In Florida, It’s Often Shoot First, Learn The Law Later
Earlier this month, I laid out $60 at a gun store in Orlando to take the firearms course required for a license to carry a concealed weapon.
Rieg’s Gun Shop and Range is located in a squat cinderblock building, between the Baby Dolls strip club and The Royal bar. Inside, a long-haired cat lounged on a glass display case that held used semi-automatic pistols. Rifles and shotguns hung on a wall, and there were novelty paper targets for sale near the indoor range. One featured Osama bin Laden; another showed a woman brandishing a tequila bottle in one hand and an automatic handgun in the other.
The store manager helped me through the paperwork, and then notarized the application himself. He had the casual demeanor of a surfer, with blond hair and a backwards baseball cap.
“Occupation?” he asked.
“Journalist,” I said. I told him I wanted to see how easy it was to get a concealed-carry permit in Florida.
“Pretty freaking easy,” he said in a slow drawl as he filled in the form.
More than 900,000 people are currently licensed to carry concealed firearms in Florida—including, until recently, George Zimmerman, who in February shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager he felt was behaving suspiciously. Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, has claimed that the shooting was in self-defense, and invoked the state’s now-infamous Stand Your Ground law. Because of that law he was not immediately arrested, leading to a national furor centered largely on issues of race. But now that Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder, much of the legal focus will likely shift toward self-defense laws such as Stand Your Ground. Specifically, when is the use of deadly force justified?
I hoped to learn more about this in my class at Rieg’s Gun Shop, but there wasn’t any instruction at all. Together with three other students, I moved straight from filling out paperwork to firing a pistol. A store clerk, who functioned as the range officer and the “instructor,” handed us plastic shooting glasses and protective ear muffs. He told us to pick up a loaded Glock 19, fire two rounds at a target, and put the gun back down. I hit the center of the target with both rounds, which wasn’t hard; it was only five yards away.
By the time the shooting was done, my certificate was already printed. “Aram Roston has completed Firearms Safety Training,” it said. To get my concealed-carry license, I need to send the certificate, along with an application, photo, and fingerprints, to the division of licensing at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. I was told it can take up to several months to get the actual license back in the mail.
In the wake of the Martin killing, it is worth asking just how well Zimmerman—not to mention anyone else licensed to carry a gun in public places—understands Florida’s self-defense and gun laws.
Even though that wasn’t taught at Rieg’s, on one counter, over the used revolvers, a book was displayed for sale: Florida Firearms: Law, Use, and Ownership. Considered the Florida gun-owners’ bible, the book is in its seventh edition. At $31.50, it has sold 160,000 copies. I arranged to meet its author, Jon Gutmacher, for coffee the next day.
We met at a local Starbucks, where I learned that Gutmacher carries not only a concealed firearm but also a Taser, which he took out of his pocket and briefly balanced on the table. It looked a bit like an electric razor.
When I pointed out that the cover photo of his book portrays a Kel-Tec PF-9—the same weapon Zimmerman used to shoot Martin—Gutmacher did a double take. “Son of a bitch!” he said, at no one in particular.
Though Gutmacher is an impassioned advocate for gun rights, he believes there’s a serious knowledge gap when it comes to the law. "Too many people don't have the training,” he said. “You don't assimilate the law from thin air!”
For example, he said, people don’t realize that absent an “imminent threat,” simply reaching for your handgun, or showing off that you are carrying it, is illegal. Brandishing a gun can get you charged with “aggravated assault,” which carries a three-year minimum prison sentence.
It’s rarely simple. “If someone says ‘I’m going to punch you, you son of a bitch,’” Gutmacher said, it’s probably legal to pull out a firearm and say, “‘Don’t try it!’” Still, he said, some prosecutors might consider that aggravated assault.
But “if you actually go and punch me in the nose, and I shoot you,” he said, “I’ve committed manslaughter, because I’ve used excessive force.”
As for warning shots—fired into the air or at the ground—they are a legal no-no. In Florida a warning shot carries a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence.
The irony is that if Zimmerman had merely displayed his weapon to Martin, or if he had fired shots in the air, he could be subject to a lengthy prison term. But under Stand Your Ground, actually killing an unarmed person can, in some cases, be legal.
Prof. Mary Anne Franks, who teaches law at the University of Miami, suspects that even detailed knowledge of Stand Your Ground might not help clarify things, or minimize shootings.
“Our laws are not written for clarity, but this is a particularly confusing statute,” she told The Daily Beast, adding that Stand Your Ground has been applied in unpredictable and inconsistent ways.
Earlier this year, a Miami judge ruled it was a justifiable use of deadly force when a man chased down and stabbed a suspected thief to death, because the suspect had swung a bag of radios at the man’s head. In contrast, when a 31-year-old woman named Marissa Alexander fired a gun in her own home during an altercation with her husband, who no longer lived there, her Stand Your Ground defense claim was rejected. Last week Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison, even though the round she fired injured no one.
Zimmerman’s case could turn on another idiosyncrasy in Florida law—a nuanced provision related to who provokes a deadly confrontation. The law states that a defendant can’t “stand his ground” and use deadly force if he “initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself.” Prosecutors will almost surely argue that Zimmerman provoked the confrontation with Martin, and for that reason is unprotected by the law.
But even that is open to interpretation: What does it mean to “provoke” force? Can it be taunting? Pushing? Must it be physical?
Prof. George R. "Bob" Dekle of the University of Florida says Stand Your Ground’s “provoke” language is intended to prevent someone from “engineering” a self-defense case—that is, provoking an enemy into committing violence just to kill him. But beyond that, he said, the meaning of the term isn’t clear.
Even the “provocation” exemption has loopholes. A shooter like Zimmerman, legal experts say, can still plead self-defense even if he provoked the confrontation, so long as he reasonably believed he was “in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm” and did his best to retreat once the violence began.
Zimmerman has told police he fired his gun only when Martin was straddling and hitting him. If a jury believes this account, Franks said, “then obviously you can't retreat and you may need to resort to lethal violence.”
Not every gun store in Florida is as lax about training as Rieg’s was. Although it's not required, some stores highlight the legal and moral concerns inherent in carrying a firearm before giving out certificates.
At the Oak Ridge Gun Range, also in Orlando, a class for concealed-carry applications runs three hours and includes a video. “Life is not Hollywood,” intones the narrator, “and the good guys and bad guys are hard to tell apart.” The day I watched the class, two applicants were getting briefed by the store’s owner, John Harvey. “If you can run away, crawl away, drive away, walk away from the situation without having to shoot someone, obviously that’s what you want,” Harvey told them.
A week after getting my certificate, I called Reig's with some follow-up questions. Chuck McCulley, who identified himself as a co-owner of the store, said he had heard about my visit and apologized for the lack of training I’d received. He said that no one should get a concealed-carry permit without adequate training in either gun safety or the law, and told me that the manager who had overseen my training didn't work at the store anymore.
“We’re covered legally,” McCulley added, “but ethically I think we’re wrong. I have fixed the problem and it will never happen again.”