Don't Tread on Me

Greg Steube Fights for Guns and Individual Rights

The state senator is stirring up controversy.

By Tony D'Souza and Pam Daniel February 27, 2018 Published in the February 2018 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Last Valentine’s Day, newly elected State Sen. Greg Steube drove to the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit office to file a lien release. Steube, a tall Iraq War combat veteran with an angular, surfing-toned body, rapid-fire speaking style and hard-edged demeanor, has a concealed-carry permit and takes his Sig Sauer P938 most places he goes, including to Sunday morning services at Sarasota Baptist Church.

But he left his gun in his truck that day, knowing there would be a security checkpoint at the clerk’s office. Two guards searched him and told him he couldn’t take his pocket knife into the building. A lawyer who in July left the Fort Lauderdale-based Becker & Poliakoff firm to go into solo practice, Steube is so familiar with Florida’s concealed-carry law that he often quotes it verbatim; he informed the guards they were mistaken, citing Florida Statute 790.06 as proof he was being denied his constitutional rights.

The incident soon drew in Sheriff Tom Knight, whose counsel informed him that not only was Steube correct, but Knight could, under Florida law, be sued, fined and even fired for denying Steube the right to carry weapons into the clerk’s office. (The clerk’s office, unlike the courthouse, is not a gun-free zone.)

Next into the fracas was Chief Judge Charles Williams, who cited another Florida law as giving him authority to keep the clerk’s office weapon-free. Knight refused to deny Steube the right to bring in his knife, and Williams threatened Knight with contempt of court. Both sides decided to put the case before the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeals, which in December ruled that Williams did have the right to direct how court security should be handled.

At a time when America seems caught in a bloody tide of gun violence, state legislatures across the country are rushing not to limit but to increase access to guns, proposing a rash of laws designed to normalize guns and bring them into every aspect of everyday life. Steube, 39, a three-term member of the Florida House now serving his second year in the Senate, is the ultimate expression of this movement, a passionate proponent of the individual citizen’s right to self-defense. A polarizing figure whose gun rights bills have drawn national attention, he may be Florida’s most controversial legislator. And his eagerness to force the issue—an approach Sheriff Knight likes to call “shock and awe”—can put him at odds with the establishment.

In September, Knight faced another possible confrontation with Steube. After years of planning, the World Rowing Championships were about to kick off at Nathan Benderson Park. A few hours before the opening, Knight got a call from Steube, who said he and his wife Jennifer, a Synovus wealth manager, planned to attend the event. “She’ll have a gun in her purse and I’ll be carrying,” Steube said. “Will we be stopped at the checkpoint?”

“I saw it coming,” says Knight. He told Steube that although concealed carry permit holders can bring guns into Florida public parks, the park had been rented by the organizers of the rowing event, and therefore was functioning as a private park.  (According to Knight, many of the international athletes attending the event had expressed concern about guns in America and had been promised that none would be allowed into the event.) He told Steube it was up to the organizer’s private security firm to make the call.

“Then the panic started,” Knight says. With the minutes ticking away to the meticulously orchestrated opening, Knight, his attorney, the city’s attorney, the rowing group’s attorneys and others argued on the phone about how to handle a showdown.      

“I don’t know anyone other than Greg Steube challenging the prohibition of bringing weapons to the park,” says Knight. “It was a poor choice of venue to send a political message.” And, he adds, “to his credit, Greg didn’t.” Instead the Steubes left their guns at home.

On a recent episode of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, Mike Spies, a journalist who covers the NRA and gun issues, called Florida “a laboratory” for laws expanding access to guns in America. In that case, Sarasota’s Steube is the public face of that laboratory. The head scientist would be Marian Hammer, the 5-foot-tall, 79-year-old National Rifle Association lobbyist, a colorful figure who carries a laser-guided pistol in her pocketbook and wreaks vengeance on politicians who veer—even in the slightest degree—from the laws she advocates and often writes for them as well. On Fresh Air, Spies described her as “the NRA’s most prominent and effective lobbyist” and an “unelected legislator who tells lawmakers what to do.”

Spies, who is working on a profile of Hammer for The New Yorker, called the NRA “more than just a group that pushes gun rights. It is a religion and a way of life.”

If that’s so, Steube is a true believer. He rattles off one NRA talking point after another: An armed society is a safer society; mass shooters target gun-free zones because there is no one there to stop them; criminals acquire assault weapons, so good guys need to have them to fight back. Ask him about opposing research (84 percent of mass shootings take place outside gun-free zones; armed civilians rarely stop active shooters; countries with fewer weapons have fewer gun deaths) and he’ll scowl and stand his ground. 

