Florida, the 'Gunshine State,' tries on new role: gun-control bellwether

Florida has long been a testing ground for expansion of gun rights. With the gun industry facing its first serious headwinds in two decades, experts say shifts in perception and policy in Florida could, once again, lead the way.

Mark Wallheiser/AP
Florida Gov. Rick Scott signs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act in the governor's office at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 9. Among the measures, it raised the legal age to buy a gun to 21, limited high capacity magazines, and banned bump stocks.

Jake Decardenas, a Daytona Beach 20-year-old, may not have had his gun taken away. But his attempt to buy a BB gun for his younger brother at Walmart the other day failed.

He is one among tens of thousands of young Floridians who had their gun rights curtailed in March in a state that, to a large extent, has defined the modern American gun rights movement.

For Mr. Decardenas, the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland has prompted a personal reconsideration: notably that it is important to him that the state restrict gun purchasing more – even though that may drive some purchases underground.

"I'm not sure restricting guns for people my age is going to help, but it could," he says. "On some level, it makes sense."

Polls and interviews suggest Decardenas is not an outlier when it comes to being open to new restrictions. The Parkland tragedy jarred many Floridians. The state is at the heart of America's gun movement, with booming gun manufacturing, liberal gun laws, and a cultural reverence for the Second Amendment.

But the Parkland shooting – and the election of Donald Trump – is subtly changing the political dynamics even on the Gun Coast, where nearly 700 gun manufacturers hold licenses to build custom weaponry. Florida has long been a testing ground for expansion of gun rights. With the gun industry facing its first serious headwinds in two decades, experts say shifts in perception and policy in Florida could, once again, lead the way.

"Florida has been the petri dish for a lot of pro-gun legislation that has blossomed [here] and then been transplanted to other states," says Republican lobbyist John "Mac" Stipanovich, who goes to work at the Tallahassee capitol building armed with a concealed 9 mm pistol.

Given what is happening here in Florida, that could mean that the NRA "has reached the end of its rope," he says.

Indeed, Florida's own high-schoolers launched the national movement that has marched right over the expected script in America's gun debate, with several million protesters taking part in more than 800 March for Our Lives events on March 24. And, in the wake of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, some Floridians are now seriously mulling whether, after years of loosening rules on gun possession and use, the US has overshot the bounds of the Second Amendment, which guarantees a "well-regulated" militia that, according to the US Supreme Court, extends to individual gun owners.

For one, the post-Parkland soul-searching pushed Florida's Republican lawmakers, 91 percent of whom enjoyed an A rating from the NRA, to pass a gun control package that went beyond symbolism, including raising the minimum age of purchase from 18 to 21, instituting a three-day waiting period, and banning so-called bump stocks.

Lynne Sladky/AP/FILE
Jorge Corbato, owner of Nebulous Ordnance, works on shortening the barrel of an AR-15 rifle, Tuesday, April 9, 2013, in Miami. Mr. Corbato is a gun manufacturer who custom builds AR-15 rifles, services guns, and restores historic pieces for museums and collectors. Since the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown, Conn., Corbato says the supply for components needed to build the AR-15 has gone down, while prices have gone up.

Over the long term, that shift may be limited in scope. Yet facing midterm elections  in November that could hinge on gun control, Florida's shifting stance means its leading-edge work in spreading a gun rights ideology over the past two decades may now become more synonymous with a broader reining-in of how – and even which – guns are sold and used in the US.

Among the states that have passed gun-control laws in the weeks since the Parkland massacre, Florida's measures were both the largest and the only ones passed by a Republican-led legislature and signed by a Republican governor. Other states, such as Washington and Oregon, also passed new legislation that banned bump stocks and made it harder for a person with a restraining order to buy a gun, respectively.

In some ways, the shift in Florida is the saga of a Southern culture confronting some of its most deeply-held beliefs and traditions – and, in some cases, changing them.

