The National Rifle Association (NRA) has successfully targeted Florida in recent years, spending millions on election campaigns, but it now finds itself under unprecedented attack from a student movement angered by the Valentine's Day attack on their South Florida high school.
The NRA has good reason to be pleased with the results of its Florida efforts, with two of the state’s top political leaders, Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio – both Republicans – earning the top A+ rating from the gun owners group. Over the last decade gun ownership in the state has skyrocketed while gun laws have relaxed.
But, after the deaths of 17 students and teachers on Valentine’s Day at Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, half-an-hour north of Miami, there are signs that the sands may be shifting.
At a CNN town hall with Stoneman Douglas students and Florida politicians on Wednesday night, Rubio stated publicly that he would favor raising the minimum age for purchasing assault rifles and he would consider restricting the size of magazines for firearms. "I absolutely believe that in this country if you are 18 years of age you should not be able to buy a rifle, and I will support a law that takes that right away," he said.
Scott, who is expected to announce a run for U.S. Senator in November, challenging incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, is also suddenly sounding less pro-gun.
"Suddenly, the NRA's A-plus rating looks like an albatross, a potential drag on Scott's expected run for the U.S. Senate," wrote Steve Bousquet, the Tampa Bay Times' veteran Tallahassee bureau chief. This week Scott's name was quietly dropped from a list of featured speakers at the NRA’s May 4 “leadership forum” in Dallas.
Leaders of the #NeverAgain students’ movement are warning politicians that their donations from the NRA may cost them at the polls in November.
"We keep telling them that if they accept this blood money, they are against the children, they are against the people who are dying,” said Emma Gonzalez, 18, a Stoneman Douglas senior. "We are not forgetting this come midterm elections."
Scott's immediate reaction to the shooting was to blame the FBI, even calling for the resignation of the agency chief, Christopher Wray.
On Wednesday, he met with a delegation of Stoneman Douglas students in the state capital, Tallahassee, to discuss state gun control legislation to protect schools, and on Friday announced a series of proposals that went some of the way to meet their demands.
Immediately after the shooting, Florida’s legislature also postponed discussion of a bill to weaken background checks for concealed weapons permits. Some legislators are now calling for a sweeping gun reform bill to raise the legal age limit for purchasing an assault rifle from 18 to 21 – the same as for handguns, alcohol, and rental cars. Another proposal would require a three-day waiting period for all rifle purchases.
However, it remains to be seen whether the outrage after the Parkland massacre – the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history – will be enough to alter the balance of forces in Tallahassee.
What the data says
To assess what the #NeverAgain student movement is up against, Univision pieced together NRA spending in Florida using data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and FollowTheMoney.org using campaign finance reports submitted to the Florida Division of Elections.
The data examined includes all campaign contributions to federal and state candidates, parties, and political action committees which are reported to state election authorities.
In the 2016 election cycle, 19 federal election candidates in Florida races received a total of $41,600 from the NRA’s Political Victory Fund, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan research group that tracks the effects of money and lobbying on elections and public policy. The NRA spent a further $3.4 million in indirect, issue-oriented expenditures aligned with its favored candidates, such as television commercials, print and digital ads or mailings, according to FollowTheMoney.org, a Montana-based nonprofit campaign finance database.
Almost half the NRA's total Florida spending since 2010 - $3.3 million - was spent in direct and indirect support of Rubio in 2016. He received the highest direct donation: $9,900. (Under campaign finance law, the NRA can give up to $10,000 per candidate in an election cycle, $5,000 for a primary election and $5,000 for a general.) The NRA also spent more than $1 million in indirect issue-oriented campaign expenditures in support of Rubio, and another $2.3 million against his Democrat rival Patrick Murphy.
In the week before the 2014 elections, the NRA spent $450,000 to help Scott get re-elected as governor, buying 30-second TV spots across the major media markets in north Florida, that attacked the gun rights record of his challenger Charlie Crist.
The NRA also spent $626,000 in 2012 in a failed bid to defeat Florida's other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, an effort likely to be redoubled this year. The next largest amount was $235,000 spent in 2014 to re-elect Steve Southerland, a Republican former U.S. Representative in north Florida's Panhandle. Southerland was narrowly defeated, one of only two incumbent House Republicans to lose their seat that year.
"Proud NRA sellout."
Another NRA favorite, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, has in the past called himself a "proud NRA sellout."
After the shooting Putnam, a father of four, appeared to change his tune, saying he too was "demanding actions." Putnam, who’s running to succeed Scott, declined to say if he still considered himself a “proud NRA sellout” on Tuesday night, when asked by a POLITICO reporter.
