Grappling with America’s Obsession
By Jeremy Morrison
As the rally wrapped up, two men lingered on the lawn in conversation. Talking about freedom, and fear. Talking about guns.
“People are waking up,” said the man with the clipboard and petition. “They’re seeing that the federal government is going crazy.”
The men were two of many that made their way to the Milton rally in support of Second Amendment rights. The gathering was in response to proposed gun legislation currently on the table at the federal level.
“This is a semi-automatic weapon,” said the man, throwing his clipboard onto the grass. “That thing’s not going to do anything to you. You’d have to be crazy, pick it up and start firing.”
The clipboard is not a semi-automatic. It actually holds a petition urging Florida’s state legislators to pass a bill similar to 2010’s failed HB 21—known as the Florida Firearms Freedom Act—which basically aimed to put state law above federal law when it came to guns.
“I’m gonna present this to Greg Evers,” the man said. “Sheriff Hall, I just got him to sign it.”
Rumblings in the nation’s capital have made the Second Amendment crowd a little jumpy. In Milton, the men on the lawn look at additional legislation and increased regulation as an overstep by the federal government.
And they are freaking out about the possibilities.
“A lot of us feel like this is the last straw,” the man with the clipboard said. “If this goes, it’s over.”
This Time is Different
When President Barack Obama recently delivered the first State of the Union of his second term, the gallery was peppered with individuals impacted by gun violence. Many of them were from Newtown, Conn.
“It has been two months since Newtown,” Obama said. “I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different.”
On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza entered Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. The 20-year-old carried a semi-automatic .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, a 10mm Glock and 9mm SIG Sauer P226. He used the Bushmaster to kill 20 children and six adults, before shooting himself in the head with one of the handguns.
Lanza had access to the legal firearms in his home. His mother—also shot and killed—was a gun enthusiast.
The tragedy injected renewed passion into America’s national conversation about the Second Amendment and gun legislation. In mid-January, Obama committed himself to the debate.
“Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try,” the president said. “This is our first task as a society: keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged. And their voices should compel us to change.”
The president advocated for—among other measures—universal background checks and the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban. He also pushed for limited magazine capacity. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) has proposed a bill doing the same.
The National Rifle Association takes a different view.
“It’s not about keeping the kids safe in school,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre addressed the National Wild Turkey Federation convention in Nashville, Tenn. a couple of days after the State of the Union. “They only care about their decades-long, decades-old gun control agenda: ban every gun they can, tax every gun sold and register every American gun owner.”
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he would be surprised if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid even brought the proposed legislation up for a vote.
“Senator Feinstein’s legislation has already had a trial run for 10 years, and it was proven a failure,” Miller referred to the previous assault-weapons ban that sunset in 2004. “I think her bill is a non-starter in the House and probably in the Senate as well.”
Like many conservatives, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has predicted “a flood of gun legislation going nowhere.” He suggests better enforcing existing laws and focusing on issues such as mental illness.
“I’ve owned guns all my life. I own an AR-15. I saw the movie ‘Django.’ I like Quentin Tarantino,” Graham said at a post-SOTU press conference. “But there are many moving parts to this … me owning an AR-15 is not a threat to anyone because I’m not going to abuse the right to own that gun.”
Gun Culture Club
Guns have always been part of the American story. From Concord to Columbine, from the Wild West to the grassy knoll.
“It’s part of our culture,” said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan.
America’s Founding Father’s saw fit to incorporate the ‘right to bear arms’ into the U.S. Constitution, making guns a pillar of the country’s very foundation.
“Without the Second Amendment how can you protect the other amendments in the Constitution?” posed State Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker). “I think we need to protect it and hold it in the highest regard—an armed man or woman is a citizen, an unarmed man or woman is a subject.”
Former Santa Rosa County Commission chairman Byrd Mapoles attributes America’s relationship with firearms to the pivotal role they played in the country’s early days.
“I think it goes back to the frontier days,” he said, “when you had a horse to ride on and a gun to kill your food.”
Mapoles recalled how important guns were in his own family. He can still remember his grandmother’s shotgun resting by the front door of her house.
“The maddest I ever saw her was when she realized her shotgun wasn’t by the front door,” he laughed. “She said, ‘Who got my shotgun? Put my shotgun back where it was.’”
Morgan, too, recalled a loaded shotgun reliably in the corner at his grandparents’ house. In a bedside drawer was a loaded handgun. Guns were a part of everyday life. The sheriff got his first as a young boy.
“You got your first rifle, it was usually a single-shot .22 rifle, or a 4-10 shotgun,” Morgan recalled, explaining how he and his friends would take their guns to school. “Guys would pass their guns around—‘Wow, you got your first .22, or whatever.’ We never heard of gun violence.”
When wrapping his head around modern tragedies like the Newtown killings—what the sheriff described as “every parent’s nightmare and, really, every community’s fear”—Morgan does not lay blame on guns.
“I would say the core issue is emotional and mental problems,” the Sheriff said, suggesting the country take a “clinical,” unemotional approach to Second Amendment debates in the wake of such tragedies.
