The never-ending debate on guns is often polarized by simple-minded perceptions that reduce arguments to two camps: Gun-control types who “want to take your guns away,” and gun zealots who want a gun in every pot, pocket and pew. The reality is not so stark, and local gun shop owners in Flagler County are first to show why.
With the discussion of gun control and gun rights provoking more discussions than foreign affairs this election season, FlaglerLive spoke to three store owners who hold different views on many aspects of the debate, though one thing they all agree on is that the gun sales business in Florida is doing very well.
“I think everybody is doing well because gun violence has been in the news lately and a lot of people are worried,” said Larry Beighle, a dealer and co-owner of Larry’s Guns and Ammo on South State Street in Bunnell. “You’ve got a lot of folks moving down here who are looking for protection for themselves and for their families and homes.”
Palm Coast City Councilman Steven Nobile owned HSDS Guns in Palm Coast until the end of 2015 before closing it in order to become a wholesale manufacturer of gun holsters. He said business was always brisk for him last year.
“The only problems for us, sales-wise, would come when the federal rhetoric kicks in, the gun issue becomes politicized, people talk about banning weapons, and then the biggest dealers buy up all the supply,” Nobile said. “The big guys in our business create a shortage and drive up the prices.”
Robert Weidig, who owns a gunsmith shop bearing his name on Utility Drive in Palm Coast, said he sees “furious buys” by customers periodically.
“They move down from New York or New Jersey and learn how much easier it is to buy a gun here,” Weidig said.
And it is. Not only does Florida have lax gun-buying laws–you don’t need a permit to own or buy a rifle, a shotgun or handgun, a concealed carry permit is easily secured for $60 or renewed for $50 (the fees were just lowered by $10), and this is the state that pioneered the “stand your ground” doctrine, allowing individuals to shoot first and ask questions later in certain circumstances–but the state goes out of its way to make it easier for Floridians to carry guns, while Adam Putnam, the commissioner of agriculture who oversees gun regulations, has periodically celebrated his tenure’s unprecedented growth in concealed-carry permits: some 1.5 million Floridians have a permit.
Even though crime in the state is at a four-decade low, the owners say that the biggest reason new customers come in looking to purchase a gun is safety, with Weidig saying he’s been seeing more and more women come into his store. There are some who come into the store as hunters, Beighle said, but most react to situations such as the racially motivated mass shooting of nine black people in Charleston by Dylann Roof last June or the mass-shooting by a Muslim couple in San Bernardino in December, which left 14 dead and 22 injured, and get frightened.
Nobile added that he saw a surge last year in customers seeking concealed weapons permits. Such surges have typically happened immediately after broadly publicized mass shootings, and after the two elections of Barack Obama.
“The fear doesn’t seem as pronounced as it once was, but as soon as something like (San Bernardino) happens you see more coming in talking about safety,” Beighle said.
Fears can backfire. Last week a Palm Coast man was jailed after started shooting his gun in his backyard canal. That day there’d been a murder at his wife’s workplace–the Putnam County Health Department–and he’d been unable to reach her by phone because of a lock-down and what appears to be authorities’ inappropriate ban on calls in and out from employees. He got worried. He wanted to ensure that next time his wife was armed so she could protect herself. But he ended up facing an aggravated assault charge for inappropriately wielding the gun. Arrests for gun infractions are almost routine in Flagler County.
If in legal circles, in newspaper columns, social media and blogs the debate carries on regarding the meaning of the Second Amendment, Gallup polls have show a relatively steady consensus in two fundamental regards: while 55 percent of Americans favor stricter gun control, the Second Amendment’s more recent interpretation as protecting an individual right to bear arms is supported by 73 percent of Americans. So while the push for more gun regulations, however unsuccessful, is likely to continue, the Second Amendment itself is quite safe.
When it comes to gun safety and regulations, the local gun-business owners begin to disagree. Weidig believes that federally-mandated background checks “are a total waste of time.”
“The 4473 form from the Brady bill is just a paper chase, and it gives the ATF something to do,” he said, referring to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “If anyone thinks background checks are stopping crime, they’re very foolish. People can get guns any way they want and the background check doesn’t stop them.”
Nobile felt that while background checks were a good idea, allowing person-to-person sales of guns at gun shows, long a hot topic in the gun control debate, was wrong.
“It’s not at all difficult in Florida to get a weapon, because if somebody comes into my store and the background check comes back negative, they can go to CraigsList or the Pennysaver and buy from an individual,” Nobile said. “If you want to do something that will have an effect, I think that would have an effect, not letting those transactions happen.”
Beighle agreed that in addition to doing a background check on every gun sold in Florida, enforcing existing laws is as important.
And all three owners interviewed believe maybe the biggest problem they see with gun owners now is lack of safety training.
“If someone passes a background check, there’s no requirement for training, even though we offer a one-day training for customers,” Beighle said.
“We’ve got way too many people running around the streets of Florida not knowing how to use their weapons, and it leads to problems,” Nobile said. “Most of them get their permit and don’t use it, but in my opinion every person should have to take a firearms safety course before buying a gun. You take a test, show that you can use the weapon carefully and safely, and then you can buy the gun.
“We put in regulations for being able to drive a car,” Nobile added, “why wouldn’t you do that for firearms?”
But that’s not required under Florida law, as it is required in about half the states.
Weidig, who taught gun safety courses for more than 20 years, agrees that safety training is adequate, but isn’t concerned about the number of guns in Florida.
“Too many guns? You can never have enough guns,” Weidig said. “There aren’t enough guns in Florida right now.”
One part of the gun debate that comes up all the time in the Florida legislature is open carry laws. As of 2016, 45 states have some version or semblance of an open carry law, allowing those with permits to display their weapons openly.
Florida is one of five states where most forms of open carry regulations are banned. The issue came up most recently in February, when a bill allowing open-carry (HB 163) passed the House but was tabled in the Senate by Senate Judiciary Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami). (An earlier version of the story had incorrectly reported that all open carry is banned: in fact, certain allowances are made for hunters and others in restricted circumstances.)
All of the Flagler gun shop owners agreed open carry was a bad idea.
“I don’t understand the purpose of it, honestly,” Nobile said. “If someone has an open weapons permit, and if a gun accidentally shows while someone’s walking down the street and a police officer sees the gun, they have to do something about it. But if you’re legally carrying that gun, you shouldn’t have to worry about being harassed by sheriff’s and deputies.”
Weidig was even more vehement in his rejection of open carry.
“We have a lot of retirees down here and they put a gun on their hip and feel strong but have no idea what they’re doing with that gun,” Weidig said. “If I were a bad guy and saw someone flashing a gun, I wouldn’t even need one of my own. I’d take theirs and do what I wanted to do.”
Aside from opposing open carry, the local owners felt that Florida’s laws are sensible. They don’t see a reason to change them, or add more.
“Florida is doing it right, and I think it’s just a matter of enforcing some of the current laws,” Beighle said. “But I’ve got no problem with what the laws are now.”