Guns in the Sun

In Florida They Will Shoot You Dead, and It’ll Probably Be Legal

By Rocco Castoro

Eddie, Mike Gatz, and “Big Nick” Colella ready their weapons for a day of shooting at Knight’s Trail outdoor range in Sarasota, Florida.

Eddie warned me on our way to buy ammo that we might have to make several stops to get what we needed. In the sporting-goods section of Walmart, we surveyed the boxes of bullets locked inside a glass case. They were completely out of stock of shotgun slugs and .223 Remingtons, the latter of which we needed for the two AR-15s we had planned to fire later that afternoon. Antigun proponents claimed validation of their contention that AR-style weapons should not be on the open market when in July, James Holmes used a Smith & Wesson M&P-15 (the company’s version of the AR-15) to kill 12 people and injure 58 others during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. The resulting brouhaha has given gun owners yet another reason to stock up on ARs and similar weapons.

The Walmart associate was quick to warn us that store policy only allowed for the purchase of six boxes of ammo per customer, per day. (Walmart’s corporate offices did not offer comment on this policy by press time. They have also pulled the Bushmaster model Adam Lanza used in Newtown from their website.) “This is nothing new,” the associate said. “We have to keep them in stock. It’s been going on since 2008, and now it’s happening again because everyone thinks Obama is going to take away their guns.” Eddie told me that he had never heard of the six-box limit and many times had walked out of the very same store with much more.

We had purchased $900 worth of ammo, but Eddie and I still didn’t have everything we needed for a full day of shooting, so we drove to another Walmart. Many gun owners loathe having to buy ammo from a gun store because it’s almost always more expensive than Walmart. The second location, across town, had something the other did not—shotgun slugs—but was still lacking the appropriate number of .223s we would need for the range. Still, we had easily bought almost $1,000 worth of ammo at bargain-basement prices from one of the largest retailers in the world. Was there really a shortage? With time running out, we decided to try a newly opened dealer—High Noon Guns—near Eddie’s house.

High Noon had what we needed—1,000 rounds of .223s—and it was even reasonably priced. The shop’s owner, a husky and plainspoken middle-aged man named John Buchan, was enthusiastic to speak with me when I mentioned I was in Sarasota to report on a piece about Florida’s firearms laws. It was surprising because, before my trip, most gun-store owners I had tried to arrange interviews with had either turned me down (“You wanna know what’s wrong with the media? I’ll tell you…”) or were skittish, suggesting that I drop by once I got to town. John was exactly the dude I was looking for, flashing his beloved Colt 1879 Storekeeper revolver and 100 percent beaver-fur replica of the hat Russell Crowe wears in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma within a few minutes of meeting me. I asked him how he got into the gun business.

“My partner and I were running the gun-show circuit for probably about 18 months,” John said. “We developed a 100-round drum magazine for a 9-mm that’ll fit a Glock, and we got that patent process going through. We also developed gun magnets that make it easy to keep your gun under your desk or other places. After doing gun shows all over Florida, we decided to open a fixed location and educate the consumers and help them buy guns.”

John offered to show me the sales video he and his partner had made for the 100-round handgun magazine. In the lakeside presentation, the megaclip is demonstrated with a regular semi-auto and a Glock 18, a fully automatic pistol developed at the behest of Austrian counterterrorism unit EKO Cobra that is capable of pumping out around 1,100 rounds per minute. The middle-aged shooter in the video uses a one-handed grip as he fires 100 bullets into the water in less than six seconds, jerking back and forth like a Parkinson’s patient. Thankfully, one must possess the appropriate federal firearms license (FFL) to acquire these sorts of weapons. 

Of course, John is one of Florida’s approximately 7,000 FFL holders. The process of obtaining an FFL, and what types of weapons can be bought and sold by those who are granted them, is largely defined by 1938’s Federal Firearms Act and the Gun Control Act of 1968. Since 1968, the ATF has issued and overseen licensing criteria for dealers, pawnbrokers, and other people who have true business with guns, but the agency’s oversight largely stops at the licensee’s counter. Once the seller is approved for an FFL, the onus of keeping guns out of the hands of murderous psychopaths and abusive husbands is placed squarely on his or her shoulders in Florida and many other states.   

