I moved to Florida in October. In November, I bought my first gun at Buck's Gun Rack in Daytona Beach. By December, I'd exchanged my first gun for my second and was well on my way to becoming one of Florida's 350,000-strong army of concealed-weapons citizens. In January, I received my $139 permit, and I was there.
I bought my gun because I could. I started carrying it because I could. If I lived in feudal Japan I probably would have carried a sword. In my life I've armed myself with brass knuckles, a blackjack, an expandable baton, a switchblade, a butterfly knife, pocket knives, pepper spray and, for a brief misguided period, an old bag of golf clubs. Carrying a gun trumps them all.
But knowing you could kill someone with what you have in your pocket and knowing that you would are two different things. In one scenario, you have power over the weapon; in the other, the weapon has power over you.
So this is a story about Florida's gun laws and what they do to a fella's head.
Florida's infamous "no-retreat" law, passed last spring, was pushed by the National Rifle Association. It was conceived as an experiment, and is already being heralded as a success by the NRA in its efforts to enact similar laws in other states. The bill allows Florida's pistol carriers to "meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
It should only be a matter of time before courts are called upon to clarify exactly what that means; the law is already etched, indelibly, in the psyches of the state's armed masses.
During the concealed weapons course I took, students sighed and rolled their eyes when our instructor a gun dealer stressed that deadly force must be a last resort. "If he goes down," our teacher told us, "you'd better have to go down with him. You with a knife in the leg and he with a bullet in the brain."
"What about that law? What about that law Jeb Bush passed?" asked an effeminate classmate, seemingly pissed off.
Our instructor insisted that we didn't want to kill anybody unless we really, really had to. The students seemed unconvinced.
Concealed weapons carriers aren't the only ones who like Florida's gun laws; South American guerrillas, New York thugs and criminals of all kinds visit in droves to take advantage of the lax gun market.
In fact, Southeastern states including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina make things so easy that the Interstate 95 corridor is nicknamed "the Iron Pipeline" because it feeds the gun market in Northern states where laws are stricter.
"It's no secret it's easy to get a gun down here," says special agent Carlos Baixauli of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "All you need is a fake driver's license. You buy a gun for $100 and it goes for $500 or $600 up north. It's just supply and demand."
Even rank amateurs can make money in the gun trade. One ATF agent told me the story of a group of spring breakers from New York who got Florida driver's licenses, bought a couple of high-end pistols, and resold them illegally up north to cover the cost of their vacation. The only reason they were caught, according to the agent, is because the guns were recovered from crime scenes and traced back to Florida.
The first thing that caught my eye as I drove through the center of Daytona Beach for the first time was a giant revolver sitting on a marquee. Two stuffed Indians and a cowboy stood out front. As I headed for the door, an animatronic Indian arm dropped a beat on a leather drum. At night, the facade burns with the words "Buck's Gun Rack" in red neon.
Buck's marquee changes frequently. In December it urged people to stuff each other's stockings with knives.
Inside is every conceivable make of weapon. They are divided into neat categories: archery/paintball/airguns, knives/rifles, rifles/shotguns, handcuffs/batons, stun guns/mace, ammo and, most prominently, handguns. It is all very enticingly arranged; in the hours and hours I've spent at Buck's I have never run out of things to look at.
Of special note is a giant rattlesnake, chopped into segments and coiled in a jar of formaldehyde. A sign on the jar reads "pickled rattle snake, 25 cents apiece." It is a ruse directed at naive Northerners like me. Every once in a while, Buck says, someone asks for a piece.
The most impressive aspect of Buck's Gun Rack is the man himself. Forrest "Buck" Buckwald runs a tight ship, with four salespeople on the floor at any given time. He is far from an ideologue more a businessman very familiar with his product. "I don't love guns," Buck says. "I love money."
Years ago, he says, he received a full scholarship to Florida State University. He holds degrees in finance, nursing and hospital administration. If he hadn't returned to Daytona to take over his father's weapons and mayhem-equipment business, he'd have accepted an offer as a hospital administrator at Tulane University.
Buck understands the American shopper's mind better than anyone I've ever met. He knows you want to buy what he's selling, but he also understands his job is to help you to overcome your nagging reservations. Many salesmen I've known have had to resort to dirty tricks to move their product. With guns, it seems, it's just a matter of letting you handle one.
Just to make conversation, I told Buck I was thinking about buying a gun. By the time I left, I couldn't stop thinking about buying a gun. I was fixated on a used AMT .380-caliber Backup.
That night, as I fell asleep, the idea of owning the AMT wouldn't leave me alone. There I was plugging cans; there I was fighting crime; there I was shooting a shark.
