In downtown Orlando in the wake of the Pulse shooting, you’ll likely see #OrlandoUnited on top of a pride flag backdrop. Sometimes it’s #OrlandoStrong—a riff on #BostonStrong, popularized after the Boston Marathon attack. But on the city’s outskirts, you’ll most frequently come across #PrayforOrlando. On one level it’s a nod to the religiosity of the conservative Floridian suburbs, but on another it’s a distance marker: The tragedy is something that happened to those people who need praying, not us.
#PrayforOrlando is what Minneola, a small, sprawly municipality located about 25 minutes west of Orlando, decided to place on the scrolling LED banner below the sign for its City Hall. Below that, two yellow signs were stuck in the grass. They advertised a gun show held inside the city’s building, which took place on the one-week anniversary of the massacre. And at that gun show, yet another sign was perched on the admissions table, written on some masking tape stuck to a plastic bucket filled with coins and dollar bills: “Donate to help the Orlando victims of ISIS terrorism.”
Gun shows are not a rarity in Florida, or really in most states in the union. But this one, the New Florida Gun Show, was the first in the Orlando area to be held after Pulse.
Inside, there were about 20 booths staffed by employees from different gun shops around the region who were there to sell knives, brass knuckles, old gun manuals, and everything else a gun enthusiast might need. James Watkins was there with his wife buying a Ruger AR-556, a gun aesthetically and mechanically similar to the oft-discussed AR-15 (the gun of choice for most high-profile mass shootings), and also very similar to the gun used by Omar Mateen at Pulse, a Sig Sauer MCX. All three guns are capable of shooting multiple rounds per minute. All three are highly customizable—at one booth you can buy the hundreds of parts required to make your own AR-15, except the lower receiver, which is considered the only component that’s actually a gun by lawmakers.
“In the wrong hands, it can do a whole lot of evil, but in the right hands it can do a whole lot of good,” Watkins said. “But I’ll probably shoot it out on the range a few times and then put it in the safe.”
Eduardo, the man selling Watkins the gun, knew one of the survivors of the Pulse shooting—Angel Colon, his ex-wife’s brother, who he still considers family. Colon was shot three times. Eduardo’s mother often visited Pulse, too. Eduardo doesn’t want this tragedy to be used to take away guns from the good guys, though.
“They could have used anything,” he said. “It wasn’t even a fully-automatic assault rifle. It could have been a handgun. It’s not like he was Rambo or Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
When I asked Eduardo if there was a difference between semi-automatics and other weapons, Watkins interjected to say that it wasn’t about the deadliness of the weapon, but the person behind it.
“People are killed with cars; people are killed with knives,” he said. “What are we going to do? Ban cars? Ban knives?”
Whether you agree with Watkins is a question of how you read statistics: It’s true more people are killed with knives every year than assault rifles, but far more people are killed with guns of any type (mostly handguns) than with knives. As for cars, they do kill a lot of people, but they also serve another purpose; perhaps Congress would ban cars if they were solely designed to mow down pedestrians.
James, his wife Nicole, and Eduardo all said they believed more guns would make the country safer. Everyone here seems to believe that. The showroom was crowded, but not packed; about 100 people are milling around. Eduardo said it would be more crowded if people believed Hillary Clinton would be our next president—people would be stocking up. Researchers have documented that gun sales usually spike after a mass shooting, as gun owners become worried that politicians will pass a ban on assault weapons like AR-15s. There is no statistical analysis of how many guns a theoretical Hillary Clinton presidency has helped sell, but everyone here seemed to agree that the first thing she’d do is ban assault rifles, if not all guns.
“I’m surprised I haven’t sold more [assault rifles] today,” Eduardo said. “Some people are still playing it safe because they have a good feeling Trump will win. If people thought [Clinton] was going to win, this would be packed.”
For years, Democrats in the House and Senate have been pushing for a ban on assault rifles. That explains why sales of the rifles always spike after a mass shooting. But gun supporters have pointed out that the liberal argument against rifles is based on bunk data.
Mark Bryant, who runs the Gun Violence Archive, the largest data clearinghouse on shooting incidents in the country (the federal government doesn’t have a centralized database on gun statistics, so the job is left up to people like Bryant), told me that out of the approximately 150,000 incidents involving guns he tracked last year, only about 4,000 involved rifles. It’s true: Banning handguns would prevent more harm than banning assault rifles. Still, the incidents that do involve rifles tend to be the most violent.