“First things first, when you open a gun store, the ATF gives you the first right to decline a sale to any individual for any reason,” John said. “We practice that here. We’ve turned gun sales down because of something we just sensed. Like this kid who walked in here and had his hat turned on backward, had all the jewelry on, and decided to grab one of the shotguns and wield it around on his hip and act like, ‘Say hello to my little friend,’ and ‘I gotta have one of these.’ Not happening here. The person who acts skittish when he’s filling out the questions and is asking you a lot of technical things and checks ‘Yes’ to one of the questions. Not happening here. Somebody that comes in to try a weapon, and you know the gun’s not for them because the boyfriend’s standing right there. And he’s picked out the gun, and he wants this, but she wants to fill the form out. Totally illegal. Not happening here.”

John said the majority of his clientele are middle-aged, like most of Sarasota’s population. “Elderly collectors” and first-time buyers round out the rest of his customer base. I asked him whether he had noticed an increase in sales of guns and ammo leading up to the presidential election.

“There’s been an increase in sale in both,” he said, adding that more people are buying weapons mainly for “personal protection, fear of government regulations banning weapons or certain types of weapons, and banning ammunition or taxing it.”

I mentioned Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old who was shot dead in late February by a neighborhood-watch guard named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. The incident and resulting charges made headline news across the world and spurred criticism of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, based on an aspect of 18th-century English self-defense common law known as Castle Doctrine, which relies on the adage “A man’s home is his castle.” In 2005, Florida was the first state, of course, to enact what came to be known as castle laws, which are promoted by the NRA. Since then, more than half the states in the nation have adopted comparable laws. But Floridians take things very literally, which I suppose is why they decided to pretend everyone still lived in giant stone mansions in the middle of 20,000-acre plots and extended their castle laws to stand-your-ground’s stipulation that deadly force can be used against attackers anywhere the victim has the “right to be.” John is all for Stand Your Ground.

“It used to be that, if you had the opportunity, you had to retreat first,” he said. “In other words, your home is your castle, and that now extends to where you have the right to be. I like the law the way it is today. I don’t think Trayvon Martin has anything to do with the Stand Your Ground law. I think it’s got to do with a lack of education, a lack of knowledge. I think both people made bad decisions that night, and it wound up in disaster.”

In much of Florida, if you’re over 18 and don’t have a history of “dangerous crime,” you can walk into a Walmart or gun store, buy a shotgun or rifle, and leave with it the same day. If you wish to purchase a handgun from an FFL-certified dealer, it’s a little tougher, but not much: Just be 21 or older, submit to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement background check, and, if approved, wait three full business days. Then you can take your new weapon home. Or you can skip all that bullshit and apply for a concealed-weapons permit (CWP).

Last July, about five months after the death of Trayvon, it was reported that Florida was on pace to become, by the end of 2012, the first state to issue more than 1 million CWPs. Applying for and acquiring a CWP in Florida allows residents to transport a handgun on their person most any place, as long as it is obscured by a shirttail, jacket, pant leg, pocket, purse, backpack, or top hat—pretty much anywhere so long as the weapon is not visible to passersby. As in most situations in life, bulges and silhouettes are acceptable within reason. 

This means that, on any given day, roughly 5 percent of the Sunshine State is traipsing across Disney World or Gulf beaches or maybe even the Stuckey’s in Yeehaw Junction (population 240, and an excellent place to get shot), carrying an assortment of compact or subcompact weapons. The majority, it stands to reason, are locked and loaded. This could be a blessing if you happen to be sitting next to one of these folks in the middle of a sticky situation, or the final curse if the guy behind the trigger happens to be a homicidal maniac who has become obsessed with what a hollow point can do to a sternum.

