The exhibition hall at the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds was buzzing with electricity. As Sunday afternoon set in, attendees soaked up the last few hours of the weekend gun show.
Laid out in long rows and spread out across vendor tables, an arsenal both literal and cultural stretched from wall to wall. Everything from Remington deer rifles to Saturday night specials and ankle holsters. There were old guns and new guns. Expensive and cheap.
In the back of the hall, a group of people began to gather for the weekend’s final concealed weapons class. Over near the survival guides and sniping manuals, a stun gun salesman repeatedly triggered an electric jolt, sending its jagged hissing bouncing off the walls.
The American gun show could be viewed as a flea-market flavored celebration of the country’s affinity for guns. Since its founding, America has taken its arms seriously. The matter is written into our constitution in the form of the Second Amendment. In some camps, the issue is intertwined with such lofty ideas as liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Americans own far more guns per person than any other country on the planet. There’s an estimated 270 million, and growing at an annual rate that regularly breaks sales records.
Floridians are particularly enthusiastic about guns. The laws are lean and more people are packing than ever before in the Sunshine State.
“I think we have more concealed weapons permits than any other state because Floridians care about their right to bear arms,” Gov. Rick Scott said this month in a Fox News interview.
The governor is correct. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are about 887,000 concealed weapons permits in Florida. The state has far more guns than larger and more densely populated states like Texas or California.
Soon, gun owners in Florida may not have to conceal their firearms. If lawmakers decide to pass open-carry legislation during the next legislative session, Floridians would have the option to wear their guns in full public view.
“They’re trying to get that passed all the way around the country,” said Homer Bowles.
The Georgia native manned a vendor table lined with rifles at the rear of the fairground hall. He said the Second Amendment afforded people the right to openly carry guns and said the issue was a national effort among gun-friendly legislators.
“When I was coming up,” Bowles said, “you could openly carry, then they changed the law.”
In Florida, Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker) has been an active player in the realm of gun legislation. He may sponsor open-carry legislation during the 2013 session.
“Anything that limits that constitution, I think is a problem,” Evers said.
The senator pushed for open-carry in 2011. Looking ahead to next year, he said that specific language would need to be worked out, but he could see the issue being put before legislators again.
“In some form, shape or fashion,” Evers explained.
Shoot-em Up Summer
Earlier this summer, a neuroscience student in Colorado decided to attend an opening night screening of the latest Batman movie. He grabbed his Glock .40-caliber handgun, AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and Remington 870 shotgun and headed out to the theater.
After donning bulletproof protection and a costume like that of the movie’s villain, the man set off a smoke bomb and began his rampage. Before James Holmes exited the theater and returned to his car in the parking lot—where police later found him—he had killed 12 people and wounded 59 others.
The 24-year-old student purchased his guns legally. He also bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition off the Internet.
In August, a gunman killed himself and two others at Texas A&M University. Also in August, an Army veteran and white supremacist in Wisconsin entered a Sikh temple and killed six people.
Later in the month, in New York City, an out-of-work accessories designer walked up to a former co-worker and shot him in the head, then several more times after he’d hit the ground. The unemployed designer was later shot by police on the sidewalk. The gunfire injured multiple people.
Incidents such as these tend to ignite national conversations on the state of guns in America. Gun-control advocates, particularly, become impassioned in the wake of a shooting spree.
“I think we’re starting to turn a corner here,” said Brian Malte, director of legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The Brady Campaign is an organization that pushes for tighter gun legislation. It’s named after James Brady, former President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary.
In 1981, John Hinckley Jr.—who the court later found insane—pulled out a .22 caliber Rohm RG-14 revolver and began firing at President Reagan. Brady was hit and partially paralyzed. Bound to a wheelchair, he has been a vocal gun-control advocate since.
“We need to have the conversation about what can be done, rather than wringing our hands and saying ‘nothing can be done,’” Malte continued.
Malte, like the organization he represents, is an optimist. While he anticipates the “corner” on the brink, there is little in the landscape of reality to support his optimism. Shooting sprees not withstanding, there is little political will in America to address anything that smells of further gun control.
Elected officials are much less eager to jump into the gun conversation than the Brady Campaign. Especially in an election year.