When I waltzed back into Buck's, I knew I would walk out with the AMT .380 following the three-day waiting period, of course. For some reason, I still thought it necessary to put Buck through an afternoon's worth of dithering and second-guessing.
Buck didn't see the logic in any of the things I considered "safe."
Buck advised me as a guy with no kids to keep five bullets in the clip and one in the chamber at all times. This meant that the only step between holding my gun and firing was pulling the trigger. Every owner's manual and gun safety pamphlet I've read warns against this. Not Buck.
He put the gun in my pocket and grabbed my arm. "Now how are you gonna shoot me?" he said. There was no way I could. You need two hands to cock a semi-automatic.
He was right. Unless I had my gun on me at all times, with no safety catch, no lock, fully loaded and ready to shoot, it was the worst self-defense weapon imaginable.
I filled out the "I'm-not-a-felon-drug dealer-addict-wife beater-marijuana addict-fugitive from justice" form in good time. Next came the background check. Buck phoned in my name, sex and race to the feds and charged me $5. The whole thing, if you've been a good boy or girl, takes 30 seconds.
But those 30 seconds feel very long. I began to wonder about every time I tossed incorrect change into a tollbooth or ripped the tag off a mattress. No need, though. I passed with flying colors, and paid for the AMT in full.
"I'm gonna bust your cherry here and explain this to you," Buck said, handing over the AMT, then showing me how to clean and load it.
I bought $63 worth of accessories cleaning solution, gun oil ("pure, precious Iraqi petroleum"), two boxes of bullets, a gun bag, and, on my insistence, a gun lock. Buck threw that in for free. He put the whole thing in a brown paper bag and stapled my receipt to the side. It looked like a bag of Chinese takeout.
I put the bag next to me in my car and tried to get used to the odd feeling of having a gun. Everything felt suddenly strange, like I'd been handed special authority to go anywhere and do anything. The police suddenly seemed extraneous; the whole reason for calling them, after all, is to get a guy with a gun to show up.
I drove straight to the public range to take the AMT for a whirl. Buck had given me a little map to a place called the Strickland Shooting Range.
The range was outdoors. When I arrived, the noise was terrible. I got out of my car, stuck my fingers in my ears and approached the foreman. He handed me a pair of orange earplugs and a waiver. They had no eye protection for me.
Shooting at the range cost $2.50. For a dollar more, I got five 10-inch by 10-inch paper targets. I paid for it all in change. A weird crowd of old Jews and rednecks populated the range. Between the cacophony of reports and my total lack of skill I felt like an infant.
As I walked behind the shooters, hot shells flew back and bounced off my head and landed on my sandaled feet. An older man blasted away at an old door with a .44 Magnum. During his down time, he spoke to no one and made tiny notes on his targets, circling and numbering each shot. His head was shaved bare and he wore a red canvas shirt with the sleeves cut off. On the back was a giant bald eagle tearing through some kind of hoop. Under that was a banner: "We need God in America again."
There was an eagle on my box of bullets. Later, I bought a pair of soundproof earmuffs, which had eagles on them too. For some reason, guns and eagles go together.
I set up a target on the 7-meter stand and nervously loaded the gun as Buck had showed me. By the time I squeezed the trigger I was so afraid of death, humiliation and failure that I could barely open my eyes. I decided this was a good thing, considering I was also the only person on the range without some kind of eye protection. Cartridges flew wildly out of my gun inches from my face.
I decided not to even attempt to hit the target, focusing instead on getting used to the feeling of something exploding in my hands. There was no sense of power or authority as I blasted blindly; the experience was horrible. What I really wanted was someone to come over and tell me to stop.
Soon, an elderly man with a heavy Tri-state accent made my day. "What the hell are you doin'?" he asked.
I looked at him, almost in tears. "I think it's clear that I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing, sir."
He told me to go home and get some eye gear. He also told me that my gun was a "piece of crap." He said he'd owned one and thought the bite was terrible. The shell sweeper informed me that the same gun could be had in Port Orange for $100 less than I paid. My hand felt awful, as did my ears. My back felt like it was made of rattan.
On the way out I caught a glimpse of a man I'd seen earlier at Buck's. He was firing a Revolutionary War-style muzzle-loaded rifle at a tree stump.
Buck extended my weeklong trial to two. My second shooting experience was better. Between jams and misfires, I felt empowered. I had eye protection. Best of all, I went to a private indoor range and nobody said a word to me. At the end of a box of shells, I started talking to a guy who had modified his Glock to shoot .22s. He took a shot on the AMT. Indoors, the explosion of the round seemed enormous and there was an impressive muzzle flare with each shot.
"Wow," he said, chuckling. "That's freakin' awesome." I was pleased.
Through the soundproof observation glass, I watched a hipster blast away at a picture of what looked like an old woman. I sifted through the piles of targets and found that the old woman was actually an old man in a tweed coat and thick glasses. I nicknamed him Erwin.
