The woman taking tickets asked whether I was carrying a gun. She called me “Sir” in a tone calibrated to let me know I was welcome here at the Florida Gun Show. I assured her I was not carrying a weapon. She took my ticket and motioned for me to go around the man in front of me, who did have a gun. The man had to show that his gun was unloaded and that he was not carrying loose ammunition. The ticket taker took the man’s gun and secured it with a plastic tie strap, checking it twice before handing it back.
At the gun show I attended in Orlando last month, there was strict gun control.
Inside, atop nearly 600 tables, an array of handguns, shotguns, assault rifles, and ammunition formed a tidy metallic sea. A gawky white man with his hair tucked behind his ears walked me along his table. He held the handguns cupped in his hands like they were baby birds. He offered up a dozen like this, in succession, until I finally accepted one. It was a Remington RM380, a lethal little thing designed to fit in a purse. A two-hour class was starting in 20 minutes, for a concealed-carry permit that would allow me to walk around with the semiautomatic pistol secreted away in my pocket.
The day before, Donald Trump had accepted the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, a redundancy given the array of “Trump for President” and “Trump Army” T-shirts on sale at the Orlando gun show. A vendor of “Ladies If Your Man Doesn’t Know How to Fire a Gun You Have a Girlfriend” T-shirts chatted with an Orlando police officer about George Zimmerman’s attempt earlier in the week to sell the gun he had used to kill Trayvon Martin. The officer thought the handgun itself, a Kel-Tec PF-9, was a “piece of shit,” but that Zimmerman was “a good guy” for pledging the proceeds to “stop Hillary.” For the same price as the girlfriend T-shirt ($12) the adjoining table offered a roll of toilet paper with Hillary Clinton’s face printed on it.
Across town, meanwhile, the president of an Orlando-based evangelical Christian law office, Liberty Counsel, had recently announced that she would be carrying her Glock .45 into Target bathrooms. Liberty Counsel’s Anita Staver is best known for representing Kim Davis when the Kentucky county clerk refused to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Now she says she needs her Glock to protect herself from “perverts” who would take advantage of Target’s newly announced trans-friendly bathroom policies.
At the time, I found Orlando’s miasma of gun mania, gender anxiety, and homophobia bizarre and unpleasant, but more amusing than alarming. Three weeks later, a few miles from the fairgrounds hosting the gun show, off-duty security guard Omar Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle to shoot more than 100 people at the gay nightclub Pulse, killing 49. For days, I watched the photos of the dead scroll across my screen, a heart-crushing pageant of young, beautiful, brown-skinned queens and queers.