A modified Bushmaster Predator AR-15 (left), similar to the weapon used in the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14th. Four days later Cerberus Capital Management, one of the company’s largest backers, divested all interest from Bushmaster. A Benelli M2 12-gauge shotgun, Sig Sauer 522, and Wilson Combat 1911 lay next to it on a table at Knight’s Trail outdoor shooting range in Sarasota, Florida. 

High Noon, like many gun shops in the state, offers CWP-certification classes. Most are overseen by Tom Dusseau, a former Marine who has been involved in local law enforcement for almost 23 years (including eight on the SWAT team and five as a sniper). A couple years ago, he transitioned into working as a private contractor in Iraq for a year before returning to work in law enforcement. He undoubtedly knows how to handle a weapon and takes pride in his side work as an NRA-certified instructor, which allows him to teach CWP classes along with a variety of other, more advanced courses. I asked him why CWP candidates in Sarasota should choose him over other instructors in the area.

“What a lot of the instructors are lacking,” he said, “for the lack of a better term, is the real-life experience when it comes to being involved in a confrontational situation—the physiological changes that happen to your body under stress and the things that are going to keep you alive and give you the opportunity to use whatever tools you have at hand to survive that confrontation. There’s a lot more to it than just teaching them about the overall safety of the firearm.”

Over his two decades of work in law enforcement, Tom said he had only encountered one concealed-weapons permit holder whom he had to reprimand—and even then it was not due to illegal activity. He added: “The people that are going out and getting permits are not committing crimes. The guns that I’ve taken off the street and that are being taken off the street are not purchased at gun stores. They don’t go through the process. These are weapons that are stolen in household burglaries, and these weapons, once they get on the street, go from person to person.”

Tom went on to say that, like John, he believes the main problems with American firearms laws stem from a lack of education and understanding among the general public. It’s a catch-22: When antigun lawmakers are in power, Tom said, people stockpile weapons and apply for more CWPs because they are afraid that their rights will be infringed on if they don’t take immediate action. This revolving door of confusion has made the firearms trade more profitable than ever before. Tom’s role in the business is no exception.

“After Obama’s first election, I was teaching concealed-weapons classes in the state of Florida part-time for another gun shop,” he said. “A big class prior to the election was eight to ten people. After the election, every time I’d walk in there were 25 to 30. The people run in panic; they hoard the ammo. If they think restrictions are coming, they come out and buy a large number of firearms, and they just put them in a safe.”

Tom was one of the many gun owners and dealers I spoke with in Florida who told me they believe the politicians who are drafting firearms laws have little to no experience with deadly weapons. He referenced the ’94 ban as an example.

“It’s perception,” he said. “When you have a list of people—politicians, whatever the case may be—picking weapons to put on an Assault Weapons Ban list just because they look evil, it’s ridiculous. I have an AR-style weapon. I bought it during the ban, which meant it couldn’t have a collapsible stock—which only collapses about four to six inches—and that it couldn’t have a bayonet lug. When’s the last time you’ve read about somebody being bayonetted to death? So the function of the weapon [under the ban] was not changed; what was changed was the bayonet lug and the stock. Everything else was exactly the same as the ones that were out before. It doesn’t make sense. We’re not saying there shouldn’t be regulations, we’re just saying it should be sensible regulation.”

I thought about what Eddie had told me earlier in regard to private firearms sales in Florida, about how easy it is to legally buy a gun in a parking lot without due diligence. I asked Tom what, if anything, a cop could do if he or she knew a firearm used in a crime was purchased in this manner—if there was any sort of penalty its seller could be charged with.

“At the present time, it’s legal,” he replied. “So the seller isn’t going to be charged with a crime. If through an investigation they put together some type of deal where you bought it, you knew this person, and you sold them this weapon and they can prove that it was an illegal sale or a straw sale [when someone buys a firearm for somebody else], then, yeah, they can come after you.”