The original version of this article appeared in the print edition of VICE’s December Hopelessness Issue. It was sent to press two weeks before Friday’s massacre in Newtown, Connecticut – one that ripped the heart straight out of America’s chest. An unfortunately timely piece, it has been updated accordingly.
The almost unfathomable national tragedy that happened on December 14th in Newtown, Connecticut was the latest and most horrific example in a string of mass shootings that have occurred in the United States over the past 30 years. Unfortunately it took the brutal murder of 20 very young students and six of their caretakers at Sandy Hook Elementary School for Americans to truly attempt to wrap their minds around current firearms laws and reflect on the culture that has created them. And this time there will almost certainly be a massive legislative shift on the national level. How pivotal it will be remains to be seen.
However, what the nation will find – if history is any indicator – is that legal solutions to this dilemma will prove unsuccessful. Even worse, further restrictions on firearms may exacerbate the situation. This is because the information and decision-making process that is needed to responsibly unify firearms laws is inherently flawed from within.
There is a very specific reason that people – heroes, monsters and especially Americans – like guns. It’s the same reason I like guns. I like shooting down a pockmarked range or sandy berm on a cloudy day. I like the feeling of curved metal behind my fingertip, knowing that the world can be forever changed with a simple pull.
My more sensible friends tell me I am this way because I’m a Floridian. And up until recently, I pretended to disagree. But I can no longer deny that they’ve been right all along. Then again, my most sensible friends were not born in Florida.
Growing up in the Sunshine State, I was brought up around guns and taught to respect their power, ensuring that I accepted the full spectrum of responsibility that comes with owning or even holding a firearm. Many of the people who raised me (with the important exception of my mother) felt that it was their duty to teach me the basics of gun safety, in the same way everyone should know how to fix a flat tire. This does not mean I agree with all or even the majority of American firearms laws. And in order to delve into the minutia of one of the most troubling catch-22s of our time, in mid-November I waded through the swampy backwaters of firearms legislation in my home state, which I hoped would serve as a microcosm for the rest of the nation. I believe it served its purpose.
For starters, to the vehemently anti-gun among you, to gain some perspective on how we arrived at this seemingly unsolvable problem, I issue this challenge: put yourself in a place where your life or safety, or that of a loved one, is in grave danger. Then imagine that place is a sunny peninsula made up of hardworking citizens, self-reliant yet senile old folks, self-described “crackers” (Google the etymology of that one if you don’t know it already), ultraviolent face-eating felons, disgustingly rich sociopaths, Miami-Dade County and the creepiest boiled-brain tweaker weirdos on Earth. Welcome to Florida, population 19 million. Based on my years of experience trolling around with, at turns, some of the most interesting, valiant and despicable residents of the state, I can assure you that many wholly sensible and productive Floridians of all stripes own guns. And yeah, a lot of scumbags have them, too, and they will shoot you without hesitation if they feel so inclined.
Decorated combat veteran and firearms enthusiast Eddie Cacciola stands in front of an American flag signed by fellow Marines who served with him in the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
One of the good guys is Philadelphia native Eddie Cacciola, a 32-year-old former Marine. Eddie moved to Florida five years ago. Before that, he served as a decorated combat engineer – “like the guys in The Hurt Locker” – during the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Eddie joined the Marines on September 18th, 2001. He was already considering enlisting, but 9/11 made the decision for him. He quit his dream job of running a motorcycle-racing team and importing MVs, Ducatis and other high-end exotic bikes to fight in Iraq.
In 2005, Eddie returned from duty to Philadelphia and grew steadily more disenchanted with the War on Terror. “We maybe stuck around too long. People started not appreciating that we were there,” he said as we drove to a local Walmart to buy cheap ammo. “It was kind of a letdown of something that I think started as a good thing.”
Two years after his return to Philadelphia, Eddie moved to Sarasota, Florida, with his then girlfriend, who was from the area. The city’s immaculate white-sand shores include Siesta Beach, rated the top beach in the US in 2011 by “America’s Foremost Beach Expert,” Dr Beach. It also happens to be my hometown, and I met Eddie through a mutual friend who knew I was planning to write a story from the perspective of responsible and thoughtful gun owners.
Eddie told me that, before his time in the Marines, he wasn’t much of a “gun person”. He had fired rifles and shotguns various times while living in Philadelphia, but after his return from Iraq he began to see guns more as tools of life and outlets for recreation. Like many of his fellow Floridians, he believes in the public’s right to carry and bear arms pretty much wherever they choose. But while Eddie supports or is mostly indifferent to many of the state’s gun laws, he does take issue with one.
