VICE’s editor-in-chief Rocco Castoro went to Florida to investigate its gun culture and byzantine firearm laws. He bought a handgun in a parking lot at 10 PM. It was 100% legal.
With over 270 million guns in America, can anyone win the firearms debate? VICE’s Rocco Castoro examines Florida gun laws to find out.
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 antigun 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 at 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 9-mm and .45-caliber bullets for semiautomatic pistols and .38-caliber 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-caliber 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 Centers 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 organization 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 $200 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.