March 18, 1996 12:00 PM

TO UNWIND, 56-YEAR-OLD MARION Hammer likes to prune the roses in her Tallahassee, Fla., garden, shop for antiques—or take her .38-cal. Colt Detective Special to the Rifle & Pistol Club shooting range and squeeze off a few rounds. “I go every chance I get,” says Hammer. “You just have to take a break sometimes and blow out the cobwebs. It’s totally relaxing.”

Guns are more than just Hammer’s pastime; guns are her life. In December, when the former Girl Scout leader became president of the National Rifle Association—the first female leader in the group’s 125-year history—few among the pro-gun organization’s 3.3 million members needed to question her credentials. Hammer fired her first shot at age 5, won dozens of shooting tournaments during the 1960s, and since 1974 has been the gun lobby’s unbending advocate at the Florida statehouse, where she helped persuade lawmakers to pass a 1987 bill allowing residents to carry concealed, registered guns. (Similar laws are now in effect in 28 states, and passage is expected in Louisiana in March.) “I know what I have to accomplish [and] I believe in what I’m doing,” Hammer says in her husky drawl, made even raspier by a former pack-a-day smoking habit. “I don’t quit.”

That might be an understatement. Osha Gray Davidson, author of a 1993 book on the gun lobby, calls Hammer’s election “a victory of the ultra-right wing [within the NRA],” for which no freedom is more important than the right to bear arms. As a lobbyist for Unified Sportsmen of Florida, the NRA’s Florida affiliate, Hammer has rarely lost a legislative fight. Critics claim that her red-hot rhetoric borders on extremism. Says Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a pro-gun-control Florida state representative who battled Hammer—and lost—over a 1992 proposed assault-weapons ban: “With Marion, there isn’t room for compromise. She’d attack your loyalty to America if you don’t agree with her.”

But Hammer, who occasionally wears a T-shirt bearing the warning, “I’m not a bitch, I’m THE bitch, and that’s Ms. Bitch to you,” dismisses such criticism. “My granddaddy used to tell me to never back down when I knew I was right,” she says. “With an upbringing like that, I never take [attacks] personally.”

That was the same paternal grandfather, Lomie Claude Shirah, who introduced Hammer to guns. Hammer’s father, Robert Price, was killed in battle in Okinawa during World War II while serving in the Navy, and her financially strapped mother, Louise Proud, sent her daughter to live on Shirah’s farm outside Columbia, S.C. There, Hammer enjoyed a tomboy’s paradise, driving a tractor and milking cows. Under Shirah’s supervision, she learned to hunt with a .22 rifle. “I still remember that first day,” she says of her initial solo hunt at age 12. “When I came home, I hadn’t even seen a squirrel, but I felt so proud.”

That same year, Hammer joined her mother and younger sister Carolyn Davis, now 53, in Columbia, but after school, at least, she stuck to her guns. At 17, she enrolled at Georgia State University but dropped out less than a year later after marrying Cliff Hammer, 19, whom she had met on a shooting trip outside Atlanta. They had three daughters—Rhonda, now 35, who works in computer sales in Dallas; Sally, 32, a Tallahassee secretarial-agency executive; and Florida state employee Colleen Fox, 34—before divorcing in 1980.

By then, Hammer was a full-time gun activist. Her political awakening came in 1968, the year Congress passed the first major federal gun-control law since the 1930s in response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Among other things, the legislation prevented citizens from buying handguns out of state. “It was inconceivable to me that my government was going to prevent a normal, law-abiding activity because some deranged criminal had committed a criminal act,” Hammer says.

In anger, she joined the NRA. For more than a decade she juggled her duties at home with volunteer work for gun groups, even though Cliff’s job as a construction manager took the family from Atlanta to Chicago and eventually to Tallahassee. There, Hammer became sole lobbyist for Unified Sportsmen of Florida and began building her national reputation. “Here I was, a woman, 4’11” tall, representing what was perceived as a man’s organization,” she says. “There is no doubt it got their attention.”

And still does, especially when combined with her aggressive agenda. “If crime on the street is as bad as people fear it is,” Hammer says, “then law-abiding citizens need their guns to give them an even chance.” And what about accidental shootings? “That’s tragic, and nothing more.” In her new, unpaid position, Hammer, who will keep her job with Unified Sportsmen and a yearly salary of $59,500, plans to push Congress to repeal the 1994 ban on selected assault guns (a ban supported by 69 percent of Americans, according to a recent poll), lobby for a federal law allowing concealed weapons, and expand the NRA’s Eddie Eagle Gun Safety program for kids aged 3 to 12, which she helped launch in 1988. “Children are learning the wrong things about guns [from TV],” she says—namely, to handle them without adult supervision and training.

Gun-control advocates, armed with a recent University of Maryland study that found gun crimes had increased in four of five cities surveyed after concealed guns were legalized, are ready for battle. Last month, they note, a Dallas deliveryman was shot and killed during an argument over a minor traffic accident involving his van and a pickup truck. The truck’s driver, who was carrying a registered concealed gun, has been charged with murder. News like that doesn’t daunt Hammer. “I don’t think that the NRA’s gonna moderate its position,” she says. Nor will she. “That’s rolling over and giving up.”


CINDY DAMPIER in Tallahassee

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