By Susan Ferriss, Center for Public Integrity
In 2004, the National Rifle Association honored Republican Florida state legislator Dennis Baxley with a plum endorsement: Its Defender of Freedom award.
The following year, Baxley, a state representative from Ocala, worked closely with the NRA to push through Florida’s unprecedented “stand your ground” law, which allows citizens to use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” their safety is threatened in a public setting, like a park or a street.
People would no longer be restrained by a “duty to retreat” from a threat while out in public, and would be free from prosecution or civil liability if they acted in self-defense.
Florida’s law is now under a cloud as a result of the controversial February shooting of Trayvon Martin, 17, in Sanford, Fla. The 28-year-old shooter, George Zimmerman, who was licensed to carry a gun — and once had a brush with police — claims he acted in self-defense after a confrontation with Martin, and some legal experts say Florida’s law could protect Zimmerman, who has not been charged. The case has inflamed passions nationwide in part because Zimmerman is Hispanic and Martin was African-American. Baxley, whose state party has benefited from large NRA donations, contends his law shouldn’t shield Zimmerman at all because he pursued Martin.
The NRA has been curiously quiet on the matter since the shooting as the nation takes stock — in light of the Martin case and other similar examples — of whether “stand-your-ground” laws are more dangerous than useful to enhance public safety. The gun-rights organization did not respond to requests for comment. But the group’s silence contrasts sharply with its history of unabashed activism on stand-your-ground legislation. Since the Florida measure passed, the NRA has flexed its considerable muscle and played a crucial role in the passage of more than 20 similar laws nationwide.
The Florida law is rooted in the centuries-old English common law concept known as the “Castle Doctrine,” which holds that the right of self-defense is accepted in one’s home. But the Florida law and others like it expand that established right to venues beyond a home.
Since Florida adopted its law in 2005, the NRA has aggressively pursued adoption of stand-your-ground laws elsewhere as part of a broader agenda to increase gun-carrying rights it believes are rightly due citizens under the 2nd Amendment.
To gain attention and clout at the state level, the NRA has ponied up money and offers endorsements to legislators from both parties. The NRA and the NRA Political Victory Fund, its political action committee, have donated about $2.6 million to state-level political campaigns, committees and individual politicians since 2003, according to records compiled by the National Institute on Money and State Politics.
And ambitious politicians take note that the NRA is heavily invested and involved in congressional races.
The organization showered the Florida Republican Party Committee with a total of $125,000 in donations between 2004 and 2010. That sum tops the list of all NRA donations to state party committees between 2003 and 2012, according to National Institute on Money in State Politics records. The Senate Republican Campaign Committee of New York was next with $119,700.
The NRA energetically monitors state elections, from governor’s races down to the most obscure special election for a state legislative seat — if the seat is considered crucial — and, as its legislative action website shows, it regularly mobilizes constituents to flood lawmakers with calls and e-mails.
Following the Florida victory, the “Stand Your Ground” movement accelerated. In July 2006, the NRA posted celebratory news on its website, noting that legislators in eight more states — Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Dakota — had already followed Florida’s lead.
“This train keeps a rollin’ — Castle Doctrine Sweeps America,” the NRA’s 2006 message said. The campaign, the group said, “is turning focus from criminals’ rights to those of the law-abiding who are forced to protect themselves.”
Since then, a host of other states have passed various laws expanding the “Castle Doctrine.” Among them: Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee Texas, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.
To spread the word, the NRA said in an Aug. 12, 2005 website posting, it approached the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafts legislation for like-minded state lawmakers. ALEC, as it is known, adopted model stand-your-ground legislative language in 2005 after Florida’s top NRA representative made a presentation.
And along the way key lawmakers benefited from NRA support. In Indiana, for instance, GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, who took office in 2005, received $12,400 in NRA donations between 2004 and 2008. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue got $7,500 from the group between 2004 and 2006. Mark Shurtleff, Utah’s attorney general, received $22,500 between 2004 and 2008.
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing quite everywhere. An emotional debate in Minnesota this year resulted in passage of a proposal in both houses, which are GOP-controlled, but a veto just this month from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. A couple of GOP lawmakers changed their votes from no to yes in the course of the legislative process, state records show.
“We had a few people tell us apologetically and privately that they were afraid of the NRA,” said Joan Peterson, a Minnesota activist with the Northland chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Proponents didn’t get enough votes to override Dayton’s veto.
Heather Martens, executive director of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, which opposed the proposal, said that a newly elected Democratic legislator who reluctantly voted yes had faced a tough special election campaign in 2011. At the center of the campaign were accusations that she would be anti-gun.
“Take your best shot,” a Minnesota Republican Party-sponsored mailer against Democrat Carly Melin said back then, urging voters to protect their gun rights from St. Paul liberals.
The Minnesota bill’s Republican sponsors, state Rep. Tony Cornish and state Sen. Gretchen Hoffman — who is now running for Congress against a Democrat who’s had NRA support — did not respond to requests to discuss their proposal.
Opposition to the laws has gone beyond gun-control activists. Some of the staunchest critics the NRA has faced while promoting “stand your ground” laws have been state police chief’s and sheriffs’ associations and district attorneys’ groups.
In 2007, the Virginia-based National District Attorneys Association issued a report, “Expansions to the Castle Doctrine,” warning that the phenomenon “could have significant implications for public safety and the justice system’s ability to hold people accountable for violent acts.”
Scott Burns, the association’s executive director, said legislators’ decisions to buck law-enforcement officials on this issue can only be explained by “the volatile issue of guns rights and the 2nd Amendment.” He said many of these laws, in his opinion, have nothing to do with the true intent of the Castle Doctrine.
How can the Castle Doctrine apply, he said, seven miles from your home, at a shopping mall?
In Florida, the Tampa Bay Times reported that “justifiable homicides” in Florida spiked after the 2005 law, from an average of 34 yearly to more than 100 in 2007.
Prosecutors said the law permitted gang-related assailants from being prosecuted after a 2008 shoot-out in Tallahassee that killed a 15-year-old boy, the paper reported. A judge dismissed charges based on the “stand your ground” defense.
In 2010, Trevor Dooley, upset about a skateboarder on a Valrico, Fla., basketball court, marched into a park with a handgun, for which he was licensed and legally able to take into the park. Dooley ended up in a confrontation with David James, who was in the park with his young daughter. Dooley and James scuffled and Dooley shot James dead. In a case that is still pending, he was arrested for manslaughter but also claims he is protected by the “stand your ground” law.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence, accuses the NRA of “feeding on fear and paranoia” to expand concepts such as the Castle Doctrine. His group’s research, he said, shows that politicians can survive an NRA stamp of disapproval more than they think, and that his priority is to convince more politicians the group is a “paper tiger.”
“We are behind closed doors with politicians all the time,” Gross said, “who say they want to do the right thing, but that the gun lobby will ruin them.”
Back in Florida, the soul-searching about the law has now extended to the legislature. Baxley, the sponsor, told CBS News that “sometimes the application or interpretation of its use is the problem.” He defended the law as important to “law-abiding citizens,” but suggested, according to other reports, that perhaps legislators should look at limiting crime-watch volunteers’ ability to pursue people and confront them.
“Nothing,” he said, “is ever finished in the legislature.”