- James Heimer
So, there you are in the belly of Florida's malnourished sense of decency, cradling your tumbler of self-medication and counting the seconds as they tick-tick-tick like a clock or a bomb, wondering what it all means. Florida was once home to immaculate motor lodges with swimming pools and all manner of aspirational escapism – now we've morphed into the bloat and blight of foreclosure and broken promises. A Fox
News correspondent stares at you from the wall, breaking down the Republican plan for Floridian domination via the I-4 Corridor, and hey, wait, isn't that where you live?
The thoughts go racing through your head: I survived Casey Anthony; I am not part of the bath-salt zombie apocalypse; I don't wanna "die quickly" (or do I?); can't we all just get along and stop being an embarrassment dressed up as a trailer park trapped in a snow globe?
And then, you realize where it all went awry. On Feb. 26, 2012, the television talking heads magically reappeared to dissect the state that science forgot. That was, of course, the day that one overzealous George Zimmerman – a self-proclaimed warlord of justice volunteering for a neighborhood-watch program in Sanford – went from being a nosy neighbor to a national figure, when he shot unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin after a dustup on the evening of the NBA All-Star game. Florida, conspicuously shaped like a firearm, was once again in the sights of global abhorrence. Why? Because Sanford police were initially afraid to arrest Zimmerman (despite overwhelming evidence that he acted against the instructions of the 911 dispatcher whom he had contacted; and, uh, there was an unarmed dead teenager whom Zimmerman clearly shot) due to the state's controversial Stand Your Ground law. The first of its kind, Florida's shoot first, judge later legislation came to life (or death) in 2005, assuring all responsible owners of guns that they could shoot first and ask questions later without fear of legal reprisal. Now similar laws prevail in 24 states. We're trendsetters!
Zimmerman was finally arrested after a national uproar, but he was released after posting bond. Then he was put right back in jail after a little "misunderstanding" involving a dual-passport/$135,000 Internet-fundraising schtick that might make you think he isn't the most honest person in the world. The whole situation has put Florida right in the spotlight – and the light is not very flattering for us. We're old, you see, and apparently too willing to forgive violence. Is this how we live now? What ever happened to the Magic Kingdom? Why aren't we sending postcards anymore? Where have all the seashells gone?
It's no secret the hold the gun lobby has over the overwhelmingly conservative Florida legislature – the National Rifle Association dropped nearly $1 million in Florida during the 2010 election cycle, and that doesn't include the lobbying pressure that pushes most legislators into dark corners of acquiescence – because guns are important. We should all have our manners of protection. We should all be allowed to pull a hammer back for our independence and liberty. We should all go to gun shows dressed like Sarah Palin and be granted our concealed-carry permits in 30 minutes (or less). It's the Floridian way!
In this, the 9th installment of the Our Dumb State franchise, we're looking at how guns shape our lives in Florida. None of this is funny, mind – guns almost inevitably end up causing tragedy when in the wrong hands – nor are the endless reports of corruption in Tallahassee, the fact that we have a governor who was nearly convicted of fraud before buying an election, and recent attempts by the GOP to shoot the wishes of the electorate down via voter suppression. In other words, we're still dumb. Ready, aim, fire …
What's good for the goose isn't always good for the gander. Back on Aug. 1, 2010, 31-year-old Jacksonville mother Marissa Alexander was engaged in a spat with her estranged fiancé, Rico Gray, over some text messages to her first husband. The pair was already on the way to splitsville – though Alexander had just given birth to their child, her third, nine days before, she had moved back in with her parents and obtained a restraining order against Gray. Gray allegedly blocked Alexander in the bathroom of their shared home when she returned to pick up some of her personal items. He taunted her. "If I can't have you, nobody going to have you," he said, according to a report by CBS News.
As domestic squabbles go, this was hardly uncommon – that is, until Alexander pushed past Gray and walked out into the garage, grabbing a gun from her glove compartment. Alexander proceeded to fire the gun – either as a warning shot or directly at Gray, depending on whether you believe Gray's deposition or his original 911 call – hurting no one. Regardless, despite attempts by her legal representatives to claim self-defense via the Stand Your Ground law, Alexander was sentenced last month to 20 years in prison under the state's seemingly antithetical 1999 "10-20-life" sentencing law, which piled the use of a firearm atop the alleged felony assault.
"The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today," Congresswoman Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, said in a May 11 statement. "One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the 'Stand Your Ground' law will not apply to them. … The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently."