It’s a hot debate, and politically risky. Many Democrats cite President Bill Clinton’s 1994 ban on assault weapons as key insurmountable baggage for Al Gore as he sought the White House. Current U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said there will be no time for a discussion about gun legislation any time soon.
But during this summer full of shooting rampages, some elected officials did breach the issue of gun legislation. President Barack Obama spoke about it shortly after the Colorado incident.
“I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms. I think we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation. That hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage,” Obama said at a National Urban League convention in New Orleans. “But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals. That they belong on the battlefield of war, not in the streets of our cities.”
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has needled the issue throughout the summer. Pushing for tougher gun legislation in July, he suggested that police officers go on strike until lawmakers addressed the issue of guns.
“I don’t understand why police officers across this country don’t stand up collectively and say, ‘We’re going to go on strike. We’re not going to protect you unless you, the public, through your legislature, do what’s required to keep us safe,’” Bloomberg said, later clarifying that he wasn’t being literal.
The responses from Republicans following the summer’s shootings have been different. Where gun-control advocates see an opportunity for tougher regulation, arms enthusiasts have taken the opportunity to double-down and reload.
After the Texas A&M shooting, Gov. Rick Perry said gun legislation was best left to individual states and rejected the idea of greater restrictions. He veered into former NRA President Charlton Heston’s “pry it from my cold, dead hands” territory, vocalizing the fear of many gun owners that their arms will one day be wrested away by their government.
“When it gets back to this issue of taking guns away from law-abiding citizens and somehow know that’s going to make our country safer, it’s just I don’t agree with that,” he said. “Texans, I will suggest to you, by and large a majority of them—a large majority of them—believe that law-abiding men and women should be able to have their weapons. Criminals are never going to listen to the laws. They’re always going to have weapons or whatever source they want, whether legal or illegal, and I think it’s wise for the people of the state of Texas to be able to defend themselves when there is a law-breaker that comes into their midst with a weapon.”
The Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has also shown no will to toughen up gun legislation. He addressed the issue shortly after the Colorado shooting.
“We can sometimes hope that just changing the law will make all bad things go away. It won’t,” Romney said. “Changing the heart of the American people may well be what’s essential, to improve the lots of the American people.”
Elected officials like Florida’s Sen. Evers would never dream of tightening gun legislation. He sees this summer’s series of shootings, if anything, as a reason to carry a gun.
In the case of the Colorado theater shooting, Evers feels it may have gone differently if members of the audience had been carrying weapons as well.
“You know, how many lives would it have saved?” Evers said.
Gun Crazy, Gun Country
Laws regulating guns differ from state to state. The Brady Campaign ranks them with a color-coded map, with more regulation being better.
California—with heavy regulation and policies such as only being allowed one handgun purchase per month—is dark green, with an 81 out of a 100 rating. It’s the only dark green state on the map. Most of the country is colored red, denoting a poor ranking. Florida, for example, has received a three out of 100 ranking from the Brady Campaign.
“So, obviously, Florida does not have the laws that they need,” said Malte.
If the National Rifle Association, however, ranked states via a color-coded map, Florida would undoubtedly be painted positively. The organization has seen a lot of bills go its way in Tallahassee.
Some credit for this success should probably go to Marion Hammer, former president of the NRA and current Florida lobbyist. She has been a primary bulldog on the gun-rights side of the debate for years, stepping onto the field in the mid-1970s and becoming the NRA’s first female president from 1995 to 1998.
The former NRA head has been instrumental in getting a variety of pro-gun bills passed in Florida. Hammer recently made it known that she intended to try for open-carry in the state again during the next legislative session.
“We are going to address the problem of law-abiding gun owners exercising their Second Amendment rights, because they’re being harassed,” Hammer said. “The goal of the new bill will be exactly as it was in 2011—to protect law-abiding people who have a license to carry.”
Proponents of open-carry efforts in Florida point to cases in which citizens have had problems because they apparently revealed their concealed weapons accidentally. Legislators attempted to deal with the issue in 2011, but Hammer has said they didn’t sufficiently address the problem and that the NRA is pushing for straight open-carry.
She’ll likely find a sympathetic audience in Senator Evers. He has been a dependable voice in Florida for gun-rights proponents like the NRA.
The senator was instrumental in Florida’s previous open-carry attempt, as well as the Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act, otherwise known as the Docs vs. Glocks bill, which is currently being questioned by a federal judge.
