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[Phil Coale/AP]

The Gunfighters

I Spent a Year Reporting on NRA Lobbyist Marion Hammer. Read Her Emails With Florida Officials.

In February, I published a long profile of Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s Florida lobbyist, who over the last four decades has transformed the state into a laboratory for laws that have rolled back long-established restrictions on firearms and the use of force for self-defense. Legislation she has orchestrated, which includes the country’s first Stand Your Ground and statewide concealed carry laws, has often been exported around the nation.

My goal was to understand how Hammer accumulates and wields power behind the scenes. The task required filing hundreds of public records requests to legislators and the governor’s office, among others. Over the course of my reporting, I acquired more than a thousand pages of correspondence between Hammer and lawmakers, government staffers, and various state officials. The messages reveal a lobbyist who not only shapes bills, but creates them. Hammer gives orders to state employees and elected officials, and they often follow them on the public’s time.

Today, The Trace is sharing the cache with the public, in one place, at this Document Cloud project page. The emails and attachments were often sent by Florida’s records custodians in large and unsorted files. The beauty of Document Cloud is that it makes the messages searchable.

With so much material, there was plenty more about Hammer’s tactics and unique access to Florida’s Republican government than I could fit in my story. Below, I’ve highlighted several such exchanges, each illuminating in its own way. My hope is that journalists and readers will take the occasion to examine the files, to see what their own searches may reveal.

Hammer works with a government staff lawyer to create the ‘Pop-Tart’ gun bill — months before it has a sponsor

In March 2013, an 8-year-old Maryland boy was suspended from his elementary school after he chewed a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and pretended to shoot his classmates. Five months later, in September, Hammer set about crafting a bill that would prohibit schools from disciplining students who play with pretend guns.

Emails show Hammer, over the course of several days, working on the legislation’s language with a staff lawyer from the Florida House of Representatives. Notably, no lawmakers are ever copied on the correspondence, nor is there any indication in the the documents that any elected officials are involved in the drafting process — the legislation did not yet have a formal sponsor. Four months later, in February 2014, Dennis Baxley, who was then a state representative, finally introduces Hammer’s proposal as a bill.

Hammer plots with the governor’s office to kick a rival gun group out of Florida

In month June 2013, Hammer asked Governor Rick Scott’s then-general counsel, Pete Antonacci, to investigate the National Association for Gun Rights, a rival gun-rights group that frequently attacks the NRA from the right. Antonacci told Hammer that he referred the matter to a top official in the Florida Department of State and said he’d also reach out to the attorney general.

What is especially interesting is the context of this exchange: Around the time Hammer emailed Antonacci, she had lent her support to a bill that placed some gun-buying restrictions on the mentally ill. NAGR, stealing a page from Hammer’s playbook, had used her rare endorsement of a gun regulation as fodder for challenging the NRA primacy in Florida, launching a campaign accusing Hammer and her employer of selling out gun owners.

Hammer strategizes with Matt and Don Gaetz on how to pass open carry

In 2014 and 2015, when Matt Gaetz was a state representative, and his father, Don, was a state senator, they worked closely with Hammer to facilitate the passage of a bill to allow people to openly carry handguns in public.

The trio discussed how to pressure certain elected officials. A separate message addressed the lobbyist’s concerns that she might be kept out of a meeting involving law enforcement, with Don Gaetz assuring Hammer, There will be no meeting that involves me with law enforcement on this bill without you.” In another email, Don celebrates the camaraderie between the lawmakers and lobbyist. “This will be the fight of the year,” he said. “We’re a pretty good three-person team.”

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Hammer helps Senator Greg Steube draft an op-ed in Steube’s name

In 2015, when Greg Steube was still in Florida’s lower chamber, he sponsored a bill that would have allowed people to carry guns on the campuses of public universities. That year, he spoke at a committee hearing that took place in the wake of a recent mass shooting at an Oregon community college, which he claimed barred legally carried guns from school grounds. Politifact rated Steube’s claim as “mostly false.” In response, he and Hammer collaborated on an op-ed, published in Steube’s name, in which he alleged that Politifact is “playing politics, ignoring facts and misleading readers.”