Steube’s natural expression veers between solemn and hostile. “My wife tells me I need to smile more,” he admits. “I get that from people all the time—‘why don’t you smile more?’” He says he’s just not a backslapping, jovial politician, especially when he’s discussing economic and social issues he considers deadly serious.

But his demeanor can work against him. “He can come across as disdainful and pugnacious, and that is not always the most effective way to legislate,” says New College political science professor and former Democratic State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald. “Sometimes you can use power to persuade, but sometimes you have to have people skills and be open to a conversation.”

Former Republican State Rep. Ray Pilon, who lost to Steube in the 2016 Senate primary, agrees. “He’s very standoffish,” he says. “I’ve never been able to gain any ground [in discussing issues we disagreed about] with him. You can’t debate with him.” It may be a measure of Steube’s popularity with other politicians that neither exiting Sen. Nancy Detert or any of the Republican opponents he defeated endorsed him in the 2016 general election.

Hillsborough Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican, says Steube’s unwavering convictions and “dogged determination” can make him “both a breath of fresh air and, depending on your political philosophy, very annoying to work with. He’s not going to cut a deal just to be a team player.”

During his two terms in the Florida House of Representatives and a year in the Senate, Steube has filed 14 gun bills. He has proposed allowing people with concealed carry permits to carry firearms openly. He has also proposed allowing those with concealed carry permits to bring guns into airport passenger terminals, on college campuses and on the floor of the state legislature, and to lessen penalties for those who inadvertently expose their concealed weapons in public.

He has not proposed but says he supports “constitutional carry,” which is legal in 10 states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, and allows anyone who passes a background check to carry weapons—no permits or training required. And he recently filed a bill that would let people sue businesses that ban guns if they were injured while patronizing the business.

His bills have outraged activists against gun violence. “We can’t add more guns to an already dangerous mix. His proposals are irresponsible and would result in more people being killed,” says Kate Cunningham, of the Southwest Florida chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

 The gun bills have also drawn criticism from law enforcement officers, college faculty and media commentators. In August, Orlando Weekly headlined a story, “NRA-backed Greg Steube can’t stop himself from filing idiotic gun bills.” 

Steube has filed his bills in one of the gun-friendliest legislatures in the nation. The Florida legislature created the model for the nation’s concealed carry gun laws, and the state has by far the most concealed carry permit holders in the country—1,784,395. Florida led the nation in mass shootings in 2016 (the year of the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre). It was the first state to pass Stand Your Ground laws, which allow people to use deadly force rather than having a duty to retreat if they feel their lives are in danger; Florida lawmakers made Stand Your Ground even stronger in 2016.

But even the Florida legislature has balked at Steube’s bills. Not one has passed. Steube is chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, made up of six Republicans and four Democrats. Just one Republican defection can kill a bill, and at the beginning of the 2017 session, committee member Anitere Flores, a Miami senator and one of the most powerful Republicans in Tallahassee, announced she would not support his bills, effectively extinguishing them. In December, Flores and another Miami Republican, Sen. Rene Garcia, joined the Democrats on the committee in voting to kill Steube’s gun bills for 2018. 

“He has a Republican majority in both houses and the support of a powerful lobby [the NRA], so if he can’t get these bills passed, something is wrong,” says Fitzgerald. “These bills are truly extreme. Even big-time Republicans, like John Thrasher [former president of the Florida Senate and now president of Florida State University] did not want them to happen.” While few Florida legislators will speak out against NRA-approved gun bills—sure-fire political suicide—Fitzgerald says there’s a tacit understanding that the leadership will make sure “they will never get a hearing in the Senate and become policy.”

Steube sees it differently. He asserts that if he could get his bills out of committee and give the entire Senate the chance to vote, “I believe my bills would pass.” And even if he didn’t believe that, he would keep trying. For him, it’s personal—a matter of life and death. In his view, terrorists, lunatics and criminals walk the land, and the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution promises every citizen the right to strike back. “I’ve gone through the requirements required by state law to carry my gun, and I should be able to defend myself whether I’m sitting here, at a mall, in a bar, or on a college campus,” he says.

