Guns in the Sun

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

By Rocco Castoro

The Sig Sauer P238 that Eddie purchased via the Florida Gun Trader website. The sketchy transaction took place in a Lowe’s parking lot at 10 PM. 

The next morning, I called Eddie to ask him whether he would be willing to participate in a shady parking-lot sale if I paid for it. I am no longer a Florida resident, so it would be illegal for me to make such a transaction. Eddie, on the other hand, could spend a half hour perusing Florida Gun Trader (a site Eddie had told me about that’s basically Craigslist for firearms) and pick up a new weapon the same day without hassle. He was totally into it.

After setting a $550 price limit and making a few dead-end phone calls, we found a seller offering a Sig Sauer P238 compact handgun with an accompanying case and a “bonus” box of hollow-point bullets. Eddie called the seller and said he was very interested. The seller agreed to meet him at 10 PM that evening, following dinner with his wife, in the parking lot of a nearby Lowe’s. I asked Eddie how he would rate the potential shadiness of the sale, on a scale of 1 to 10.

“Nine and a half,” he said. “Buying a gun at ten o’clock at night is a little… suspect. But I think, as long as I have cash in hand, he’ll probably sell it.” I suggested he ham it up a bit by insinuating that he could be a felon. Again, Eddie was game.

Thirty minutes later, I was parked a few rows away from a black lifted pickup truck, looking out through the windshield as I waited for Eddie to pull up on his motorcycle. It felt like I was on a stakeout, but what was about to transpire was perfectly legal.

I watched as Eddie entered the lot, pulled up alongside the truck, and walked around behind the bed to check out the gun. Before we left, I had outfitted Eddie with a wireless microphone, and after a few minutes of what seemed to be a very awkward conversation, I caught sight of the gun as Eddie pulled it closer to his face and over the truck bed.

“My phone’s been ringing off the hook all night, man,” I could hear the seller tell Eddie. “If you don’t take it, someone else will.”

“No, I’ll take it,” Eddie replied. “I came all the way out here, didn’t I? But I just wanted to make sure that it hasn’t been used in a felony, and that you’re not a felon.”

“Nah, man, not that I know of. I’m not a felon, and the guy I bought it from isn’t a felon.”

“OK, I’m pretty sure I’m not a felon. I don’t think any of those charges stuck.”

The seller didn’t flinch, and with that Eddie gave him the cash and took the gun. I also instructed Eddie to ask for a handwritten receipt, which the seller (who said he worked as a pawnbroker) happily agreed to fill out after the transaction. He did not ask for identification, but because Eddie had claimed to be a Florida resident during their initial phone call it was still a perfectly legal sale. In Florida, it is that easy.

And truth be told, Florida is not unique when it comes to guns. While it may have the most concealed-weapons permits of any state in the nation, per capita it doesn’t hold a candle to Utah, where 19 percent of residents over 20 years of age have these permits (Florida, if you remember, hovers around 5 percent). Twenty-four states have Stand Your Ground laws comparable to Florida’s—all of which state that victims of assault who believe their life or safety to be in imminent danger are not required to retreat before shooting an attacker. And while in other places it may not be quite as easy to buy a gun late at night in a deserted parking lot, I assure you that—no matter where or who you are—acquiring one of the estimated 270 million firearms that are floating around the US is not all that difficult, legally or otherwise. Perhaps the only thing all Americans can agree on when it comes to guns is that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

Guns are, of course, a national issue—but it is at the state level where enforcement and creative interpretation of data and the resulting statutes takes place.

Connecticut, for instance, has some of the toughest gun laws on the books. The state very strictly defines who may and may not be legally allowed to carry a concealed weapon, and it requires background checks for all handgun sales regardless of whether or not its purchaser has a concealed weapons permit. Statistics show that the state’s 2011 firearms murder rates as a percentage of all murders dropped about 3 percent from 2010, landing at 73 percent. Michigan also reported that 73 percent of all murders that occurred in 2011 involved firearms, a number that increased 9 percent from 2010.

