‘Enjoy an enormous array of firearms, knives and so much more’

Business is brisk at Florida’s ‘largest gun event’, hours from the Parkland massacre

Scott Rollf, a seller at the  Florida Gun Show. Rollf says he approves of raising the age minimum and is fine with banning bump stocks and other attachments that boost firing speeds. Photograph: Zack Wittman/The New York Times

Scott Rollf, a seller at the Florida Gun Show. Rollf says he approves of raising the age minimum and is fine with banning bump stocks and other attachments that boost firing speeds. Photograph: Zack Wittman/The New York Times

 

The lines of pick-up trucks and SUVs snake into the RP Funding Center on the outskirts of Lakeland, Florida. In the busy car park shoppers pile up their trunks with their purchases on this sunny Saturday afternoon.

I approach the entrance. “Are you here for the dance show or the gun show?” a no-nonsense diminutive southern lady asks me. Just behind her, groups of six and seven-year-olds in sparkling pink tiaras mingle with burly men carrying weapons wrapped in bags.

I’ve arrived at the Florida Gun Show. Billed as the state’s largest gun event, the organisation holds regular events around the state of Florida. In the words of the organisers, it’s a “one-stop shop where you will enjoy an enormous array of firearms, ammunition, shooting supplies, knives and so much more”.

Laid out beneath the garish yellow lights and signs are tables and tables of pistols, handguns and machine guns

I pay my $9 entrance fee, walk by the National Rifle Association (NRA) membership desk, and enter the main hall.

Laid out beneath the garish yellow lights and signs are tables and tables of pistols, handguns and machine guns.

A huge sign reads: “We Buy Knives.” In one corner, vendors sell ammunition, holsters and reloading supplies. At the other end, rows of deadly knives are arranged in formation.

The two-day gun show is taking place three hours’ drive north of Parkland, the scene of the February 14th mass shooting where 17 students and teachers lost their lives after a 19-year-old suspect opened fire in a high school.

National spotlight

The massacre has propelled the question of gun control back into the national spotlight. Though America witnessed some of the country’s deadliest mass shootings in recent months – the Las Vegas shooting that claimed the lives of 58 people and the Texas church massacre five weeks later that killed 24 people have all taken place since October – the Florida school shooting has appeared to touch a nerve with the American public.

The impassioned call for gun control by survivors of the massacre and the displays of civic activism as protesters took their calls to the state and federal capitals has prompted hopes among some gun-control campaigners that Parkland could prove to be a tipping point in American attitudes to the gun.

But here in Lakeland, a few hours of north of Parkland, the feeling is very different.

Mckinsey (25) and her partner, Jacob, are proud gun-owners and regular attendees at gun shows. As they browse through the guns, we get talking about the recent events in Parkland.

“It is awful what happened those poor kids, but that guy should never have got a gun,” says Mckinsey. “We’ve heard all kinds of things about his background, but you just never know.”

They are both strongly in favour of gun rights, and against the curtailment of gun ownership. I ask them about the proposal to arm teachers. Jacob believes strongly they should be armed. “If there was someone there who had a proper firearm this could have been stopped,” he says, nodding his head definitively.

Mckinsey is more equivocal. She is in favour of the idea, but believes teachers should have a choice. “I get that teachers want to teach, not to learn how to shoot intruders, but I think that those who want to should be armed.”

The problem is not GUNS, it’s hearts without GOD, Homes without Discipline, Schools without PRAYER. Courts without JUSTICE

Over at another counter, Bill and his wife sell T-shirts and memorabilia. They travel to most of the gun shows in Florida and further afield selling their products. Among the collection is a T-shirt with the phrase: “On 9/11 planes killed over 3,000 people! We don’t BAN planes. Defend the 2nd Amendment.”

Another says: “The problem is not GUNS, it’s hearts without GOD, Homes without Discipline, Schools without PRAYER. Courts without JUSTICE.”

A bright green babygro has the words “My parents carry more than me” alongside a drawing of guns, “because they love me”.

As I approach the counter, Bill and a customer are chatting about the latest gun debates. “They’re blaming the NRA, but the NRA were the very people who campaigned for background checks,” Bill remarks to his customer.

Clinton – Bill, not Hillary – also comes up in conversation. “It was Bill Clinton who let people with mental problems out on the street,” the customer says, referring to a Clinton-era initiative establishing special mental health courts for offenders as an alternative to the regular criminal justice system.

Consequences

Genial and articulate, Bill expresses the view of most of the people at the Florida guns show – the age-old NRA adage that it is people who kill people, not guns. “Look, I have a Chevrolet car, which I can drive at great speed if I want to,” he tells me. “But there are regulations controlling that and consequences if I break those rules. It’s the same with guns. What happened with the Parkland situation is that those regulations, the system, broke down.”

Although a gun show which had been due to take place in Fort Lauderdale, close to Parkland, next weekend was cancelled due to a request from authorities, Bill says that the recent events have had no impact on this gathering. If anything, it has had the opposite effect.

“What we often see after these incidents is that demand for firearms increases, because people worry that the government is going to crack down on gun rights. As a result, many people stock up on weapons and ammunition – if there is any clampdown it will be on the trading of guns, not the ownership.”

*****

Florida has one of the more liberal gun regimes in the country. Though the numbers for gun ownership are notoriously difficult to quantify given the lack of a national or state database, an estimated 32 per cent of citizens in the State own a weapon.

As is the case throughout the United States where states have significant power over gun rights, Florida state law shapes the rules around gun ownership in the state, in keeping with the federal right to bear arms inscribed in the second amendment to the constitution.

