ORLANDO, FLORIDA — Orlando is dotted with lakes and splashy roadside attractions—Disney World, Gatorland, the intensely strange evangelical theme park Holy Land Experience—but on a recent weekday morning, the weirdest sideshow in town was just east of downtown, at an upscale biker bar. Upstairs, next to a huddle of video game machines and a pool table, a specific tableau played out, almost exactly how it was supposed to: A woman in a sequined, star-spangled cowboy hat beamed and waved a campaign sign. A few guys in Bikers for Trump motorcycle cuts milled around. A man in a t-shirt reading “Americans Are Dreamers too” stood stolidly in the middle of the floor, looking at nothing in particular. They were all filmed assiduously by an army of TV cameras. In the background, Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” played, well below party volumes.
“Everyone cheer up!” a young volunteer suddenly roared, from the back of the room. “The governor is coming!”
Florida Governor Rick Scott bounded around a corner into view, clad in a blue-checked button-down shirt. He smiled with every one of his many teeth. His bald pate shined. Striding in behind him were his wife Ann, followed by Congressman Ron DeSantis, Scott’s heir apparent to the Florida gubernatorial throne, wearing a blue button-down shirt and black cowboy boots, and then DeSantis’s wife Casey, in a snow-white jumpsuit. They all looked delighted, as though stepping into the middle of a wonderful surprise party, instead of a well-planned “unity rally” for Florida Republican candidates.
“Governor Scott!” a woman suddenly boomed from the back of the room. “My son is asking a question and you’ve ignored him!” She gestured to her teenage son, who was next to her in a wheelchair, using a keyboard to type out a question: “Governor Scott, why did you take away all the money for disability services?” he said, through the keyboard. “You stopped my mother from getting healthcare too.”
DeSantis and Scott both have the smooth, well-rested, poreless look unique to Florida politicians. Seeing that the protesters were about to create some very bad optics, they both smiled just a bit harder and looked anywhere but at them. Scott raised his voice to be heard over theirs.
“Democrats,” he told the room conversationally. “They can’t get a group of people together, so they have to come to our rallies.”
The woman was Alison Holmes of Longwood, and she was there with her son J.J., who is severely disabled. They were protesting Scott’s decision not to accept a Medicaid expansion, thereby making their lives a lot harder. Led by Scott, the crowd chanted “USA! USA!” to cover up the sound of their voices.
The Holmes family was hustled out the door by police and the rally resumed. Scott promised, without any evident sense of irony, to protect Medicare. He talked about the economy. And then he warned about a “radical program” being pushed by the Democratic candidate for governor, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. “That radical program has another name,” he assured the audience, darkly. “Socialism.”
Luckily, Scott was there to introduce the man who’d save the room from Gillum and from the looming specter of radical programs of any kind: “The next governor of the great state of Florida,” he cried, “Ron DeSantis!”
DeSantis stepped up to the mic. “I’m a veteran,” he told everyone. They cheered. “I’m a father. And I’m the capitalist candidate for governor of the state of Florida!” The cheers were louder than ever.
For all its enthusiasm, the “unity rally” was largely striking for the things it left unsaid. DeSantis and a small raft of other Republican candidates and career politicians talked about the following things: progress, job creation, the military (they’re for them), radicalism, anti-Israel sentiment (opposed) and crime (same). Nobody mentioned—there was not one word about—what promises to be one of the most bitter and pronounced issues of the governor’s race: gun reform. What Floridians decide to do in this election will serve as a referendum on how they want to handle gun violence in their state, and where Florida goes is an indicator, perhaps, of how far any state is willing to go.
For a variety of reasons, Florida—jokingly and sometimes bitterly dubbed “the Gunshine State”—has been hit particularly hard by mass shootings. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 people died, and, two years earlier, the one at Pulse nightclub, where 49 people died, both happened there. Between the two, there were 51 other mass shootings, in which 118 people died and 280 were injured. (A mass shooting is defined as one in which four or more people, not including the shooter, are killed.)
The deaths keep coming. Some incidents are widely publicized, like the one in late August when—in an incident that wouldn’t quite meet that “mass shooting” definition—a shooter at a Jacksonville video game tournament killed two people before killing himself. Others are quieter, yet no less ghastly: in June, in an incident that barely saw any news coverage outside the state, a gunman with a long history of domestic violence barricaded himself into an apartment with his girlfriend’s four children, two of whom were also his. He killed all four of them before shooting himself. It was the day before the two-year anniversary of the Pulse shooting.