An exhaustive investigation by the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month found that the execution of Stand Your Ground has had troubling results. Among the most disturbing findings, according to the paper, is that "defendants claiming 'Stand Your Ground' are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white." The paper also concluded that, with the uptick in use of the law for criminal defense thanks to media coverage, Stand Your Ground has allowed numerous drug dealers and gang members – the ones it allegedly targets – to walk free.
For Alexander's father, Raoul Jenkins, that's precisely the problem.
"She had a restraining order against him. Now Marissa is incarcerated and he's not," he told the Huffington Post. "I'm wrestling with that in my mind and trying to determine how the system worked that detail out. It's really frustrating."
WHITE MAKES RIGHT
Just when you thought Florida couldn't be any worse than a gaggle of miscreants conducting mass murder over an Xbox in Deltona, the specter of British neo-Nazi nationalism (via the National Front) took a bow in our backyard this year resulting in 10 arrests. The local faction of the American Front, allegedly led by 39-year-old Marcus Faella, trained in a compound out on his St. Cloud property, which, according to the Associated Press, hosted such pleasantries as "paramilitary training, shooting into an occupied dwelling and evidence of prejudices while committing an offense." There were, of course, the necessary assault rifles involved for the protection of the race, along with other skinhead accoutrements like barbed wire, firing ports and explosives, allegedly.
But that's only half the party! Among the planned excursions were a ruckus at Orlando City Hall, a throwdown with a rival Melbourne anti-racist skinhead group and chemical warfare.
An affidavit obtained by the AP showed that Faella was planning for an "inevitable race war" and that he wanted to "kill Jews, immigrants and other minorities." Good thing guns are easy to come by.
PRESCRIPTION FOR DISASTER
Because there's nothing more important or abstract to worry about than whether gun owners feel uncomfortable during routine doctors' visits, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his clan of bobbleheads moved forward in the 2011 legislative session with a peculiar law that would forbid physicians from discussing firearms with their gun-toting patients. And by forbid, we mean that at one point there was discussion of a five-year prison sentence and a $5 million fine for so much as broaching the subject. The muted objection to the "docs and Glocks" bill came largely from pediatricians and child-safety advocates who suggested that the legislation was a political move that virtually ignored family health. Perhaps that's because the American Academy for Pediatrics reports that the little gun in your nightstand is 43 times more likely to be used to kill a friend or family member than an actual intruder or criminal. Also, gun wounds make up one in 25 childhood injuries reported in pediatric trauma centers. That kind of reasoning didn't penetrate Tallahassee's conservative Kevlar, though, and the bill was signed into law in June 2011 including a cooler, calmer threat of a $10,000 fine and loss of medical license. The logic?
"Direct questions about firearm ownership when it has nothing to do with medical care is simply pushing a political agenda, which doesn't be-long in exam rooms," state Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said in an email to the Huffington Post.
Alas, reason prevailed, when, just three months after being signed, the bill was blocked by a federal judge after pediatricians and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence sued.
"A practitioner who counsels a patient on firearm safety, even when entirely irrelevant to medical care or safety, does not affect or interfere with the patient's right to continue to own, possess or use firearms," U.S. Circuit Judge Marcia Cooke ruled, adding that this was a First Amendment issue that would ultimately save the lives of children. Pro-life!
PARTY OF GUN
Perhaps the biggest firearm conundrum facing municipalities late last year was a new gun law signed by Gov. Rick Scott over the summer that ordered all municipal governments to remove any references to "firearms" from their city governance. The argument, of course, is that everybody in Florida should have an equal and inalienable right to protect themselves from hoodlums no matter where they are in the Sunshine State, regional logic be damned.
Well, as boneheaded maneuvers involving weapons often do, this one backfired badly earlier this year, and did so in the most inopportune of places. With Tampa scurrying around like a wet rat trying to prepare itself for the onslaught of the Republican National Convention in August – establishing "clean zones" around the arena where the event will be held in which knives, ropes, gasmasks, pieces of wood and water guns will be forbidden lest protestors get out of control – Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and his city council put out a desperate plea to the governor to revoke the wholesale gun-a-palooza law in order to, well, maybe prevent actual gun violence from erupting. The governor's response was comically chilling.
"While the government may enforce long-standing prohibitions on the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, an absolute ban on possession in entire neighborhoods and regions would surely violate the 2nd Amendment," he said in a written response to the council. "Like you, I share the concern that 'violent anti-government protests or other civil unrest' can pose 'dangers' and the 'threat of substantial injury or harm to Florida residents and visitors to the State.' But it is unclear how disarming law-abiding citizens would better protect them from the dangers and threats posed by those who would flout the law."