According to a recent national poll by Public Policy Polling, 64 percent of respondents supported banning assault-style weapons, including 49 percent of Republicans. Forty percent of Republicans rejected the idea outright. The US had an assault weapons ban from 1994 to 2004.

Through her statewide polling at the University of South Florida, veteran Florida-watcher Susan MacManus says those attitudes are reflected in Florida, as well.

"Florida is split in two: the northern piece, where guns are entertainment and food, and urban areas, where they are about [protecting oneself from] violence," says Professor McManus. "The change among gun owners now, especially women, is that they no longer believe that the average American needs to have a military-level assault weapon."

That shift has been accentuated as gun manufacturers in the US and Florida are experiencing what could be called "peak gun."

The 'gun coast'

Port Orange lies in the heart of Florida's easterly "Fun Coast." "Gun coast" is equally fitting. Gun culture bumper stickers like "We the People 2.0" and "Assault Life" – a play on the coastal "Salt Life" meme, but with a silhouette of an AR-15 – are fairly common.

The "gun coast" is an amalgam of attitudes, beliefs and culture that mirror the rest of Florida. There are more than 1.8 million concealed-carry permit-holders in the state, a trend leader as such permits have exploded to more than 15 million in the US. And Florida pioneered the "stand your ground" movement that removed the duty to retreat from conflict that threatened bodily harm. Twenty-three other states – from New Hampshire to Arizona – followed suit.

The gun business has also exploded under Gov. Rick Scott, quadrupling since 2009 to 691 manufacturers across the state. The coastal counties – Broward, Brevard, and Volusia among them – lead the way.

Florida "is often the first place the NRA pursues specific gun rights protections," former ACLU attorney David Cole writes in "Engines of Liberty."

But given what Mr. Stipanovich calls "atmospherics" around the role of the Second Amendment in American life, it has also been the place where the limits of gun rights have been defined by interpersonal violence.

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen who committed no crime, was killed here in 2012 by a resident named George Zimmerman, setting off a national debate about race, guns, and "stand your ground" laws. The state saw the Orlando Pulse shooting in 2016 – at the time the worst mass shooting in America. That was followed by a mass killing at Fort Lauderdale Airport, and, now, the Parkland massacre, where 17 high school students and teachers were killed by a former student who attacked the building with an AR-15, the technology for which has been pioneered in part by skilled Florida machinists.

Some Floridians, including a ropy "half-Sicilian, half-Cherokee" native named Heather Pignato, believe the guns are necessary beyond self-defense – to defense of nation in a constitutional crisis.

"The citizenry has to have equal firepower," says Ms. Pignato. "I am no fan of government. That's how you keep it in check."

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Heather Pignato, breaking down her flea market stand in Port Orange, Fla., on March 28. Ms. Pignato says she is a firm supporter of the Second Amendment as a check on government.

But despite such antigovernment attitudes – low taxes and expansive gun rights go hand-in-hand here – the combination of a growing body count and vulnerable people like high school students speaking out have given many Floridians pause, says Adam Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

"Frankly, [what's happening in Florida] fits into a huge historical challenge," says Dr. Lankford, author of a 2015 study called "Mass Shooters, Firearms, and Social Strains: A Global Analysis of an Exceptionally American Problem." "This is bigger than just guns and just America. We started with sticks and stones and we've continued to improve the technology of killing ever since. What do you do about that when one person composes a bigger threat to lots of people as technology becomes more sophisticated? There has to be some sort of limit to that."

'I'm tired of the politics'

At a manufacturing space in a Deland Airport industrial park, Jim Jusick's Tactical Machining was spinning out millions of dollars worth of weapons during the Obama years.

He was an "80 percent" purveyor. That means his shop produced the "receivers" that make up the "actual part that goes boom" in a gun, as Mr. Jusick puts it.