Things get really screwy when you start relying solely on statistics: Michigan’s gun laws are much less restrictive than Connecticut’s and were made even more lax just nine hours before the shooting in Newtown when Michigan lawmakers passed a new bill that will make it permissible for those with CWPs to carry firearms into churches and schools, places where previously concealed weapons were not allowed. (As of this writing, it has yet to be signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder.) Proponents argued that it would ensure safety in these venues, while educational officials condemned the bill as reckless and unnecessary. Regardless of the larger debate regarding the culture of firearms ownership, the facts are that both states reported the exact same percentage of gun-related murders in 2011. In the same year, however, Connecticut reported 94 gun murders while a whopping 450 took place in Michigan. (Firearms-assault rates hovered around 20 percent in Connecticut and 86 percent in Michigan.) The population discrepancy between the two states—Michigan at 9.9 million and Connecticut at 3.6 million—doesn’t come close to accounting for the difference; however, anyone who’s taken a stroll around Detroit in recent years could probably offer a few insights as to why gun crimes in the state are on the rise. The same cannot be said about what happened in Newtown.

Data only goes so far. People kill other people for a lot of reasons, and mass killings are quickly becoming an American endemic. Perhaps the national discourse might best be focused on the sociological conditions that have prompted these slayings, rather than the inevitable legal ramifications that will be politicized and polarized no matter what.

While the sights of politicians and pundits are now, more than ever, drawing a bead on assault weapons with claims that reinstituting a ban will make it much harder for people to purchase weapons capable of killing so many in so little time, it’s not that simple. Many have pointed toward Australia’s 1996 ban of semi-automatic weapons as a potential solution. The ban included a governmental buy-back program during which Australians voluntarily handed over their firearms for cash. All of this was the result of one incident—the Port Arthur Massacre, in which a disturbed man shot and killed 35 people and wounded 23 others. The ban and buyback program were unilaterally successful in regards to its intended outcome—13 mass shootings that resulted in 112 fatalities transpired during the 18-year period prior to the ban; there has not been a single massacre since. Using this as a template to revise US gun laws, however, may be quite a stretch and, in a worst-case scenario, completely backfire.  

The US has the highest per capita gun ownership rate in the world: 89 guns per 100 residents. The sheer volume of firearms in the States dwarfs the amount owned in Australia during the time of the ban, and the way guns are viewed in American culture is vastly different from the rest of the world largely due to historical reasons. During the buyback program, which lasted through September 1997, Australians turned in about 650,000 firearms, the majority of which were semi-auto .22 rimfires. There are approximately 270 million privately owned guns in the US at this very moment. Obviously, statistics aren’t kept on how many illegal guns are out there but, as law enforcement officials know all to well, there are plenty. It would be very difficult if not impossible to ascertain how many of these are semi-automatic weapons (the National Rifle Association, who may not be the most objective source, estimates 15 percent), and even harder to suss out how many of these firearms are semi-automatic rifles similar to those that have been used in many mass murders. For an iteration of Australia’s buy-back program to work in the States, it’s safe to say that it would take a sea change of opinion regarding the right to bear arms the likes of which the nation has never seen in its 236 years. Perhaps it will happen, but in my experiences the NRA’s “From my cold, dead hands” slogan is all too accurate and foreboding.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of firearms laws, you might say that the situation presents what Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber’s definition of a “wicked problem” outlined in their 1973 treatise on the subject. A wicked problem is something that can’t be objectively solved or even described—coming up with a hard-and-fast definition of a “wicked problem” is in itself a wicked problem. These sorts of dilemmas “do not have an enumerable (or exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan... Every wicked problem is essentially unique... Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.” 

Just like abortion, gay marriage, and other hot-button legal issues, it is nearly impossible to convince someone that his or her opinion about guns is wrong. Even if somehow—in some bizarro dimension where martial law has been declared—the government tries to ban or take away people’s weapons, these same people will just stockpile more and more until they are no longer allowed to do so. Who’s going to take them away? The National Guard? Local law enforcement? Suggest this scenario to a gun owner if you’re looking for a good laugh in the face. 

Outside of stricter regulations on background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally disturbed, there is no answer to the firearms debate that will make everyone happy. All I know is that, in my experience, it’s probably not a good idea to make people with guns angry. It is not a good idea at all.

Photos by Joe Stramowski

More from VICE on the Newtown shooting:

Trying to Report on the Sandy Hook Shooting

Newtown, Mental Health, and the Dangers of Oversimplifying Gun Control

The Acceptable Cost of the Right to Bear Arms