“In Florida, you can go ahead and buy, sell and trade anything – as long as it’s not an illegal weapon,” he said. “You can just find somebody or something that you like, work out a deal with him, meet them in a local parking lot, do a third-grade trade with some money and a gun. Nothing else needed.” Alaska, Arizona and Vermont are similarly lenient when it comes to these types of transactions.
Before my visit, a few weeks prior to the 2012 presidential election, I had asked Eddie whether he’d be willing to coordinate a trip out to the range with some of his shooting buddies. He happily obliged, with one caveat: “Get here quickly, because people are stockpiling. They think Obama might get elected again. If we wait too long it might be much harder to get ammo for certain weapons.”
It was the same story propagated in 2008 following Obama’s victory. Many firearms dealers in Florida and throughout the nation reported a massive uptick in background checks, which went from 11.2 million in 2007 to 12.7 million in 2008 – a clear indicator that gun sales were spiking. The stockpiling resulted in an ammo shortage that, by February 2009, left many owners frustrated because dealers simply could not keep up with the demand. That month, the Orlando Sentinel reported that 9mm and .45-calibre bullets for semi-automatic pistols and .38-calibre bullets for revolvers were becoming scarce, and that clerks at Walmarts in Apopka and Kissimmee had confirmed that the aforementioned types of ammo, along with .22-calibre bullets (one of the most common forms of ammunition), were on back order. Floridians, it seemed, were ready to rock ’n’ roll.
This October, a month before the election, background checks for potential gun purchasers nationwide were up 18.4 percent since the same time last year and, just as in 2008, sales of assault rifles such as the AR-15 and AK-47 increased after Obama’s victory. Many of the gun dealers and owners quoted in the press said they feared Obama would reinstitute the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, one of the most controversial aspects of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed under Clinton in September 1994. The ban relied on a convoluted flowchart to determine which sorts of weapons and accessories were to be made illegal for purchase by the general public.
Thanks to sunset provisions, the law expired in 2004. Since then, lawmakers like Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy of New York have unsuccessfully attempted to reinstitute the ban. Studies conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and other independent studies found that the ban’s effect on violent crimes had been small, if negligible. The Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice released a 2004 assessment of the decade-long ban, stating that if it were to be reinstated at a future date, its “effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement. [Assault weapons] were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban.” A dissenting study carried out by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence alleged data provided by the ATF showed that the proportion of violent crimes in which assault weapons were used dropped from 4.82 to 1.61 percent during the ban. A spokesperson for the ATF later said that his organisation could “in no way vouch for the validity” of that claim.
While it’s been perfectly legal for the past eight years to buy an AR-15 alongside a £120 aftermarket “bump-fire stock” (which effectively transforms it into a full-auto weapon), gun rights supporters have reason to be fearful of Obama reinstituting some iteration of the Assault Weapons Ban. Obama served as a senator in Illinois, home to what many say are the strictest gun laws in the country. Leading up to his first presidential election, he was cautious but outspoken regarding his opinion that certain types of weapons should not be available to the public. A 2009 Gallup poll reported that as many as 41 percent of Americans believed that Obama, at some point, would “attempt to ban the sale of guns in the United States while he is president” – as in, all guns. And this August, White House spokesperson Jay Carney told reporters that the president fully supported a renewal of the ban.
When prompted with a question about federal firearms laws during the second 2012 presidential debate, Obama said that part of his strategy to curb street violence in America “is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill”. This sort of reasoning doesn’t seem to take into account the legal rights of responsible gun owners – hardworking and scrappy folks who fully believe that the right to bear arms is inalienable, at least in America. Regardless of whether a new ban happens or not, the hoarding has already begun.
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. Anti-gun 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 £550 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 £620 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 9mm 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 jewellery 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 neighbourhood-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-defence 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 one 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 five 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 who 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 anti-gun 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 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, 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.”
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 £920 of ammo we'd 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 armoury 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 favourite 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 at around 4PM. 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 "I'd take a bullet for her". 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, who 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-defence. 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 defence 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 realise 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.
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 10PM.
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 £340 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 10PM 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 one to ten.
“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.”
“Okay, 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 five 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 three 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 nine 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 politicised and polarised 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
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