PARKLAND, FLORIDA — It should not come as a shock that the gun store is in a strip mall, next to a kids’ hair salon and a wellness spa. We buy guns from all kinds of places in this country: strip malls and big box stores and parking lots and Facebook. Nor should it be any particular surprise that the strip mall is in what most anyone would call a “nice neighborhood,” on a street full of spacious, palm tree-lined gated communities with names offering peace and repose: The Preserve, Whispering Woods. The grass looks like it’s never allowed to grow an inch too long.
Inside the gun store, through the locked door and tinted windows, a burly man makes a “cut it out” gesture at his neck.
“We’re closed,” he says, a few times, slightly louder each time.
“Forever?” I ask through the door.
“For now,” a woman responds. She’s just barely visible, framed by one of the windows, the one that just reads GUNS in big red letters. There’s a bumper sticker on the bottom of the window, framing her like a chryon on cable news: “God bless our troops,” it reads. “... Especially our snipers.” There’s stuff all over the floor, the emptying shelves pulled out away from the walls.
“Excellent gun shop, great staff and responsible dealers,” one satisfied customer wrote on Sunrise Tactical Supplies’ Google Reviews page in the week after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He’s referring to Michael and Lisa Morrison, the husband-and-wife team who run the store and who were, in all likelihood, the folks packing up inside. “I hope they stay strong through this and please do not fold under the pressure. You have more supporters than you know.”
“Please don’t shoulder the blame for this,” another reviewer wrote. “You did nothing wrong and followed the letter of the law. A 7-11 isn’t to blame for a drunk driver.”
Mass shootings have a blast radius, emotionally speaking, and the one in Parkland is still reverberating outwards, unevenly, nearly two weeks later. It doesn’t quite cover the strip mall or the gun shop, somehow, where the Morrisons’ lawyer told the New Yorker that the gunman passed their “eyeball test” and “didn’t even ask any questions” before he pointed at an AR-15 on the shelf. It’s quiet over here, literally and metaphorically. At the barbershop two doors down, a man stops mid-buzz cut just long enough to say, “They haven’t been open since it happened.” The whole room turns silent, fragile, until the outsider finally leaves. The conversations resume as the door swings shut, exactly like the volume turned back up on a television.
A few doors down, the churchgoers at Changing Lives Outreach Ministry were just as captivated and upset by the shooting as anyone, but aren’t aware, until they are told, that the gunman bought the AR nearby. They go quiet for a moment, considering that. Joan Buchanan, a churchgoer with her hair in a neat white bun and an elegant Caribbean accent, shakes her head.
She keeps thinking, she says, about all the times she’s witnessed the Lord to high school students at the Walmart where the shooter escaped after he was done.
“I say, ‘Do you mind if I share the word of God with you?’” she says. “And they’re always very receptive.”
Dion Groves, 16, is at church with her mom. She goes to a nearby high school, has “traumatized” friends at MSD, she says, and can recite all the things they’re trained to do in the mass shooting drills that are routine for high school students these days.
“We turn off the lights and crouch in a corner,” she says. One teacher has a paddle behind the desk, and instructs the kids to use it as a weapon if they need to. “Just hit the guy,” she remembers him saying. The day after the shooting, Dion was heading to school and someone closed a car trunk loudly near her. She jumped.
“I have to be on high alert now,” she says, calmly. Everyone does. “You see someone carrying an extra backpack now and you get worried.”
It’s a 15-minute drive from the gun shop to MSD, through more gated communities and strip malls, a bedroom community like any other anywhere in America except a little more beautiful, framed by those palm trees and that intense blue of the Florida sky. The roads are wide and largely empty, at least for a while. But the closer one gets to Stoneman Douglas, the more intensely the blast radius can be felt. At a Publix near the school, a lady who’s supposed to be doing a cooking demo stands over a cold, empty wok, talking to a couple grimly holding hands.
“The bullets were ricocheting ...” she says, trailing off. Back in the car, the guys on the talk-radio station take it up, not quite where she left off.
“They actually compared calling him a sicko to calling someone the n-word,” a host says indignantly. He’s talking about an editorial on CNN, which objected to President Trump referring to the gunman as a “savage sicko.”
“The guy is a sicko,” the talk radio host declares, revving up. “He’s a sick bastard and I don’t care if someone calls him a coupla names, I really don’t.”
Closer to MSD, the radio still chattering away about sickos and political correctness, that vague feeling of unease transmutes into a distinct, oppressive, and direct feeling of something being very badly out of place. Cars are everywhere, parked illegally on medians, and spilling onto the grass. Cops are directing traffic, their cruiser lights flashing, and hundreds of people are very quietly walking the perimeter of the school, outside the fences lined with flowers, signs, teddy bears, and votive candles with photographs taped to them. Walking carefully down the sidewalk, there is a line of people dressed like angels, big white wings made of stretched fabric across their shoulders, wearing white jeans and white t-shirts. They make a slow circle around the building.
The crowd is here because it’s the first day that MSD students are permitted to return, to venture near the building where their friends died and retrieve the things they dropped while fleeing on Valentine’s Day. And the angels are, many of them, survivors of the Pulse nightclub massacre. They arrive at every mass shooting site they can, to offer support and a reminder to survivors that angels “are looking over them and protecting them,” organizer Terry Decarlo told CBS.
There are hundreds of people making their way through the gates of MSD and into the building, and yet it’s somehow nearly pin-drop quiet. The parents, especially the mothers, look tearful. The kids themselves look blankly exhausted, remote, and drawn into themselves, like they’re preparing for something. They hug each other by way of greeting. A few of them watch the white-clad angels proceed down the block.
The scene is thick with reporters, cameras, microphones. We’re all trying to be unobtrusive, trying not to gawk, trying to pretend like we’re not doing what we’re doing. We all watch parents and students petting comfort dogs, who have thick, lush coats and big goofy dog smiles. A girl in a pink shirt, her brown hair in a bun, kneels down to pet a dog. To her own surprise, it seems, she bursts into tears. A TV news camera swoops in immediately to get the shot.
I walk away, around the perimeter of the school, looking at the things hanging on the fence, the signs and the notes from other schools. “MEADOW RUN LOVES YOU,” one says, and below it, in red letters, “We will never let this happen again.”
“WE CALL BS,” another reads, the new rallying cry of the Parkland students who have become activists.
It’s comforting, in a way, to see all these markers of love and resilience and solidarity. But then, on one side of the school, near the entrance sign, things get very bad. There are 17 markers here, some of them crosses and some of them Stars of David, each marked with a victim’s name. There are three-foot piles of teddy bears and bouquets and notes in front of them, so many flowers and bears they spill down the raw, sloping hillside, bare of grass. A few pinwheels stuck in the ground spin in the hot breeze. The unsettled dirt looks like the earth atop a fresh grave.
It feels extremely bad to be here, intensely and immediately awful to watch teenagers staring at the dirt, the crosses and stars, the bears with their paws clasped, sideways in the dirt. Families start to walk away, slowly, back towards their cars. One set of parents with their daughter are carrying a half-open backpack, crammed with books. They’re carrying it with two fingers, keeping it away from their bodies, passing it back and forth between them to share the burden. Things have to return to normal, eventually, somehow, but today won’t be that day.