Marion Hammer takes aim at a firing range in 1995. She was the first female president of the National Rifle Association.

Story highlights

Marion Hammer was the first female president of the NRA

She is responsible for pushing through Florida's Stand Your Ground law

Some gun control activists consider Hammer an extremist

Whatever their position on guns, Florida lawmakers respect Hammer

CNN  — 

Marion Hammer was 5 when she first held a gun in her hands. Her grandfather handed her a .22 bolt-action single-shot rifle and told her to hunt down a rabbit or a squirrel for dinner. She practiced first, aiming at cans lined up on the wooden fence.

“I remember seeing a great big red tomato right on the front of that can,” she recalled in 1995 as she ascended to the presidency of the powerful National Rifle Association. “And on my first shot, I drilled the tomato dead center.”

She’s in her 70s now – a 4-foot, 11-inch granny gone gray. But she’s still drilling the tomato, dead center, as an unblinking gun rights advocate. The way she sees it, if the bad guys are armed to the teeth, then the good guys should be able to defend themselves.

Since 1978, Hammer has tirelessly pushed her Second Amendment agenda with the Florida Legislature as an NRA board member and executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida. She has been such an effective lobbyist that the Sunshine State often is referred to as “the Gunshine State.”

“She’s a legend around here,” said Cory Tilley, a Tallahassee political consultant who was former Gov. Jeb Bush’s communications chief. “She connects. Agree or disagree with her, she’s fighting a fight she truly believes in. Her motives are 100 percent pure.”

Hammer was one of the chief architects of Florida’s controversial 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law, which Sanford police cited as the reason why neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman wasn’t immediately arrested and charged in the February shooting and killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Police said at the time that they had nothing to refute Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.

A special prosecutor reviewed the case and filed a second-degree murder charge Wednesday, some 45 days after Martin’s death.

Read the documents in the Martin case

The delay led to a vast outcry, with protest marches, voter registration drives and vitriolic debate that consumed the 24/7 cable news cycle. Touching on issues of race and justice, the controversy focused attention once again on Florida’s gun laws, and on Hammer’s role in getting them passed.

When Jeb Bush signed Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, it was the nation’s first. Half the states now have the law, or one like it, on their books. Sometimes called the “Make My Day” law, it allows people to use deadly force to defend themselves against attack – at home or in public – without fear of prosecution or civil liability. Supporters see it as leveling the field, their opponents as a call to vigilantism.

Brian Malte, director of legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he considers Hammer an extremist.

“Marion Hammer and the NRA are the masterminds of a dangerous paranoid mentality that got Trayvon Martin killed, the mentality that is responsible for endangering all of our lives,” Malte said. “It’s based on a lie that you need to be armed to the teeth anywhere you go.”

As a result, Hammer and the NRA have created an “armed utopia” in Florida, where people can shoot first, and ask questions later, he said.

“They say an armed society is a polite society,” Malte said. “We say, ‘Tell that to Trayvon Martin’s parents.’ “

‘The Gunshine State’

Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who sponsored Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, disagrees. “It’s not because we want to shoot somebody,” he said. “We want to keep people from getting hurt.”

Stand Your Ground was intended to give people under attack the benefit of the doubt, Baxley said. You no longer needed to retreat first, but the law wasn’t meant to apply to anyone who followed or chased after an attacker. Nor was it an excuse for police to stop fully investigating homicides when there’s a self-defense claim, he added.

The gun issues in the Martin case extend beyond Stand Your Ground. Zimmerman, 28, was legally carrying a Kel Tec 9 mm handgun despite an arrest record that included an assault and domestic violence complaints. Florida’s 1987 “concealed carry” law, also pushed by Hammer and the NRA, requires police to issue permits to carry concealed weapons to anyone who is mentally fit and hasn’t been convicted of a violent felony. It also was the first of its kind in the nation.

My Ethics: ‘Stand your ground’ laws are invitation to kill

And, despite opposition from the Walt Disney Co. and the Chamber of Commerce, Hammer and the NRA were the driving force behind a 2008 law that allows employees to bring guns to work – as long as they lock the weapons in the car. In a more recent battle, she took on the medical community, getting legislation enacted to prevent doctors from asking young patients about guns in their homes. A judge shot down that law, saying it violated doctors’ free speech.

At times, Hammer seems unstoppable.

“There is no more tenacious presence in Tallahassee than Marion Hammer,” said Sally Bradshaw, who was Jeb Bush’s chief of staff.

“A lot of lobbyists come and go, but Marion is part of a cause, and that means she has real credibility and a stick-with-it-ness that few can match,” Bradshaw added. “You want her on your side in a fight.”

Baxley, who worked closely with Hammer on Stand Your Ground, considers her “a tremendous inspiration.”

The case of 77-year-old James Workman inspired the law that became Stand Your Ground. The retired oil worker from Pensacola was living in a trailer outside his hurricane-damaged house when he shot and killed 35-year-old Rodney Dean Cox on November 3, 2004. His wife was on the phone with 911, and he had fired a warning shot first.