State Rep. and Sarasota Republican chair Joe Gruters says Steube reminds him of a hero who faces insurmountable odds in a classic Western: “Remember that battle scene in Dances with Wolves, where Kevin Costner rides his horse back and forth over the enemy line, trying to get the cavalry to charge? That’s Greg Steube. This guy is so passionate on so many issues. Who thinks of these things? Nobody cares about these things in Tallahassee! But here’s Greg doing it. He’s so willing to attack everything like it’s the last issue. He jumps over fences and not everyone follows. It’s inspiring. He may be alone on the issue—but that doesn’t stop him.” 

Born in Bradenton to an elementary school teacher and a police officer—his father, Brad Steube, recently retired as sheriff of Manatee County—Steube is a fifth-generation Floridian. He grew up around firearms, but, he says, “I wasn’t allowed to have BB guns. My mother didn’t want me to confuse my dad’s gun with a toy.” He studied agricultural science at the University of Florida, where he got involved in campus politics, serving as a student senator and president of his fraternity. During his senior year, he interned for a Democratic congresswoman in Washington, D.C. “That made me want to go to law school and be involved in public policy,” he says.

But in September of 2001, during his first semester at the University of Florida law school, terrorists brought down the World Trade Center and he decided to enlist in the Army. “I’ve always felt a calling to serve,” he says. “And I wanted to go the infantry combat route—if I was going to be in the Army, I was going to do the things the Army does.” He took the heaviest course load he could and finished the three-year law program in two years, heading to basic training a few months after he graduated in December 2004.

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Steube served in the Army's 25th Infantry from 2004 to 2008.

He kept his law-school background to himself and was elected platoon leader. But when he got a letter from the Florida Bar informing him that he had passed the exam and had just 10 days to be sworn in, he had to ask his drill sergeant to arrange the ceremony. The sergeant was astonished. “You’ve got to be kidding me that you would give up being a lawyer for this!” he said. After that, says Steube, the drill sergeants would call him aside: “Hey, I got a ticket the other day. Can you help me out?”

Steube served in the Army’s 25th Infantry from 2004 to 2008 in Operation Iraqi Freedom, including three years as a Judge Advocate General’s Corp captain. He traveled extensively as chief of detainee operations for the northern region and interrogated and processed thousands of prisoners of war.

It was a difficult, dangerous time to be in Iraq. IEDs were everywhere, and “you were constantly mortared and shelled on base,” he says. Snipers picked off soldiers, and innocent-looking women and children detonated deadly bombs. In blistering 125-degree temperatures, the soldiers had to wear Kevlar helmets and protective vests just to walk from their barracks to the port-a-johns. “Different people processed it differently,” says Steube. At 28, burning with a sense of mission, he says his attitude was, “Let’s go! Let’s do it!”

But he admits the experience transformed him. “I have seen how dangerous the world is, and we are seeing it get more dangerous,” he says. He believes it “absolutely” inspired his passion for the Second Amendment.

 “In the world we live in today, where people drive cars into people, where terrorists are using pressure cookers and vans to kill people, why tell me where I can carry? Why should I have to hide behind a chair or a desk and wait for police officers to arrive?” he asks.

In 2010, Steube ran for the open House seat in District 67, which comprises parts of Sarasota, Manatee and Hillsborough counties. Helped by his name recognition via his father, an energetic readiness for handshaking and an endorsement by U.S. Congressman Vern Buchanan, he took 67 percent of the vote. He easily defended his seat in 2012, winning 73 percent of the vote. District 67 was redistricted into District 73 in 2014, and Steube claimed that seat unchallenged.   

An ultra-conservative in a conservative district, Steube was named a “Champion of Economic Freedom,” scoring 140 out of 100, the highest of any Florida lawmaker, by Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group founded by the conservative billionare Koch brothers. He is anti-abortion, anti-recreational marijuana, anti-Obamacare, pro-deregulation and pro-charter schools. He’s sponsored bills to protect religious expression, reduce the openness of public records, grant immunity to those accused of self-defense crimes, make illegal immigration a felony punishable by imprisonment and allow veterans access to more PTSD programs.

In 2016, he beat four opponents in the Republican primary to claim Nancy Detert’s Senate seat. He had the backing of the NRA, and Hammer sent out a mailer endorsing him shortly before the election. Steube says he had limited financial resources, so his strategy was to advertise early and launch an aggressive ground game. From the beginning of May until the Aug. 25 primary, he says he knocked on the doors of 20,000 of the 25,000 Republicans who had voted in the last primary.

