In late May, Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office received more than 5,400 emails about a state legislator who is seeking appointment to a circuit court in the Jacksonville area. The subject line of each message declared that Charles McBurney, a Republican, was “unfit” for the job.
McBurney “arrogantly put his blind ambition to become a judge ahead of your constitutional right of self-defense,” the messages read.
The email blast was part of an ongoing campaign by the National Rifle Association, the nation’s preeminent gun lobby, to block McBurney’s path to the court. His infraction: As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, he had declined to bring up for a vote a bill that would strengthen Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law.
McBurney, who voted with the NRA on every other piece of gun-related legislation for the entirety of his entire nine-year career, has said he opposed the policy change, which would have made it more difficult to prosecute anyone claiming self-defense in a shooting. Now, having defied the gun organization, his campaign for the judicial appointment may be in jeopardy.
Scott, who did not return a request for comment, has until Friday to make an appointment to the state court. McBurney is one of six finalists.
“Anytime a governor gets a flurry of emails from a key constituency base for his party, it absolutely grabs the governor’s attention and can affect appointments,” Susan MacManus, a government affairs professor at the University of Southern Florida, tells The Trace. “And the NRA has been a key part of Governor Scott’s base.”
In state legislatures across the country, the NRA has earned a reputation as the lobbying group that lawmakers, especially Republicans, are least eager to cross. The organization demands absolute loyalty, and moves quickly to punish politicians who defy its wishes. What may seem like a minor infraction — a Republican ally failing to bring a bill to a vote in one single instance — is viewed by the NRA as heresy.
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In Florida, where a gunman killed 49 people at a nightclub earlier this month, the NRA is especially influential. The organization doesn’t win every fight — efforts to legalize the open carry of firearms and expand concealed-carry rights to college campuses were sidelined last session — but it prevails most of the time.
In the last two decades, the NRA has persuaded Florida lawmakers to adopt dozens of new laws that strengthen or expand gun rights. Any challenge to NRA-crafted legislation invites a forceful response, led by Marion Hammer, the organization’s 78-year-old lobbyist and Sunshine State punisher-in-chief.
The state assembly is currently on recess. After the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, Democratic lawmakers called for a special legislative session to consider new gun legislation. They proposed closing the terror gap, by barring those on the FBI’s terrorist watchlist from purchasing guns.
On Monday, the U.S. Senate voted down two bills that sought to do the same at the federal level.
Florida Republicans have said a special session is unnecessary. Democrats in the state say the GOP is in the thrall of the NRA and unwilling to act.
“To Florida Republicans in state legislature,” Dan Gelber, a former Democratic leader in the Florida House, told The Trace in February, “supporting the National Rifle Association is like breathing air.”
Juan-Carlos Planas served for eight years in the Florida House. A Republican, he says he is “probably to the right of most people on gun rights,” and always voted for the NRA’s bills, including the original “stand your ground” legislation, in 2005.
Two years later, Planas opposed a proposal supported by the gun organization that would have allowed Florida gun owners to leave their weapons in their cars at work. The legislation was controversial, and widely reviled by the state’s business community.
“All of a sudden I got a D rating from the NRA because I dared to believe property rights are important and must be respected,” he recalls. “I went to Marion Hammer and was like, ‘How the hell can you name me anti-gun?’ And she was like, ‘You earned that rating.’”
Hammer believes the rating was fair.
“He’s probably lucky he didn’t get an F,” she says. “Saying you support the Second Amendment but you only voted against it one time is like saying I’m pregnant but I don’t have a baby.”
That same legislation ensnared Marco Rubio, when, in 2007, he was serving as Speaker of the Florida House. He let the bill die on the vine that year. Hammer didn’t forgive Rubio’s misstep, even when a version of the legislation passed in 2008.
After Rubio left office, in 2009, Hammer told the Tampa Bay Times that he was a “big disappointment” and that he failed to “walk the walk.” He spent the next seven years trying to get back into the organization’s good graces, speaking at NRA events and voting against expanding background checks in the wake of Newtown. After the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Rubio proclaimed that he had purchased a gun to protect his family.
Another former Florida lawmaker who advocated for gun control legislation says she was amazed by the NRA’s vindictiveness.
“So my husband walks into my office one morning,” Democratic State Senator Nan Rich recalls, “and he hands me a list with NRA grades. I find my name, and I see I was given an F minus! I looked at my friends names who vote the way I do, and they all have D’s or F’s. It was just, wow.”
She adds, “I called Marion out of curiosity. I said, ‘Why did you give me an F minus?’ She was silent for a few seconds and then said, ‘Because you stand up and speak.’”
Hammer stands by the grade.
“When a legislator keeps filing anti-gun bills and stands up against Second Amendment issues over and over again,” she says, “it’s a shame F minus is as low as our ratings go.”
As a member of the Florida legislature, McBurney has always maintained a grade of A or better with the NRA. But his refusal to advance the “stand your ground” bill, Hammer says, sets a disturbing precedent.
“What a person does last sets the stage for what they will do in the future,” she says.
[Photo: AP Photo/Phil Coale]