Naturally, there will be no guns allowed inside the throbbing chamber of besuited stupidity, but outside, where the living, breathing, probably angry people are, expect something akin to the Wild West. The very thought of it led Buckhorn to fear that the city (and state) may end up looking "silly" and become fodder for political humorists (it has); even worse, people could die. Freedom!
Tampa isn't the only Florida city shaking in its boots. Miami Gardens held off on removing its municipal gun ban until January (after the Oct. 1 deadline) as a statement of protest. The laws there used to ban the sale, display or possession during a declared emergency, riot, parade or rally; likewise, they forbid the firing of a gun within city limits. When pushed into a corner, Miami Beach Gardens Mayor Matti Herrera Bower expressed her exasperation in no uncertain terms, according to a Miami Herald report.
"It's OK to say that 'our law supersedes your law,' but it's not OK to intimidate me, and it's not OK to tell me that if I don't do it … I am going to be taken out of office," Bower said. "That's real intimidation from the National Rifle Association, without a gun. Look what they can do without a gun."
If you thought the sickening drumbeat leading the intrusion of guns into all Floridans' lives was somehow protected by the sacred nature of religious institutions – Thou shalt not kill, and all – a shocking event at a St. Petersburg church in February should probably bring that idea to its knees. According to the Tampa Bay Times, after a regular Sunday service, the pastor's daughter, Hannah Kelley, 20, went to go find her boyfriend, Dustin Bueller. Turns out Bueller was in a "church closet" looking at a 9mm Luger he intended to purchase for his birthday – again, in a church closet – from 48-year-old Moises Zambrana.
Unfortunately, this moment of bartering went sour when that gun went off, piercing a wall first, and then Kelley's head, which was in an adjoining room. Kelley died in the hospital soon after.
Even though there probably shouldn't have been a gun deal going down in a church, even though a young woman died from a gun going off, there were no charges filed in the case. It was just, after all, a freak accident.
Kelley's family released a statement forgiving the 48-year-old, adding "The family would encourage mothers and fathers everywhere to hug their children a little tighter as you never know when it will be your last opportunity." Not in Florida, anyway.
HAMMER TO FALL
So how exactly did we get here? If we told you that most of Florida's violent tendencies with firearms stemmed from a 4-foot-11-inch female bundle of insanity, would you even believe us? It's true: Nearly all roads of backfire bullshit lead back to one woman: Marion Hammer, former president and current lobbyist for the NRA.
According to watchdog website, meetthenra.org, Hammer was virtually born with a gun in her hand, calling her adventures shooting rabbits at the age of 5 "a way of life." How those rabbits led to Hammer becoming the most feared and vengeful figure in Tallahassee is a fairly long story: She grew up to found the Unified Sportsmen of Florida in 1975 (an arm of the NRA, effectively), going on to become a lobbyist for both the USF (which presently compensates her $110,000 annually) and the NRA (which paid her $190,000 in 2010). She is a loaded gun, and she's carried one in her purse at least since the passage of the 1987 concealed-carry law. Watch out for Marion.
But it's not her personal history that has gone so far in shaping Florida's relative redneckery on the issue of gun control, it's her present, almost inexplicable influence over Florida's mostly male governing bodies. She's the queen of false equivalencies. On the issue of doctors asking about guns, she spat out this little nugget to the Sun-Sentinel: "Doctors should not ask you how much money you have in your checking account, whether or not you own diamond cufflinks or your wife owns a diamond necklace. They should not be asking whether or not you own guns." Likewise, in 2011, she brought some down-home craziness to the issue of that session's Open Carry law, which was opposed by the Florida Sheriff's Association for obvious reasons. "This is Florida. It gets really hot here in the summer," she says in a video available on YouTube (linked from meetthenra.org). "A lot of times folks might go into a restaurant or into, you know, a meeting and they have on a suit with a coat and it's hot and they want to take off their jacket. If they're carrying in a shoulder holster or in a pants holster they can't take a jacket off and expose the firearm because then they would be violating the Open Carry law."
In fact, Hammer would be happier if just about everybody had a gun that they could shoot at any time they please. She's balked at everything from the Columbine massacre through the Trayvon Martin case, even going so far as to reject the 1968 federal Gun Control Act that prohibited even ex-cons, substance abusers and those designated as mentally ill from holding guns. For some reason, that struck her as unfair.
"In 1968 my way of life changed because the '68 Gun Control Act imposed restrictions on law-abiding people who had done absolutely nothing," she told the Sun-Sentinel last year, adding, "I got angry that I was being punished and I hadn't done anything wrong."
And in 1996, in a comment to the New York Times, she put an even finer point on things. How would she see fit to end the gun-control debate, she was asked. "Get rid of all liberals," she responded.
Consider it done. Also, consider it dumb.