By Kathleen Haughney
TALLAHASSEE — State Rep. Brad Drake got the idea for a bill permitting executions by firing squads from a constituent having breakfast at a Panhandle Waffle House. His Senate colleague, Mike Fasano, wants pets to have domestic-violence protection because of a Tampa-area man who intimidated his mother by beating her dog.
- If we got all ideas from constituents, we'd be the next Nazi Germany, or Iran, we'd be stoning people in the streets, burning people at the stake, etc. Oh wait, we are almost there.
Call it legislation by anecdote.
"Most of the time, legislation evolves out of agencies and interest groups and stuff," said Florida State University public-policy professor Lance deHaven-Smith. "But there are cases where a particular anecdote, because it has an appealing narrative, can drive the legislative process."
Each year, thousands of bills are filed in the Legislature. Many come directly from voters or from politicians reacting to a story in the news.
"Some of the best legislation ever passed by our office came from an idea at the grass-roots level, from our constituents," said Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
But many have serious public-policy implications sometimes obscured by the impact of an anecdote.
For example, lawmakers angry over Casey Anthony's not-guilty verdict in the death of her 2-year-old daughter have pushed to make it a crime to not report a missing child, as Anthony failed to do for 30 days. But a committee examining the issue has reacted cautiously, expressing concern that emotion-driven legislation can have unintended consequences.
After the 2005 death of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, kidnapped and killed by a sex offender, lawmakers rushed to create a law sharply restricting where sex offenders could live. As a result, hundreds were forced to leave their homes; some settled into an encampment beneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami.
The unexpected result led lawmakers to scale back the restrictions in 2010.
- They did not scale back anything, really, it's basically the same as it was.
"I think we will learn through the mistakes of the past of legislating through emotion," said Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, at a committee hearing on the revision.
- Really? I don't think politicians have learned anything. If they had, they'd see that residency laws do nothing to prevent crime or protect anybody, neither does the registry. Politicians have learned nothing, IMO.
There are other examples.
Last spring, the National Rifle Association pushed a bill that would have fined doctors $5 million for asking their patients whether they owned a gun. The NRA and bill sponsors cited stories of physicians espousing anti-gun beliefs to patients and argued that it was not a doctor's concern whether a patient owned a gun.
Opposition by physicians — especially pediatricians, who said they routinely ask about gun ownership to stress the importance of parents keeping firearms away from children — watered down the bill and the fine. But shortly after it became law, the pediatricians sued; a federal judge, citing free-speech concerns, blocked enforcement.
Many bills spurred by anecdotes never come close to becoming law. Drake's firing-squad bill will likely never get a hearing, nor will legislation by his colleague, Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who wants to repeal a law that bans dwarf tossing — itself a reaction to a "sport" popular in some Florida bars in the 1980s.
But they are conversation starters.
"Brad Drake with his firing-squad stuff certainly provoked a lot of commentary all over the state and all over the country," said Ron Book, a longtime and influential fixture in the Tallahassee lobbying corps.
Book and his daughter, Lauren, have campaigned for several major sex-offender bills, with Lauren as the featured story. As a child, Lauren was sexually abused by her nanny. As an adult, she turned to advocacy.
During the past few years, Lauren and her father have successfully pushed for new laws that make it a crime for a sex offender to subsequently contact the victim and that eliminate the statute of limitations in cases where the person being abused is younger than 16. A major bill passed last spring tightened laws related to child-pornography and cybersex crimes.
"When you put a face on situations, you make all the difference in the world," Book said.
- Exactly, you humanize a bill by putting a child's name to it, it pulls at people's emotions, and if you did this for a bill to exterminate human beings, I'm sure it would pass, because politicians don't read the bills, they just read the titles, and name it after a child, double whammy, and thanks Ron for clarifying that for us, which we already knew.
Fasano said he sponsored his pet-violence bill after a victims' advocate came to him with a story about a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard dog, now called "Little Horatio."
The son of the dog's former owner beat the animal to manipulate his mother, and the animal was hurt so badly that it now has to wear protective goggles to avoid bright sunlight. The advocate adopted the dog and changed the name to protect the former owner.
Fasano's bill would expand the definition of domestic violence to include family pets, enabling an injunction barring the abuser from coming near the pet or potentially getting custody. Family members, particularly the elderly, shouldn't be tormented by someone threatening their pet, he said.
"It's just terrible," he said.