Univision asked the NRA to provide details of its political spending in Florida, but no response was received prior to publication of this article. An NRA spokesperson said all its political contributions are properly reported to the Florida Division of Elections and are available to the public. While that is mostly true, the real amount is likely higher than $8 million but is hard to verify due to hazy campaign finance regulations that make it difficult to track all politically-related spending, especially in state races.
The results of NRA largesse
Florida has the nation's third-biggest population, so it is no surprise that the NRA would focus its attention on the state. About 90% of its direct spending goes to Republicans, and more than 90% of the state's members of Congress have at least an A-minus grade from the NRA.
In 2016, it spent a total of $1 million on all candidates for federal office, plus $3.2 million on lobbying and some $54.4 million on indirect issue-oriented campaigns, according to CRP, making it one of the nation's largest election spenders. (San Francisco-based hedge-fund founder and environmental activist, Tom Steyer, was the largest political contributor in 2016, with $90.5 million, according to CRP.)
Florida, nicknamed the 'Gunshine State,' has some of the most relaxed gun laws in the United States. By some counts, Florida leads the nation in gun ownership, with about 8% percent of the population licensed to carry a concealed weapon, state records show, including 1.8 million concealed weapon or firearm permits.
The NRA's longtime former chief Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, is reputed to have wielded such power that she was directly involved in writing key legislation.
'If you're with Marion 95% of the time, you're a damn traitor,' Republican congressman Matt Gaetz told The New Yorker. Gaetz said that one of her e-mails 'packs more political punch than a hundred thousand TV buys from any other special interest in the state.'"
Hammer's influence was so great that the NRA used the state to set legal precedents that it was then able to replicate elsewhere. That was especially the case with Florida’s 2005 'Stand Your Ground' self-defense law, which allows shooters to claim a killing was in self-defense if they have a reasonable fear of bodily harm. He also allowed people without concealed weapon licenses to carry guns in emergencies like hurricane evacuations for 48 hours. It has since been copied by 25 states across the country.
Critics of Scott question why gun laws were not tightened after the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando that took 49 lives in June 2016. Nor did the laws change after five people were killed by a gunman at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport last year.
In 2016, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave Florida an 'F' on the stringency of its gun laws. It noted that Florida does not require a background check prior to the transfer of a firearm between private parties, nor does it require firearms dealers to obtain a state license or register firearms.
Under Florida Statute 790, gun control is solely under state, not local, jurisdiction. City government officials who attempt to enact gun ordinances stricter than those of the state face a $5,000 fine and can be removed from office by the governor, under a 2011 law pushed by the NRA.
Since Scott took office in 2011, the cost of a concealed weapons permit has been cut three times. In his first year, he signed a controversial “docs versus glocks” bills, which barred doctors from asking patients about gun ownership. The law was struck down by an appeals court last year.
During Scott's re-election campaign in 2014 the NRA flooded Florida homes with millions of mailers supporting him. “Rick Scott has an unmatched record of support for the Second Amendment in Florida,” the chairman of the NRA's 'Political Victory Fund', Chris W. Cox, declared on its website. “Rick has signed more pro-gun bills into law in one term than any other governor in Florida history."
Scott returned the favor by protecting backyard gun ranges and expanded 'Stand Your Ground.' Scott also said he would sign a bill to allow "guns-on-campus" if it reached his desk, despite the opposition of university officials. But the bill was never approved by the legislature.
Legislators in 2014 sought to keep students from getting in serious trouble for simulating a weapon with objects like their fingers, Pop-Tarts or Legos. The author of the bill, Rep. Dennis Baxley, a Republican, said it was designed to prevent overreactions under zero-tolerance policies designed to keep weapons out of public schools.
The bill would bar school districts from suspending students for "brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food item" bitten into the shape of a weapon or "possessing a toy firearm or weapon made of plastic snap-together building blocks."
Baxley dubbed the measure the Pop-Tart bill, a reference to a Maryland student who chewed a toaster pastry into the shape of a pistol and was suspended, inspiring similar legislation in that state. The boy later received a lifetime membership in the NRA.
The NRA also sponsors high school military reserve training programs and the Boy Scouts
The NRA Foundation gave nearly $2.2 million to schools across 30 states in 2016, including various programs from equipment for high school Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) air rifle teams, to gun safety training.
A total of 18 schools in Florida received NRA donations in 2016, more than any other state. The JROTC marksmanship program uses air rifles special-made for target shooting. Records show that the Stoneman Douglas JROTC program received $10,827 in non-cash assistance from the NRA's fundraising and charitable arm in 2016.
Nikolas Cruz, the Stoneman Douglas shooter, was a member of the squad.