There were two versions of Erwin. In one, Erwin clutches a semi-automatic; in the other, he holds a collapsible umbrella. I shot both of them.
The AMT jammed three times in my hands and misfired once. A jam is about the scariest thing imaginable. You see a bullet lodged in the chamber, just stuck there. Your task becomes to somehow dislodge it. My manual suggests a wooden dowel or stick. In lieu of a dowel, the unofficial range master used his fingers and the word "daggum."
In a misfire, the hammer strikes the bullet and nothing happens. In both cases, I felt like I was trying to figure out whether to cut the blue wire or the green one. It seemed at any moment that the shell would explode.
When I got back in the car I did not feel empowered. I felt ripped off.
I'd seen my life flash before my eyes many times in the past hour and for what? To put holes in Erwin? What kind of sick goon designed that thing anyhow? (By the way, during rain, don't let your elderly relatives outdoors with an umbrella of any kind. This nation's gun owners have been subliminally conditioned to shoot them on sight.)
The AMT jammed one too many times. Being a man of his word, Buck took back the gun and offered me full store credit toward another piece. I didn't quite know what I wanted. After an hour of gawking, I narrowed it down to a used Kel-Tec .32-caliber ACP and a sweet-ass Smith & Wesson .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver.
Buck was an impeccable salesman. He'd do things like making analogies between cheap socks and cheap bullets: "They just don't feel right, do they?" He'd mention having been "robbed, tied-up-naked robbed" in college. The possibility of robbery and rape always came up in the strangest ways with Buck.
But the biggest part of his pitch was in reminding me that I was perpetually defenseless. When I left Buck's Gun Rack after returning the jammed AMT for good, I felt tied-up naked. What the hell was I going to do? How would I get through another waiting period? How could I make this decision?
The revolver was more money, the Kel-Tec was less. The revolver was more powerful than the AMT; the Kel-Tec was less powerful. The revolver held fewer bullets than the AMT; the Kel-Tec held more. The revolver would never jam; the Kel-Tec might.
I spent hours on the Internet, reading about both, and it just made things more confusing. I didn't just need a gun anymore; I needed a gun with stopping power. I needed a gun that was compact and easily concealed. I needed a gun that wouldn't jam on me in a firefight. I needed a gun that was accurate. I needed a gun that looked mean.
"What's the advantage of blue steel over stainless?" I asked Buck, pointing to two identical Kel-Tecs: one with a shiny barrel, the other with a black one.
"Nothin'," answered Buck. Then he asked me if I had acid sweat. "Do you get yellow spots on the armpits of your white T-shirts?"
"Well then, you'll want to keep a light coating of oil on your blue steel, it's less rustproof."
"Well, what's the advantage?"
"I'd go with blue steel," Buck answered.
"Because, if I pull a stainless steel gun out of my pocket you're gonna see it coming. Lemme put it this way: If I'm gonna sucker-punch you, or sucker-shoot you, am I gonna want you to see it coming?"
Turns out I also needed a gun that would shoot someone before they knew they were about to be shot. Where did any of these needs come from? From my imagination. All kinds of paranoid scenarios come up when you buy a gun, and they don't stop inventing themselves.
I told Buck I'd take a few days to decide what I wanted, but the idea of sitting through another waiting period was unacceptable. I was back within three hours. He did not seem surprised to see me.
"It's funny," I said. "Once you have a gun, it's really hard to be without one."
"Yeah," he said. "Isn't that funny?"
After 20 minutes of waffling, I bought the Kel-Tec for $289.
Throughout most of my gun ordeal, I told myself that I would return the thing once the experiment was over. That notion has come and gone. Now I'm a good enough shot to hit Erwin on the chin from 50 yards. I visited the Cocoa Beach factory where my gun was made and took a tour while they repaired it. The company was founded by the same Swede who invented the infamous Tec-9. Everyone at Kel-Tec seemed like one big, happy family. The factory was pleasant; it was basically a room full of pretty local girls putting together sub-rifles and pistols by the cartload. Willy Wonka would have blushed.
I am now a gun owner and probably will be for the rest of my life. My Kel-Tec has found its way into my daily equipment wallet, cell phone, gun and I never leave home without it. Tucked behind my driver's license is my Florida CCW.
My gun likely causes me more problems than it's worth. During most of my day, it is annoying, distracting and downright illegal. (My CCW is void in bars, schools, school events, national forests, police stations, court, sporting events, polling places and Buck's Gun Rack.) I often wish someone would just steal it.
Barring that, I don't know what it would take to part me from this weapon. It seems few people are willing to give up their guns once they have them. They are hard to take firstname.lastname@example.org