“I’d do it for eight to 10 hours a day, as long as it was daylight,” he says. “On Sundays, my wife and I would go to church, change our clothes in our car and start knocking.” After every conversation, he’d write down whatever was unique about the encounter. Then he and his staff would send hand-signed cards to everyone he talked to. “I would mention whatever stood out—maybe he had a Gator sticker on his car, maybe they were celebrating their daughter’s birthday,” Steube says.

He encountered eccentrics—like the 80-year-old Venice man who answered the door stark-naked and launched into a lengthy conversation. “I kept my eyes on his eyes,” Steube says. And there was occasional hostility. But many people told him they’d been supporting another candidate until his personal visit changed their minds. “And you learn where people are on issues,” he says.  “The No. 1 question I heard? ‘Where are you on the Second Amendment?’ The No. 2: ‘Where are you on life?’ I got support that what I am doing is right.”

Guns didn’t become a big political issue for Steube until the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings of 2012. The teachers and students at that school were helpless against an armed shooter, he says, and he proposed allowing staff who underwent training to have guns at Florida schools. (He says he wrote the bill without consulting Marian Hammer, who ended up opposing it; the NRA’s stance was that anyone with a concealed carry permit should be allowed to bring a gun to school without having to undergo training.)

Steube complains that the media focuses on his controversial bills and ignores most of the rest. Last year, he filed 72 bills and saw 15 passed, tying Sen. Aaron Bean for the most legislation passed. He has filed bills requiring that students learn about human trafficking in high school, toughening penalties for opioid drug dealers and allocating $73 million in improvements to the traffic exchange at I-75 and University Parkway. He’s working on acquiring $43 million for improvements to Charlotte County’s River Road. “I work on infrastructure every year and it doesn’t make the press,” Steube says.

Two recent bills that did make headlines grew out of his personal skirmishes with local government. He was considering buying an investment property on Florida’s east coast when he learned local laws prohibited short-term rentals. He passed on the property but has filed a bill that would bar local governments from limiting an owners’ right to rent his property. That law drew opposition from some Florida communities, including Anna Maria Island, where residents are concerned that an influx of big new vacation homes that rent to new families every week are threatening the island’s low-key character.

And when Steube, who lives on five-and-a-half rural acres in east Sarasota, decided to cut down a tree on his property, he was shocked to discover he had to have a permit and pay a fee. His proposed remedy—prohibiting cities and counties from enacting regulations about trimming or cutting down trees—has upset many groups, who argue that it is in the public’s interest to trim trees that threaten power lines and that mature trees and canopies create beauty and add to quality of life.

“I can tell you we [the Sarasota County Commission] will be fighting the tree-trimming bill,” says commissioner Nancy Detert.

But when it comes to the interest of the community versus the rights of the individual, Steube knows where he comes down. “Don’t tread on me” could be his motto. Constitutional rights—and freedom—trump everything else. “You have a constitutional right to private property and you should be able to do the things you want to—as long as you are not harming anybody—without the government telling you what to do,” he says.

“He’s more of a Libertarian—like the Wild West—than a Republican,” says one local politician. Steube nods when he hears that. “Yeah, I would think that’s more my philosophy,” he says. “Individuals should be able to exercise their rights under the Constitution.”

If that seems like a narrow agenda to those who remember past generations of Florida politicians, like the late Sen. Bob Johnson, who worked to expand their districts’ environmental, cultural and educational resources—well, expansive governmental vision is not much in style in today’s state legislature.

And Steube believes his focus on individual rights will have “a positive impact on people’s lives.” He’s eager to pass more bills on multiple fronts. He may not have the charismatic personality of some politicians, but he’s known as a hard worker who does his homework. “There’s so much you can do if you put your mind on it and stay focused,” he says. And he hopes to rise to leadership of his Senate class. Does he mean president of the Senate? “That’s part of the leadership,” he allows.

Sen. Lee, who served as president of the Senate from 2004 to 2006, says, “Greg has the leadership experience it takes to run the Senate, but the institution tends to embrace leaders who are less rigid.” Still, he predicts Steube will be “a significant player,” most effective, perhaps, as the fearless lieutenant to a more flexible Senate president. Such a position, he notes, might give Steube an effective platform to advance his agenda. Could that include seeing the gun bills so many decry as radical becoming Florida law?

Steube is convinced that will happen.

“A lot of these controversial [gun] bills take time,” he says. He has plenty of that. Most political observers predict he’ll stay in office until term limits force him out in 2026.

“I will keep trying,” he promises. “I will never back off.” 

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