By assembling the last 20 percent of the gun themselves, owners are not legally required to have a serial number. In that way, Jusick helped pioneer how to create a legal but untraceable weapon, that had the bonus of being preferred by soldiers the world over.

The machining shops, usually set up in airport industrial parks, have names like Kel-Tec, SCCY, and Knight's Armament in Titusville, which advertises a "commercial" rifle with a "drop-in, two-stage trigger ... enabling surgical speed shooting at close range."

Florida's gun-buying more than doubled from about 350,000 in 2005 to about 885,000 a year by 2016, leading an American trend.

But after revving up manufacturing in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton presidency and facing, under Trump, a "hyper-saturated" market, demand has plunged. The iconic gunmaker Remington Arms recently filed bankruptcy.

Smaller manufacturers are even more vulnerable says Jusick. "The black rifle type market has basically been destroyed," he says.

Once a rising star among Florida's prolific gunmakers, Jusick has left the trade and his old shop behind. He now machines custom boat propellers.

"I'm tired of the politics, the constant highs and lows," says Jusick, a former police officer and SWAT team member. "Things have definitely shifted. Now you've got the president supporting some of this crap. It is very disheartening to a lot of conservatives ... who will now say, 'Why should I even bother to vote?' "

The national implications of gun control in Florida

From her office in Tallahassee, Marion Hammer, the NRA's most powerful lobbyist, finds herself in an unfamiliar position in the "gunshine state": on the defensive.

The septuagenarian's massive get-out-the vote list has steered politics in Florida for decades, with legislators clamoring to sign onto the bills she has written. For her work advancing constitutional freedoms she has received plaudits from Mr. Cole, the civil liberties advocate. She wrote the state's Stand Your Ground law.

 In 2016, Hammer suffered a small defeat when GOP lawmakers agreed to beef up the stand your ground law, but not before removing a section of Hammer's bill that would have remunerated those who claimed self-defense in a shooting but still had to go through the legal process to be found not guilty.

That small act of legislative defiance came into sharper focus this year as Ms. Hammer failed to stop the gun control package. Instead of turning to legislators, she turned to lawyers to comb the language. Florida's gun control package "has national implications," she told the Tampa Bay Times. She did not respond to a request for an interview with the Monitor..

That dynamic leaves especially Republicans struggling to find a middle ground between a pro-Second Amendment base and an increasingly diverse electorate, caused both by immigration and the Gen X and Millennial generations, which now make up 47 percent of Florida voters.

The debate will rage into the primaries and general election, with national implications. Governor Scott is expected to announce his candidacy for the Senate, at a time with both Republicans and Democrats coalescing around gun control as a campaign issue and a razor-thin Republican majority in the Senate.

"The races are big and Florida is of course very purple, where statewide elections hang on a knife's edge – 10,000 votes here or there – and the thing that may be changing is the situation in which the Republicans might be hoisted by their own petard in 2018," says Stipanovich, the Republican lobbyist. "It is intriguing and perhaps a little bit of poetic justice: having fostered, enabled, and exploited [the gun culture], they are now stuck with it."

'I voted for Scott. I never will again.'

Outside a Port Orange gun-assembly plant with a gun shop storefront, a tall Trump voter named Rick agrees to talk, under one condition: No last name, given his concern that the new atmosphere could get his name "pinged" if it shows up in a newspaper article.

He says he wouldn't put a "gun grab" outside the bounds of liberal activists, who he sees as licking their chops at Florida's new openness toward gun control.

The gun control concessions, he is convinced, will be short-lived. But he admits to feeling the ground shift. His connections to the Republican Party are rapidly fraying.

President Trump's hemming and hawing on gun control reform struck gun rights advocates as weakening their cause. Scott's decision to sign the gun control package stung. That, plus what he sees as a Republican retreat on abortion issues, led to a decision by Rick.

"I voted for Scott. I never will again," he says. "And I just went out to the driveway last night and scratched the 'Trump/Pence' sticker off my truck bumper."

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