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AR-15s are big business in Florida — and remarkably easy to get

In the wake of the Orlando nightclub massacre, we spoke to Florida gun enthusiasts and arms merchants about what makes the assault rifle so popular.
An AR-15 rifle. (Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA)

When actor, supermodel, and gun enthusiast Tyson Beckford wanted to buy a customized AR-15 rifle with a shortened barrel, the part-time Florida resident had to wait six to nine months for a background check by two federal law enforcement agencies. He also had to provide the feds with a letter from the Miami Police Department vouching for him as a law-abiding citizen.

"I had to wait to get it," Beckford told VICE News. "It didn't come overnight."


But had he simply purchased a standard version of the AR-15 with a longer barrel, he could have walked out of any Florida gun shop with the weapon in as little as five minutes, after a routine background check with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Yet the standard and short-barrel AR-15 can inflict the same amount of carnage. Both weapons are similar to the Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle that Omar Mateen used to mow down more than 100 revelers at Orlando's Pulse nightclub on June 12, killing 49 of them.

Related: Omar Mateen's Wife Could Face Charges in Connection With the Orlando Massacre

The different set of standards applied to the length of a rifle exposes one of the many problems associated with obtaining firearms in Florida, which has some of the nation's laxest gun laws.

Rifles like the AR-15 are a big business in the Sunshine State, where more than 1.4 million people have permits to carry concealed firearms. According to a recent report by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Florida's guns and ammo industry generated an economic output of $837 million and employed 6,033 people in 2015.

VICE News visited three Orlando-area gun shops on the day after the nightclub shooting, and the managers at each said AR-15 rifles account for at least a third of their sales.

A short-barreled AR-15 assault rifle and the standard model. (Photo by Suleiman Yousef)

Hector Pagan, a manager at Universal Weapons, said the AR-15 is popular among gun enthusiasts from all walks of life because of its accuracy and the ability to customize the weapon by changing out some of the basic parts such as the stock, the handguard rail, and the barrel. "You can choose a different array of optics and other accessories, but it doesn't affect the function of the rifle," he said.


It's also a firearm that caters to the pop culture sensibilities of the masses. Parts manufacturers sell "zombie" scopes for AR-15 rifles that go for $200 to $500 a pop, appealing to gun aficionados who are preparing for apocalyptic catastrophes as seen on The Walking Dead and other TV shows.

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Another gun shop manager, who requested anonymity, compared AR-15 owners to people who buy vintage muscle cars. "It's like one dude has a Chevy Nova with a 454 horsepower engine and another guy can have a Nova with a 350 horsepower engine with a supercharger," he said. "I can make an AR-15 look like something you see in war or make it look like a gun that belongs to a hillbilly in the mountains."

'I can make an AR-15 look like something you see in war or make it look like a gun that belongs to a hillbilly in the mountains.'

Pagan said anyone looking to purchase an AR-15 or any other firearm has to fill out a four-page firearms transaction form that is typed into a state law enforcement database. The form asks potential buyers several questions, including if the person has ever been designated mentally ill by the courts or convicted of domestic violence.

"A felony charge and certain misdemeanor charges such as domestic violence would be enough to disqualify you from getting a firearm," Pagan said.

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Beckford is one of Florida's most prominent and outspoken gun enthusiasts, and he recently made news over a provocative underwear selfie he posted on Instagram to complain about his PR team advising him against sharing gun photos. He told VICE News he purchased his first AR-15 in 1992. "I switch them out often," he says. "The technology on them gets better and better."

He currently owns several handguns and four semi-automatic rifles, including two AR-15s, one of which has the short barrel. "You can go crazy with them," Beckford said. "I have gone up to $6,000 accessorizing them. Used the right way, an AR-15 can be fun and recreational."

Hector Pagan, a manager at Universal Weapons in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Francisco Alvarado/VICE News)

The problem is that weapons like the AR-15 continue to fall into the hands of madmen like Mateen, a security guard who was licensed to carry a concealed weapon. AR-15-style assault rifles were used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that left 26 dead and two wounded, in the Colorado movie theater rampage that left 12 dead and 70 wounded, and in the San Bernardino mass shooting that left 14 dead and 22 wounded.

There is no waiting period to purchase rifles in Florida after a buyer passes the state law enforcement background check. (Beckford was required to undergo an additional and more rigorous background check with the FBI and ATF because rifles with barrels shorter than 16 inches are regulated under the National Firearms Act).

Related: Orlando Gunman Frequented Gay Club Where He Massacred 49, Used Gay Dating Apps


Mateen was able to purchase his guns despite the fact that he was previously placed on a terrorism watch list while under investigation by the FBI. He had already been removed from the list, but he still would have been able to buy the assault rifle even if he hadn't. Congress blocked legislation last year that would have given the FBI the power to halt gun sales to people on terrorism watch lists.

Families of the Sandy Hook victims are suing Freedom Group, parent company to Remington, the manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR-15 used by killer Adam Lanza. In a statement by the families and their lawyers in the wake of the Pulse mass shooting, they said the AR-15 was originally designed "for the United States military to do to enemies of war exactly what it did this morning: kill mass numbers of people with maximum efficiency and ease."

'That is something the states and the feds have to figure out: What is a good, extensive background check?'

Pagan of Universal Weapons argues there is a public misconception that AR-15 rifles are military assault rifles, which can fire multiple shots with one trigger pull. "Although the AR-15 looks the same, it doesn't operate in the same way," he said.

Shortly after Sandy Hook, when it appeared federal lawmakers would re-enact the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired 12 years ago, Pagan said gun shops could not keep AR-15 rifles in stock. "People were flocking from all over to get them before they were banned," Pagan said. "Prices went up significantly because shops couldn't keep them in stock."


Related: Coworker of Suspected Orlando Gunman Says He Reported Him to Employer as 'Unhinged'

The ticket price shot up to between $1,000 to more than $3,000 for an AR-15 rifle. Today, the prices have returned to normal levels of $700 to $1,500, Pagan said. "Right now, we are not selling a whole lot of AR-15s," he said. "I don't think people are now going to run to gun shops to buy AR-15s because they already bought them when the ban was looming."

Despite his love of guns and the second amendment, Beckford acknowledged states should make people wait longer to obtain a firearm while checking their background, as well as requiring training for people who purchase pistols and rifles.

"You shouldn't be able to just walk out with one," Beckford said. "That is something the states and the feds have to figure out: What is a good, extensive background check?"

Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter: @thefrankness