Guns in the Sun

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

By Rocco Castoro

The author firing a Bushmaster Predator AR-15. Many lawmakers have taken issue with the sale of semiautomatic AR-style weapons to the general public. 

As we left High Noon for the range, I could tell Eddie was itching to shoot the $1,500 of ammo we had run around town to acquire. I was too. It made me think of the people out there who claim to hate guns but have never fired one, or at least haven’t fired one as an adult in a controlled environment. If you have and you still abhor firearms, I respect that but don’t understand. Shooting guns is fun as long as you’re not an idiot about it.

Within 20 minutes we arrived at Knight Trail, a public outdoor range on the outskirts of Sarasota. Indoor ranges can be claustrophobic, and when Eddie and his friends go all out they need ample space for their 30-odd weapons. Rickety wooden tables and a red “no pass” line delineate the interior of the sheltered shooting area, from which patrons fire at clusters of targets of various sizes and materials. “Eyes” (protective goggles) and “ears” (earplugs) are required at all times.

Three of Eddie’s buds had joined us on the range—“Big Nick” Colella, Steve Norton, and Mike Gatz. Several times throughout my trip, Eddie and other friends of mine had made reference to Big Nick, a towering and jovial 29-year-old who owns a moving company and a substantial home arsenal. I asked what he’d brought to the range.

“Let’s see,” Big Nick said and took a deep breath as he unpacked his weapons. “Bushmaster Predator AR-15, H&K MP5 .22 LR, Springfield Armory XD-S .45, Smith & Wesson Governor .45 ACP/.45 LC/.410 GA, a custom 1911 .45, and a Benelli M2 12-gauge shotgun. That’s just what I brought, the rest is at home.”

A little over a year ago, Big Nick did not own a single gun. How he went from owning zero weapons to stockpiling a virtual armory is the story of many firearms enthusiasts. Once you buy one, you want them all. And the ease with which you can purchase them in Florida makes it a prime state for collectors.

After I shot a few of Big Nick’s guns at his suggestion, he asked whether I wanted to try his AR-15, which he had recently outfitted with a scope. I loaded a 30-round clip that just eight years ago, under the Assault Weapons Ban, would’ve been illegal. After repositioning the attached bipod and adjusting the scope, I was ready to fire. I took two deep breaths, making sure to exhale while I focused on the bull’s-eye downrange, and slowly squeezed the trigger. The recoil was minimal, and my first shot was only slightly off the mark. I tried again, hitting the perimeter of the red dot at the center of the target. While I shot guns frequently in my youth, I still consider myself a novice shooter. My aim isn’t terrible, and I can hit true pairs out on the skeet range sometimes, but don’t count on me to take out some creep using you as a human shield.

Mike, the general manager of a local beachside bar, brought a lesser but still impressive collection, which included a Tactical Weapons AR-15 that was more appropriate for tight-quarters shooting than Big Nick’s. I asked Mike whether he had heard about a potential reinstatement of the Assault Weapons Ban.

“Some of the legislators are making a move to ban what they deem ‘assault rifles,’” he said. “I think some of them are confused about the fact that because it’s an AR they think that stands for ‘assault rifle,’ which isn’t true. It stands for ArmaLite, the company that designed it.”

Eddie gave me a run-through of his weapons, which include a Springfield Armory XD 40, a Wilson Combat 1911, an H&K FP6 12-gauge shotgun, and a Sig Sauer 522 (a training model of SWAT-team favorite the SIG556, complete with a collapsible stock and fake suppressor, but modified to shoot affordable .22 LR bullets).

Watching Eddie concentrate as he fired his weapons, it became apparent that the man knows how to handle a variety of guns and that he is respectful of their power. We continued to shoot until the range closed around 4 PM. Most of our ammunition was spent.

After packing up, we drove to Sarasota Trap, Skeet & Clays, about a half-mile down the road, where we planned to spend the evening shooting sporting clays. 

