TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For years, Florida Capitol Police asked gun owners to check their firearms at the door. Not any more.
Since a law in October made it easier to carry concealed weapons into the 1.2 million-square-foot government headquarters in Tallahassee, Senate security relies on alert buttons installed on the phones of lawmakers and staffers that let them instantly listen in to events.
“I don’t think panic buttons are going to be very helpful if somebody charges into your office with a gun,” said State Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who opposed the measure.
The law, which prohibits cities and counties from regulating firearms without the state’s permission, is among changes in recent years that have made Florida a national laboratory for firearm regulations. Its gun rules, particularly its “stand your ground” provision, have come under scrutiny since the Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford. Authorities said the law prevented them from charging the man who killed him with a 9 mm Kel-Tec PF-9 pistol.
“The goal of the gun lobby is to make Florida their armed utopia and spread that mentality nationally,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Gun supporters agree, after a fashion.
“I like to think of Florida as first in freedom,” said Marion Hammer, executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida, a National Rifle Association affiliate.
The Fairfax, Va.-based NRA said it had 4 million members and 2009 revenue of $237.5 million. It has spent $18.7 million on federal-level campaigns since 1989, which makes it the 45th biggest donor during that time, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. About 82 percent went to Republicans.
In Tallahassee, the NRA has won battles with business interests, police departments, local governments and pediatricians since 1999, when Republicans won control of the Legislature and the governor’s office. The organization has championed 38 laws since then to expand rights to conceal, possess, display, discharge, sell or transfer firearms, according to state records.
That helped put Florida among the 10 states with the laxest gun laws, according to a 2011 scorecard from the Brady Campaign, which advocates gun control.
While the Sunshine State’s violent crime has decreased, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, gun- related fatalities increased 35 percent from 1999 to 2009, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s double the rate of population growth during that time and seven times greater than the national average.
“It’s the Gunshine State,” said Kent Morden, manager at U.S. Pawn & Auto Inc. in Longwood, standing near a case of assault rifles surmounted with a remote-control plastic robot toy. “Everybody’s got one.”
Morden said he owned “like five” guns, including two handguns, one of which he pulled from his pocket, pouring the bullets onto the counter to show that it was easily concealable and “fires a mean little round.”
The state of about 19 million has about 6 million gun owners, Hammer said. About 800,000 have concealed-carry permits that allow them to carry hidden firearms, according to Florida Agriculture Department statistics. The agency’s licensing division receives about 360,000 applications each year.
In 2004, then-governor Jeb Bush signed bills that blocked police from collecting data on firearm sales at pawnshops and barred lawsuits over cleaning up lead at gun ranges.
Four years later, the NRA defeated the Florida Chamber of Commerce when lawmakers required employers and business owners to let workers or shoppers bring guns on their property and leave the weapons locked in their cars.
Then-governor Charlie Crist signed a law in 2010 forbidding adoption agencies from considering gun ownership when matching children with prospective parents.
And last year, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, an NRA member, approved the so-called “docs versus Glocks” statute. The law prohibits doctors from asking patients whether they have guns. Pediatricians opposed the bill, comparing questions about firearms to asking about using car seats or keeping poisons in the home.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke temporarily blocked enforcement in September, ruling that it violated free-speech guarantees and doesn’t trample Second Amendment gun rights. The case continues.
One of the NRA’s few defeats came last year, when the Legislature considered allowing concealed weapons on college campuses. That idea was dropped after 20-year-old Florida State University student Ashley Cowie died in the arms of her twin sister, whose boyfriend accidentally shot her with an AK-47- style rifle at a fraternity house.
Even the state’s three-day waiting period to buy a handgun was a victory for the NRA. Set by constitutional amendment, which lawmakers put on the 1990 statewide ballot, it countered a push for a week-long cooling-off period.
Activists such as Hammer and Gross said Republican control of the state government is part of the NRA’s success. Democrats, however, often back changes in gun regulations, too.
The three-day waiting period was approved by a Democratic- controlled Legislature. So was the concealed-carry law in 1987, which Hammer said was the first in the nation to require approval of a license if certain requirements were met.
“Stand your ground,” which relieves a citizen of responsibility to retreat when he feels threatened in a public place, passed in 2005 with bipartisan support.
Scott created a Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection to examine the law and the Trayvon Martin case.
The task force, which will convene after a criminal investigation concludes, includes the Reverend R. B. Holmes Jr., a Baptist pastor in Tallahassee who called for the arrest of George Zimmerman. The 28-year-old Sanford man shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, suspecting he was a burglar.
Also on the panel will be House Speaker Dean Cannon, an Orlando Republican who received a Beretta 686 Silver Pigeon shotgun as gift from colleagues this year.
In Sanford, Chad Murphy came into Al’s Army Navy, which advertises “GUNS” in 3-foot-high red letters in its window, to buy a pair of shoes. Instead he wound up filling out paperwork to buy his first handgun, a Walther PK380.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I finally found one I really like,” he said.