Prosecutors declined to prosecute Workman, ruling the shooting was justified under the legal theory that homeowners have a right to defend themselves and their property from imminent harm.

“It was months before he knew whether or not he was going to be charged with a crime for simply defending his own life and his property,” Baxley said. “That is not right, and Marion talked to me about this bill that would firm up the self-defense posture.”

Hammer sold the legislation like no one else could. She presented an emotionally compelling case, telling lawmakers: “You can’t expect a victim to wait before taking action to protect herself, and say: ‘Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, did you drag me into this alley to rape and kill me or do you just want to beat me up and steal my purse?’”

She blasted the bill’s opponents as “bleeding-heart criminal coddlers.”

“She’s so determined,” said Baxley, a funeral director. “She’s very clear on what her concerns are for people, and she’s absolutely tireless in any political fight. She doesn’t want to see anybody victimized. She is absolutely vibrant in protecting the Second Amendment.”

To the top of the NRA

Stand Your Ground sailed through Florida’s House of Representatives 92-20 before clearing the Senate, 39-0. Opposing it seemed like political suicide in Florida. Hammer’s position resonated with his constituents, Baxley said.

“There’s this thing of trying to dramatize that the NRA as this big evil machine that is trying to thwart the will of the people,” he added. “They are representing the view of many of the people in my district. I feel like I’m responding to my constituents when the NRA sits at the table with me.”

Along with abortion, guns are perhaps the nation’s most contentious political issue, and the Martin case is fanning the rhetoric on both sides. Several states, including Alaska, Massachusetts and New York, are considering Stand Your Ground laws. It is likely to be a hot topic as the NRA convenes for its 141st annual convention this weekend in St. Louis.

Timeline of events in Trayvon Martin case

Hammer has said little in the wake of the Martin shooting, except briefly to defend Stand Your Ground as “a good law.”

She did not respond to a request to participate in this profile. Nor did she reply to an invitation to go shooting, although it brought a throaty chuckle from the woman who answered the phone at Hammer’s office in Tallahassee. Earlier, Hammer told two Florida newspapers that she would have nothing to say to them because of “media bias and slant” against gun rights.

But there was a time when Hammer was not so publicity shy. Back when she was the first woman to lead the NRA – 1995 to 1998 – she worked to raise the group’s profile and freely told her story to The New York Times, the St. Petersburg Times and other news organizations.

Old news clips and interviews with associates in Florida reveal a steely little woman with a deep voice who favors bright lipstick and will get up in your face to make a point, even if she has to stand on tiptoe. She is committed to her cause, her values and her family and makes no bones about it.

While some have argued that the vitriolic debate over gun laws could be resolved by getting rid of all the guns, Hammer famously offered an alternative solution: “Get rid of all the liberals.”

‘I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot you’

Her soldier father died at Okinawa, defending the American way of life, as she sees it. A third-generation NRA member, she says that includes the constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms.

Growing up on her grandparents’ farm outside Columbia, South Carolina, guns were just a part of everyday life, Hammer has said. As a child, she would spend her weekly allowance on six rifle cartridges and four pieces of penny candy. Other girls played with dolls, perhaps, but she proudly outgunned the boys. She competed in shooting contests and when she got a little older, became a certified firearms instructor.

She met her husband while shooting, and raised three daughters, volunteering as a Brownie leader and a cheerleading sponsor. But when the Gun Control Act of 1968 became the law of the land, she found a calling. She moved to Florida in the 1970s, settling in the state capital, Tallahassee.

In the mid-1980s, she had an experience that convinced her she was on a righteous path. A carload of young men, seemingly drunk or high, followed her into a parking garage. They shouted obscenities, and brandished a beer bottle, telling her in no uncertain terms what they intended to do to her with it.

“I was certain I was going to die, or to be left in a condition where I would have wished I died,” she told The New York Times.

She reached into her purse and found her loaded six-shot .38-caliber Colt Detective Special.

“I pulled the gun out, brought it slowly up into the headlights of the car so they could see it and heard one of them scream,” she told the Knight Ridder/Tribune news service in 1995. The car slammed into reverse and sped away, tires squealing.

She realized her handgun had saved her, even if she never fired a round.

“I could have been killed or raped, but I had a gun so I wasn’t,” she said. “If the government takes away my gun, what’s going to happen next time?”

Hammer recounted the experience often as she lobbied for passage of Stand Your Ground in 2004. “I’m 4-foot-11. I’m 67 years old. If you come at me and I felt that my life was in danger or that I was going to be injured, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot you,” she famously said.

It did not seem to faze her that many police chiefs and prosecutors opposed Stand Your Ground. John Timoney, then police chief in Miami, was among the law’s most outspoken critics. He called it the “License to Murder” law and believed it would turn Florida into a tropical version of a Wild West shoot ‘em-up.

“Trying to control shooting by members of a well-trained and disciplined police department is a daunting enough task,” Timoney said at the time. “Laws like Stand Your Ground give citizens unfettered power and discretion with no accountability. It is a recipe for disaster.”