In 2011, Evers was behind a bill seeking to allow guns on college campuses. He said professors had approached him over the issue, expressing a desire to arm themselves on campus.
“You know, they feel vulnerable,” Evers said.
The senator pulled the bill after a slain student’s father made a plea on the house floor and asked legislators to reconsider the effort. The man’s daughter had been killed when an AK-47 accidentally went off inside a frat house party.
Evers was also involved in Florida’s Stand Your Ground legislation, which allows a person to shoot rather than retreat if they feel threatened. The law got a good amount of attention following this year’s shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch gunman George Zimmerman.
“I think Stand Your Ground is right where it needs to be. I don’t think there needs to be any tweaks to Stand Your Ground,” Evers said. “That’s what the court system is for.”
While Evers said he wasn’t sure if he’d be the sponsor for the 2013 open-carry bill— “It’s still too early to tell.”—he should certainly be considered a contender for the project.
Judging by his past efforts, the gun lobby would be hard pressed to find a better friend in Florida.
Tiptoeing Through Florida’s Wild West
Watching over her inventory of handguns inside the Pensacola fairground exposition hall, a vendor took a moment to consider the open-carry question. A number of states already allow the practice.
“It’s a good idea,” she said after some thought. “Because we have a right to do that.”
The vendor said she didn’t think many gun owners would take advantage of the open-carry privilege, but that the sight of armed citizens could help prevent crime. It’s something gun-rights proponents note frequently.
“I think it would stop someone from doing something when they saw six people with guns standing off to the side,” she said.
At the front of the hall, an NRA volunteer sat behind a recruitment table. He took up the same thread of logic.
“It would deter criminals,” said Frank Kozlowski, contrasting this country’s legislative environment with countries with tighter controls in place. “Like Western Europe, crime is rampant. The criminal has no fear of what might happen—I don’t see how a person could put their mother on public transit—you know, they break in the house and the worst they can expect is to be chased out.”
Over at the Brady Campaign, Malte doesn’t see it that way. He’s against people “flaunting their sidearms,” and thinks the general public is unnerved by the practice.
“People think that the person may be there to rob the place or shoot up the place,” Malte said.
In 2011, the Florida Sheriffs Association took a similar position when open-carry made the rounds in Tallahassee. The organization has said it will do the same next year.
When the first presidential debate takes place in Denver on Oct. 3, Obama and Romney will square off mere miles from the sites of both the Batman-screening massacre and the 1999 Columbine High School incident, in which 12 students and one teacher were shot to death, and 21 people were wounded.
The Brady Campaign has sent a letter to moderator Jim Lehrer requesting that he toss the topic of gun violence into his mix of questions. The letter states, “During the next presidential term, 48,000 more Americans will be murdered unless we do something about it.”
The group tiptoes around a political land mine and clarifies in the letter that the country should explore “solutions that recognize the Second Amendment right to bear arms.”
“Instead of trying to make guns available to everyone all the time, they should be passing laws to keep guns away from dangerous criminals,” Malte said.
In Florida, Sen. Evers doesn’t buy into such logic. He sees the tragedies of this summer as clouding the conversation with emotion.
“It goes back to a lot of folks not using common sense when they talk about this issue,” Evers said.
Regardless if Lehrer brings up guns during the Colorado presidential debate, it seems unlikely that gun legislation in America will shift too far from the NRA’s playbook. At least not in Florida.
Welcome to Gunny Florida
Sunshine State’s Firearm Legislation
SB 436: (2005) Stand Your Ground law allows people who feel they are in grave danger to use deadly force to protect themselves
HB 687: (2006) Gives public records exemption to concealed carry weapon license holders, allowing people to own guns anonymously
HB 503: (2008) Allows gun owners to bring a firearm to work, as long as it is locked inside a car
SB 948: (2008) Increases time-length of concealed gun license from five to seven years
HB 315: (2010) Prohibits adoption agencies from requiring prospective adoptive parents to disclose information about gun ownership
HB 155: (2011) Prohibits medical practitioners from asking patients about whether or not they own a gun
HB 5601: (2012) Reduces the maximum fees for concealed weapons license from $85 to $70
CS/HB 463: (2012) Allows people under the age of 21 to obtain a gun license if they have military experience