Riding in a golf cart between stations of the wooded sporting-clays course, I finally got a chance to speak with Steve, the fifth member of our party, who has lived in Sarasota for about nine years. He wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a black-and-white American flag and the words ɪ’ᴅ ᴛᴀᴋᴇ ᴀ ʙᴜʟʟᴇᴛ ғᴏʀ ʜᴇʀ. Steve served in the Army for eight years, including a stint as a combat medic in Iraq from September 2008 to September 2009, and told me that growing up in Ohio, he had a healthy admiration and respect for firearms, brought about by shooting practice at a local gun club with his father.

Shortly after arriving at the range, we were joined by Eddie’s 12-year-old son, Shawn, who was dropped off by Eddie’s girlfriend so that he could spend some quality time shooting with his dad. It is an American pastime older than playing catch in the front yard—a father teaching his son the basics of firearms and, with any luck, the virtues of respect. And Shawn, as it turned out, is a crack shot. Eddie begrudgingly admitted that he is regularly outshot by his son on the sporting-clays course. I asked Shawn how he felt about firearms, and he replied, “I like them, I guess.”

I shuddered at the thought of how accurate Shawn might be behind an AR-15 and imagined a future with drone soldiers remotely controlled by preteen sharpshooters. Would we be better off than we are now?

Eddie’s 12-year-old son, Shawn, is a crack skeet shooter. 

My first time firing a gun was at around 11 or 12 years old. At the time, I was enrolled in a rigorous martial-arts school, and my sensei was a Vietnam veteran who liked his guns a whole lot. Every so often, he would invite his high-level students out to a private range, and after I earned my black belt he asked me to tag along on an upcoming session. I remember standing in the middle of an empty cattle field, trying to keep my hands steady as I fired a .357 snub-nose Magnum, an AK-47, and various other firearms capable of serious bodily damage. Even my mom, who hates guns, didn’t have much of a problem with me learning the “basics of gun safety.” At least that’s how my sensei put it when he asked her; I doubt he mentioned the AK.

Growing up in Sarasota, I witnessed many violent interactions that belied its paradisiacal veneer. If I still lived there, or anywhere else in Florida, I would own a gun. Not because it’s a particularly violent place. It’s more of that old chestnut: Everybody has one. It’s a sort of logic that doesn’t make sense until you are involved in an incident in which it does. And for whatever reason, I had quite a few of those incidents during the 25 years I lived in the state. Punches were thrown, knives were pulled, and I was even bashed in the head with a golf club one night while I was tripping on acid at a high school bonfire party, when a small army of bad-news teenagers arrived in search of someone’s girlfriend whom one of my acquaintances was sleeping with. They attacked everyone on the property without discrimination (I got a concussion but was on my feet long enough to punch my attacker squarely in the windpipe as hard as I could). I’ve never, however, had a gun pulled on me; however I know many friends in town who have.

But apparently, things are getting better in Florida and have been for some time. One thing you won’t find in most “weird news” stories about the state is that 2011 marked its lowest violent-crime rate in 41 years.

Jon H. Gutmacher, Esq. is the author of the self-published book Florida Firearms: Law, Use & Ownership, now in its seventh edition. He told me that, in his opinion, most of Florida’s (sometimes confusing) firearms laws were written with the intent of preventing violent crime.

“I think that the more people who legally carry concealed, as long as they know the law, and a lot of them probably don’t, the better off everybody is,” he said. “I really am a great believer in self-defense. Quite frankly, it is the old story. If tragedy goes down and you’re not armed, there’s no way you’re going to be able to prevent anything. You’re a walking target at that point.”

Former Army medic Steve Norton and the author ride a golf cart between stations at the Sarasota Trap, Skeet, and Clays range. 

While firearms laws in the state haven’t changed drastically since the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban, Jon rigorously updates his text at least a couple times a year so that it stays as current as possible. He is quite literally the guy who wrote the book on Florida guns, which is why many shops throughout the state proudly display and sell his 350-page manual.

I asked Jon whether he thought the Obama administration was planning to reinstitute some sort of ban on assault weapons.