“If I wanted to shoot up a room full of children, or Congressmen or whatever, an AR-15 is the answer,” Bryant admitted. “It will do a whole lot of very bad very fast. That’s what it was designed to do.”
Regardless, Democrats seemed to have dropped their complaints about assault rifles for now, and instead are focusing on a law that would ban people on the no-fly list from purchasing any gun. In other words, they’ve decided to stop going after specific guns, and start going after specific people.
Some people I spoke to at the Minneola gun show told me they were supportive of that no-fly measure, though most still seemed to view it with skepticism. For many, guns are a right, period, and any regulation against them is the first step toward total bans. The point isn’t what guns are more dangerous, or which are more practical. It’s about leaving those kinds of decisions, and the responsibility they come with, in the hands of the people. I got the sense that’s why AR-15s and other semi-automatic assault rifles were so popular amongst the Minneola crowd. They’re not practical—they’re a big middle finger to anti-gunners. Owning an AR is a sign proclaiming, “Screw you, I can buy anything I want.”
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Down a row of tables, past the guy who sells all the parts required besides the actual trigger to build your own AR-15, past another guy selling antique rifles, past a table with lots of small handguns was Jon Hill’s table.
Hill sells all kinds of guns, but like nearly everywhere, the semi-autos are some of his most popular. They’re relatively cheap (you can buy a setup for about $450), have low kickback, and they’re easy to learn on. John’s kids, who are now 15 and 21, both learned how to shoot AR-15s when they were about seven years old. Hill said since the shooting more people have been coming in to buy guns, including several gay men. That made Hill happy: The more people with guns the better. But he understands that the ban on guns in places that serve alcohol isn’t going to be overturned anytime soon, so he plans on teaching a class in a few weeks in one of Orlando’s clubs about how to defend yourself without a gun against a mass shooter.
“No one tried to charge this guy,” he said. “No one tried to save anybody. No one understands you are your first line of defense.”
The other option: Just don’t go clubbing. Hill said he won’t go to clubs because they’re gun-free zones. How would he defend himself?
I moved down the rows again, past a man who told me Hillary Clinton would put all gun owners out of business, and briefly chatted with a man who told me, “If Trump is elected, it will be like Ferguson everywhere,” and that that’s why he needed his gun. Another man told me, “if you want to see what really causes gun violence, go to Chicago.” Then I met a man who told me to leave, said the media was in cahoots with the government to ban guns, and called security on me. I asked the organizer of the show why I wasn’t allowed in. He refunded me my $6 entry fee and told me he could refuse entry to anyone he wanted.
Left unsatisfied by the show because of my forcibly hastened exit, I decided to drive around to every gun store between Minneola and Orlando. Within that approximately 20-mile radius, there are at least seven shops, not including the pawn shops that sell guns (I’d estimate there are another 20 of those within the Orlando area). No one who ran the shops would speak with me (some were sick of the media presence in Orlando, others were sick of the liberal media in general), but Alicia Camacho was standing out Rieg’s Gun Shop and Range with her 14-year-old son Liam and her 12-year-old daughter Alex, and she was happy to tell me she’d just taken them shooting.
Her two kids held up the pieces of target paper they’d just used for target practice inside the range. It was Alex’s first time shooting. “It was really cool,” she said, and pointed out she’d done better than her older brother. Liam protested by showing how many shots he’d landed on the target’s torso. “But I got him in the head,” Alex said.
“Don’t gloat,” her mom replied.
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Back in downtown Orlando, at a grass area that has become makeshift memorial for Pulse’s victims, people gathered to pay their respects.
“We’re not supporting their lifestyle, but a loss of life is worth mourning,” Marisela, a woman from Tampa, told me after taking a picture of a sign surrounded by flowers that said “Less guns more love.” “It’s not about guns, it’s about people.”
Marisela’s husband Gary told me he owns two AR-15s, plus several other guns. He told me he needs them for survival.
“You have to be armed,” he said. “I wouldn’t go into a bar with a gun, but I have a knife on me right now.”
On the other side of the memorial, across the 100-foot-long pile of flowers and pictures of the 49 Pulse victims, stood Carter Mayzik. He told me he’d driven from the Tampa area to check out the memorial. As a gay man, he felt personally connected to what happened, and held back tears as he took it all in.
“If this tragedy were to happen and we were permitted to arm ourselves, there would have been some deaths, but not as many,” he said. “I would rather have an AR-15 in my hand when someone kicks in the door. And the majority of people I know feel the same way.”
Peter Moskowitz is a writer based in New York. He's writing a book about gentrification for Nation Books/Perseus.