting firearm ownership, with 1.3 million people currently holding concealed carry permits and more licensed gun dealers per capita than any other state.
“This is a state that made up its mind about guns a long time ago,” he said.
Wilson said the NRA has been effective at mobilizing that sentiment into votes, particularly in the more conservative areas north of Interstate 4, which stretches across Florida from Tampa to Daytona Beach. A Democrat who even mildly supports gun limitations of any type simply has no chance in that part of the state.
“It is the fastest way for Democrats to disqualify themselves, no matter what other attributes they have,” he said.
The practical effect of that in recent decades has been a series of NRA-written bills getting turned into laws by a pliant GOP state legislature.
Just minutes before news broke of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, newly elected Gov. Jeb Bush handed Hammer the pen he’d just used to sign a bill allowing out-of-state concealed permit holders to carry their guns in Florida, too.
A few years later came a bill to codify the common-law “castle doctrine” ― the idea that those confronted with intruders in their homes could use deadly force rather than retreat. Not much later came the expansion of castle doctrine to “stand your ground” regardless of the location ― which was key in the acquittal of the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012.
“If you could walk away safely, you were obliged to, rather than use deadly force. Now, deadly force can become a first resort, not a last resort,” said Dan Gelber, a longtime Democratic state legislator and now the mayor of Miami Beach. “They’ve given this right to drunks, They’ve given this right to terrible shots. They’ve given this right to people with terrible judgement. They’ve given this right, literally, to gang members.”
“I used to stand up pretty regularly to the NRA. I felt pretty alone.”
Dan Gelber (D), a former state legislator
Gelber said the NRA has continued to stay on offense in Tallahassee, year after year pushing bills not because they are a high priority, but to keep Republican lawmakers in line and gun-rights advocates energized.
One example: the NRA even won a state law eliminating the lists of guns passing through pawnshops that police had been using to investigate crimes. “They made it illegal to keep the list,” he laughed.
Gelber said he was relatively safe in his liberal, heavily Democratic part of the state, but that many other lawmakers felt like they could not oppose the NRA’s demands. “If you speak against them, you are on an enemies list,” he said. “I used to stand up pretty regularly to the NRA. I felt pretty alone.”
Wilson said the NRA could not accomplish anything unless it had a motivated membership willing to reliably get to the polls for a single issue. And, as it stands, gun-rights voters are more energized than gun-control voters, he said.
“Here’s the political calculus: If your passion for your issue is greater than the other guy’s passion for their issue, you win,” Wilson said.
He said that he personally would be willing to have a reasonable debate about access to guns, but that too many Democrats are too ready to lump him in with violent criminals and infringe his firearm-owning rights.
“I’m a hunter. I’m a target shooter. I’m a long-range target shooter. But you know what I’ve never done? Shot anybody,” he said.
Any attempt to pass gun control in Tallahassee would also have to get past Hammer, who is now in her fourth decade expanding gun rights in Florida. Last spring, she even took time to again take on her old nemesis, the scrub jay. Different lawmakers (the original sponsor died in 2003) again tried to make it the state bird.
“The scrub jay is not an impressive looking bird,” she wrote in a Tampa Bay Times op-ed. “And, unlike the mockingbird, the scrub jay can’t even sing.”
The bill did not pass, and the scrub jay is still not the state bird.