“There is a possibility that they may try to reinstitute the Assault Weapons Ban,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s going to get through Congress. I can’t see, in an environment where the number of assault-type weapons have probably increased ten-fold in the hands of the public, that it would really make a difference at all—other than being a tremendous way of electing an entire Republican Congress and Senate in the next election.”

If such a ban happened to pass, I asked, would it mean that owners of weapons purchased before the ban would be allowed to keep them? Or would the government try to seize them?

“They’d be grandfathered in,” he said. “Because, otherwise, the government would have to buy them. According to the Constitution, they’d be required to buy them back. That would cost the government… It’s not going to happen.”

Jon devotes the beginning of his book to examining the precarious relationship between the US Constitution, state legislatures, and the Second Amendment’s guarantee of citizens’ rights “to bear arms” and form “well-regulated” militias “necessary to the security of a free State.” This last bit was a major point of contention in Jill Lepore’s unabashedly antigun article “Battleground America,” which appeared in an April issue of the New Yorker earlier this year. While Jill makes valid points concerning gun control, one thing I questioned at the time of reading it is whether she was playing politician with her interpretation of militias.

“The firearms used by a well-regulated militia, at the time the Second Amendment was written,” she writes, “were mostly long arms that, like a smaller stockpile of pistols, could discharge only once before they had to be reloaded. In size, speed, efficiency, capacity, and sleekness, the difference between an 18th-century musket and the gun that [Trayvon Martin’s shooter] George Zimmerman was carrying is roughly the difference between the first laptop computer—which, not counting the external modem and the battery pack, weighed 24 pounds—and an iPhone.” 

Don’t get me wrong: The type of folks who form extremely paranoid state militias because Alex Jones tells them the New World Order is imminent are deranged and should not have access to high-powered weapons. And besides, the National Guard took over for militias long ago. But the reason we still talk about the liver-spotted rich men who penned our nation’s most important legal document is because of their prescient foresight. Who are we to go messing around with what our founding fathers, at the time, defined as “militia” and “arms”? And who knows what might happen if a radioactive dirty bomb explodes or some other cataclysmic event happens on US soil? Will the government, as the more paranoid among us believe, lock down its own people in a state of emergency and implement totalitarian martial law? Probably not, but part of what defines America is that The People run the place, and these People have the option of grouping together to take up arms against tyrants in the unlikely event of such a scenario. This sort of worst-case-possible mentality is why many believe the framers of the Constitution were so brilliant. Second-guessing those rights, even if they come in tandem with extremely negative implications, can easily lead down a slippery slope.

“I’ve never seen a reason for a militia in this day and age,” Jon said. “Things have changed so radically from the 1700s, when militias were the main source of defense against internal and foreign invaders. That was the key thing. It seems that the National Guard was… You had different types of militias, and the smaller militias were the ones that were regulated by the state. Most militias were regulated locally. The weapons were provided, the uniforms were provided, all by the individuals. In fact, if you go back into history, it used to be a crime not to assist in going after criminals. A lot of people don’t realize that now. You could be charged with a crime for not assisting or joining a posse or something like that.”

Remembering Eddie’s assertion that buying a handgun in a parking lot was as easy as a “third-grade trade” and Tom’s claim that private firearms transactions in Florida are virtually unregulated, I asked Jon whether my understanding of the law was correct: As far as I could tell, it seemed perfectly legal for a resident to buy a gun from Walmart and later sell that weapon to anyone who claimed to be a resident of the state of Florida. No paperwork or receipt is required, and if the next afternoon the gun’s buyer decided to load it full of ammo and blow someone’s brains out, the seller would be pretty much off the hook unless he or she had good reason to suspect a straw sale was being committed, the buyer was ineligible to own such a weapon, or a crime was going to be committed with it.

“You can’t sell it to a prohibited person,” he said. “Unless you’re put on notice [before the transaction], there’s not much you need to inquire except, ‘Are you a prohibited person? Are you from the state of Florida?’ If you ask those questions and they give you the answer, ‘Yes, I’m from Florida, and I’m not a prohibited person,’ unless there’s something glaring about it, you’re OK to sell.”

I still couldn’t believe it was that easy, but I was definitely going to find out.