Supporters of the Second Amendment tend to emphasis the inanimate nature of firearms. They stress the fact that guns are cold and lifeless tools at the mercy of humanity.
“I think mental health plays a tremendous part of it. Guns are not the issue,” said Sen. Evers. “Guns do not kill people, it’s folks that use guns. But folks use knifes. Should we ban knifes? Folks use baseball bats. Should we ban baseball?”
This camp bristles at the notion of further restrictions on guns. They don’t feel such measures would have the desired effect of curbing gun violence.
“I certainly think it is appropriate to have the discussion about violence, but we need to address the causes of violence and the issue of access to mental health care,” Rep. Miller said. “Until we address the root issues and motivations behind violence, we are not going to see any marked reduction in gun crimes.”
Locally, law enforcement officials take a similar view. They read currently proposed gun legislation as misguided.
“You could outlaw all the guns and we’d still have gun violence,” said Pensacola Police Chief Chip Simmons. “If you’re a criminal, you don’t care about gun restrictions.”
Simmons pointed out that the legislation’s biggest targets—assault weapons and magazine capacity—didn’t correlate to what he sees on the street.
“They make a big deal about the assault rifle,” the chief said. “We see handguns more than any other kind of gun.”
Morgan is more blunt in his assessment of further restrictions on guns.
“The argument is so fallacious on its face that I’m surprised we can say it with a straight face,” the sheriff said.
The nut of this tact is this: society can’t be safeguarded against criminals and crazies, and law-biding citizens shouldn’t have to suffer as a consequence of the attempt of such.
“To rush out here and pass more restrictive laws that will only be followed by law-abiding citizens is not the solution,” Morgan said. “You’re working the wrong end of this problem.”
The sheriff stresses the importance of maintaining the Second Amendment’s integrity.
“An armed citizenry is a good thing,” Morgan said. “Not a bad thing.”
In late January, a man walked into the Cobb Community Center. He promptly dropped a gun onto the floor.
“It was not secured properly and it fell out,” said Pensacola City Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn. “I was also informed that when that weapon fell out, other people went and got their weapons and brought them into the facility.”
The councilwoman wanted to know if guns were allowed in the community center. She was told that state law prohibited local governments from enacting rules pertaining to firearms.
A few years back, the Santa Rosa County Commission sited a noise ordinance and shut down Dr. William Howe’s firing range. The doctor enjoyed guns and had set up a firing range—complete with a steel-plate backstop—on his Gulf Breeze property.
State legislators—namely Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach)—responded with H.B. 45, which made it unlawful for cities and counties to set their own rules governing guns. Facing the threat of millions of dollars in fines, the commission relented and Howe was allowed to keep using his gun range.
Florida is considered one of the more accommodating, gun-friendly states. In addition to H.B. 45, state lawmakers also passed legislation in 2005 that sanctions using a gun if a person feels threatened—known as the Stand Your Ground law, or Castle Doctrine—and a law in 2011 forbidding physicians from inquiring about firearms in the home.
Florida legislators are not shy about their fondness of guns. Last year, outgoing House Speaker Dean Cannon was given a Berettta 686 shotgun as a parting gift.
Sen. Evers is one of the gun-rights camp’s most faithful supporters. He’s signed on to his share of pro-gun legislation, and was a co-sponsor of Stand Your Ground.
“I think here in Florida, our gun laws are adequate, they’re up to speed,” Evers said. “If it’s not broke don’t fix it.”
Other Florida lawmakers disagree. A bill being pushed by Rep. Bobby Powell (D-Rivera Beach) allows local government to forbid guns in publicly sanctioned or sponsored events and public buildings, such as libraries and community centers.
In South Florida, a collective of municipalities have filed suit in an effort to see local governments more empowered to enact regional regulations. In Tallahassee, Rep. Jim Waldman (D-Coconut Creek) and Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) are drafting bills that would overturn H.B. 45.
“I’m hopeful,” Waldman said, conceding that such notions face uphill battles in the Sunshine State. “This is my seventh year in the legislature, so I don’t get optimistic about a lot of things—I just get hopeful.”
The gun rally in Milton opened with a prayer. A prayer to “heal our land.”
Later on, Santa Rosa County Commissioner Bob Cole read Joel 3:10—“beat your plowshares into swords…”
“It doesn’t sound like our Lord wants us to lay down our arms either,” said Cole.
This got an approving applause. But it paled in comparison to the crowd’s response to Santa Rosa County Sheriff Wendell Hall’s reading of a recent proclamation of the Florida Sheriff’s Association in support of the Second Amendment.
The proclamation notes that sheriff’s are sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution and affirms the group’s support of the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. A key line is as follows: “Florida Sheriff’s affirm they will not assist, support, or condone any unconstitutional infringement of that right.”
The National Sheriff’s Association passed a similar, but strikingly different. proclamation. That proclamation recognizes the Second Amendment and “further recognizes the ultimate authority of the courts in interpreting the scope of those constitutional rights.”
Morgan breaks down the difference.
“They kinda wimped out,” the sheriff said, noting the defining line.