Florida’s relatively loose laws on gun ownership have faced close scrutiny since the Parkland massacre.

For example, while gun purchasers must be 21 to buy a handgun, an age limit of 18 has applied to the purchase of assault weapons, such as the one used in the Florida school shooting. Though the Florida shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz was subject to a federal background check when he bought the gun he used to shoot his former classmates and teachers dead, he passed because he had no criminal record.

Mentally incompetent

Although federal law prohibits those who have been declared “mentally incompetent” from purchasing a gun, no information relating to Cruz’s mental state had been entered in the background check system, and he was legally permitted to buy the weapon.

In the wake of the Florida shooting, focus has also turned to the specific weapon used in the attack, an assault-style AR-15 rifle. These weapons were in fact banned by Bill Clinton between 1994 and 2004 in the wake of a spate of mass shooting including the 1989 Stockton massacre in which five children were killed in a school yard in California.

Assault weapons constitute only about 2% of firearms in the US, but they have been used in 27% of public mass shootings from 1999 to 2013

As Robert Spitzer of SUNY Cortland University and the author of several books on gun policy points out, while assault weapons constitute only about 2 per cent of all firearms in the US, these weapons have been used in 27 per cent of public mass shootings from 1999 to 2013.

AR-15 style rifles were used in the three mass shootings that have taken place since October – Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs in Texas and the February 14th massacre in Parkland school. Many of these weapons are in fact easier to attain than small handguns, as is the case in Florida, despite their much greater destructive power.

Quietly shelved

While the president, Donald Trump, initially called for a ban on assault-type weapons in the wake of the Florida shooting, that suggestion appears to have been quietly shelved.

The NRA – the organisation committed to advancing gun rights that has dominated the political ground on this issue for decades – is opposed to a ban. Similarly, the Republican-controlled state legislature in Florida voted against even opening a debate on banning assault weapons in the days following the Parkland shooting, though it did vote to raise the minimum purchase age for all firearms to 21 from 18 this week – a significant development.

There are signs that Florida might be reaching a tipping point. A Quinnipac University poll this month showed that 62 per cent of voters in Florida want an assault weapons ban, while 56 per cent oppose giving teachers guns.

Representative Brian Mast, a Republican who represents Florida in Congress and an army combat veteran, has called for a ban on assault weapons.

Similarly, Governor Rick Scott, a long-time supporter of second-amendment rights, has appeared to temper his views since the Parkland shooting – the second major mass shooting to take place in his state following the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. He has said the age limit for buying an assault weapon should be increased to 21, and also opposes Trump’s call to arm teachers.

With Scott expected to run for the US senate later this year, his newfound stance on gun control may be an admission of political reality, given that he is likely to need the support of Democrat voters in this swing state of Florida to get elected.

Opinion shifting

Perhaps the biggest sign that public opinion may be shifting, however, is the changing position of businesses. Several retailers have announced that they were curtailing the availability of guns at their stores in the wake of the Florida school shooting.

Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart, two of America’s best known stores, said they would require any purchaser of guns to be 21 years of age, regardless of local laws. In addition, Dick’s said it was ending the sale of assault-style weapons, while Walmart announced it would no longer sell toys or airguns resembling assault-style weapons.

Private collectors can set up stall and trade weapons for a $100 fee. One father and son proudly display about a dozen guns, ranging in price from $400 to $1,600

Dicks sold a gun to the suspect in the Florida shooting, Nikolas Cruz, but it was not the weapon used in the shooting. Edward Stack, the chief executive of the company, said that while he still supported second-amendment rights, the company was “disturbed and upset” at what had happened in Parkland. “It came to us that we could have been a part of this story,” he said. “We said: ‘We don’t want to be a part of this any longer.’”

*****

But the prospect of any substantive challenge to America’s right to bear arms appears to be as unlikely as ever.

As I prepare to leave the Lakeland gun show, I observe families walking through the exhibits, with some parents pushing strollers.

Gun shows have come in for particular criticism in recent years, and have been accused of exploiting loopholes in the law on buying and selling weapons. Alongside the licensed gun sellers here, private collectors can also set up stall and trade weapons for a $100 fee. I talk to one Hispanic father and son who are doing just that, proudly displaying their collection of about a dozen guns, ranging in price from $400 to $1,600.

Concealed-weapons permit

Customers who already have a Florida-issue concealed-weapons permit can buy a weapon on the premises. (Securing a permit involves taking a two-hour instructor class and filling out relevant paperwork – permits are then usually delivered within six weeks.)

Those without a permit must make their way to the background check section of the hall, where they complete the relevant paper work and purchases are then sent out in about three to five business days.

When I inquire about the rules for an out-of-state purchaser, I am told that I cannot purchase a weapon straight away – instead it will be shipped to a licensed distributor in my state where I can then pick it up.

Outside the gun show, there is an upbeat atmosphere as parents collect their kids from the adjacent dance show and happy customers start making their way back to the car park.

‘I have to’

As I get on the road and start driving south towards Parkland in the late evening sun, I stop for dinner at a restaurant in an affluent area near the coast. I start talking to a local couple, an attorney and a teacher in their early 50s, and talk turns to the school tragedy.

The teacher tells me she knows someone who lost a child in the attack – her own kids are around the same age. But as her husband soon tells me, he owns a gun, as do many of his peers. “I have to. This is what you need to do in this country to protect yourself, to protect your family,” he says.

As for the proposal to arm teachers, both are supportive. “It’s sad to say, but it’s the world we live in. The main duty of parents, of teachers, is to protect our kids. We’ll do whatever it takes.”

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