The in-state proclamation was a direct response to proposals being considered at the national level. Florida authorities don’t seem keen on following-through on the possible federal regulations.
It’s not the first time the state has snubbed its nose at Washington. In response to the 1994 assault weapons ban, a number of Panhandle counties passed symbolic resolutions enlisting every citizen into the regional militia.
“I’m pro-gun, 100 percent,” said former Santa Rosa commission chairman Mapoles.
In 1994, Mapoles led the Panhandle militia charge. The measure passed unanimously in Santa Rosa, and was quickly picked up by the commissions in Escambia and Okaloosa.
“Most folks in this part of the country are not willing to give up their guns,” Mapoles told the New York Times in 1994.
In Escambia, former commissioner W.A. Buck Lee was instrumental in seeing a militia resolution adopted. On his office wall at his current Santa Rosa Island Authority post, hangs a cartoon by Earl Bowden memorializing the era. It features Lee and Mapoles at a Second Amendment rally at the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds.
“It says, ‘The Republic’s safe now, right Gen. Mapoles?’” Lee read the cartoon. “He says ‘Yeah, Buck, east of Escambia Bay.’”
Clinging in the Divide
When Rep. Miller hit Pensacola last November as part of the home-stretch of GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, the hometown boy brought the house down when he opened his remarks by dropping a droll, one-liner bomb aimed squarely at the philosophical, social and political divides running throughout America’s debate over firearms.
“Here we are again,” Miller told the crowd, pausing to bask in the moment’s heat, “clinging to our guns and religion.”
It was a dig at a comment Obama had earlier made on the campaign trail and it shot straight to the heart of the national divide on guns. There are those that feel the Second Amendment can be better defined to address concerns of the day, and there are those that take it as gospel.
“The Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is an individual and sacred right, just like the right to freedom of speech and the right to religious expression,” Miller relayed following the recent State of the Union address.
It’s a right that local officials are standing firmly behind. The gun rally in Milton came on the heels of the Santa Rosa County Commission re-upping its commitment to the 1994 symbolic militia resolution.
“If we don’t stand firm, it makes it easier for them to roll over it,” said Commissioner Cole at the rally. “Where does the line get drawn?”
In Escambia, Commissioner Wilson Robertson is planning on putting a similar re-up-resolution in front of his board.
“I’m doing it to state that Escambia County—if I can get the votes—wants to take a stand that we oppose further restrictions of any kind,” Robertson said.
The commissioner will also be speaking at a Second Amendment rally slated for Feb. 23 in downtown Pensacola.
“I’m gonna try to tell the federal government and state and anybody who will listen,” Robertson said. “—tell the federal government, don’t change anything that our Founding Fathers put in the Constitution.”
The elected officials are in friendly territory. In light of federal conversations, Panhandle law enforcement officials appear to be staking out their Second Amendment ground.
“If the government determined that the Thirteenth Amendment is wrong, would you expect sheriffs to go out and start arresting African-Americans because they need to be re-enslaved?” posed Morgan.
The sheriff believes citizens need an unfettered Second Amendment in order to protect their property and their families. He’s also invested in the notion of the populous having the wherewithal to rise up against an oppressive government.
“That’s part of who we are,” Morgan said. “Revolution is in our genes. Look at the people that settled this country, they weren’t milk-toast.”
How serious is the divide between those who fervently champion the Second Amendment and those who would like to reassess its parameters? What might happen if new regulations are hammered out and handed down to a country born and bred on gun culture.
“Hmmm,” Morgan considered the question. “Revolutionary. I think it’s that much of a hot-button issue. Citizens will not tolerate an encroachment on our Second Amendment rights. It’s so much of who we are as Americans.”
The sheriff’s sentiments seem to dovetail with the men with no names at the Milton gun rally. They feel as though proponents of gun regulation are seizing upon the newest nightmare of Newtown to further an anti-gun agenda.
“People are so obsessed with Honey Boo Boo and sports and all the crap that’s on TV, they don’t understand what’s going on around them,” said the man with the clipboard. “If that guy had taken a car and gone and driven through a bunch of kids playing on the playground, it’d be on the news one night, but those kids would still be dead.”
In the waning light of sunset, the men, both veterans, explained that they had grown to fear their own government. They pointed to an ever-tighter society, pointed to the Patriot Act and National Defense Authorization Act.
“They can, right now, come and say, ‘You are a terrorist,’ and take you away,” the man said.
This strain of thought resides in a paranoid landscape. It’s at home alongside Alex Jones and discussions concerning red list-blue list and 29 Palms-litmus tests.
These men are what Morgan might refer to as “clearly, wild-eyed conspiracy theorists.” But the sheriff has his own fears. He doesn’t view these fears—of a national gun registry, or of gun confiscations—as paranoid, but rather realistic.
“What we need to fear as a country is becoming the very thing that we fought against,” Morgan said.
These are fears the men at the Milton rally understand, too. They know a lot of other people who feel the same way.
“I will never give up my weapons. I will not register them. I will not turn them over,” the man with the clipboard said. “And I guarantee you most of the people here won’t and 90 percent of the people in this country wouldn’t. That’s the straw.”