The official legislative responses have been, as they tend to be, tepid and occasionally absurd. After the Jacksonville shooting, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi managed to blame the incident on video games. Florida laws don’t require or even explicitly allow the court-ordered removal of firearms from a domestic abuser with a protective order filed against him. In this case, the gunman reportedly inherited the ones he used in the attack from his own father, and they were never confiscated from him despite the fact that he was a convicted felon with a documented history of abuse. The murders didn’t result in any changes to state law.
There have been, of course, a few changes—not after Pulse, whose victims were mostly LGBTQ young adults of color, but after Parkland, a tragedy that touched whiter and wealthier families. (There’s also the fact that the Pulse shooter declared his allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call mid-attack, turning the incident into a terrorist attack. Though both men used legally purchased semi-automatic rifles, the change in motive undoubtedly changed the way the attack was publicly discussed.)
The Florida State legislature passed a package of gun reforms in March, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a bill that Scott signed into law in one of his few and most visible breaks with the NRA. The bill raised the age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21, created a three-day waiting period (with a few exceptions), banned the bump stocks that allow rifles to fire faster, and allowed some school staff to be armed. (The NRA immediately sued over the provision raising the age of rifle purchases to 21. The suit is ongoing.)
“It was a very mild bill,” says Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who since 2016 has represented Florida’s District 49, which covers Orlando. Smith, an outspoken progressive community activist, introduced no fewer than 10 amendments—“every conceivable thing you can think of”—to try to make the bill stricter: calling for universal background checks in the state, an outright ban on assault weapons, stricter rules for concealed carry permit holders, even an amendment that would’ve required stores that sell guns to lock up their firearms overnight. (Stolen guns from Florida gun stores fuel a black market both in the state and beyond.) Every one of his amendments failed.
“They rejected everything,” he says, “but then claimed credit for responding ‘so quickly’ after Parkland. It was six years ago that 21 first graders were murdered in their classroom [in Sandy Hook, Connecticut] and you just shrugged your shoulders. So, no, I don’t think they responded to Parkland very quickly. They didn’t respond quickly, because two years prior, 49 mostly LGBTQ people of color were murdered at Pulse and they didn’t do jack shit.”
Nonetheless, Smith says he’s not discouraged. “We’ve seen a tremendous number of young people who have registered to vote and who are energized about voting for the first time,” he says. “They care about gun violence. And they’re going to make their decisions based off who’s interested in addressing this epidemic.”
In April, Smith endorsed Andrew Gillum, throwing himself into one of the most fascinating midterm races anywhere in the United States. The governor’s race here has already been heavily covered by the national media, drawn to the sight of two candidates who are diametrically, almost magnetically opposed: Gillum is a young progressive mayor who would, if elected, be Florida’s first black governor; he campaigned on a platform that included championing Medicare for All and substantially raising the state minimum wage, as well as abolishing ICE, ending cash bail and legalizing marijuana. He won endorsements from Bernie Sanders and an influx of cash from progressive billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros.
DeSantis, meanwhile, is an unabashed fan of Donald Trump, who has tweeted excitedly about him; both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have campaigned for DeSantis in Florida. He first made national news when a campaign ad showed him with his toddler, teaching her how to “build a wall” just like the president. (At the Orlando rally, DeSantis introduced his pick for lieutenant governor, Rep. Jeanette Núñez, a Cuban-American legislator best known nationally for calling Donald Trump a “con man” and a KKK supporter on Twitter in March 2016. Those tweets were both deleted before she was announced as DeSantis’s running mate.)
After Gillum won an unexpected upset victory in the Democratic primary, the race got very racist, very quickly. DeSantis urged Florida voters not to “monkey things up” by voting for his opponent, which he then claimed was not meant to be a racist remark; a white power group from Idaho started circulating anti-Gillum racist robocalls that featured monkey noises; and it was soon reported that DeSantis has spoken four separate times at conferences hosted by David Horowitz, a conservative activist known for Islamophobia and for claiming that the only “serious race war” in the United States is against white people. Most recently, Politico reported that a large DeSantis donor referred to President Obama on Twitter on September 8 as a “fucking Muslim” N-word. (Responding to the most recent controversy, the DeSantis campaign told the site, ““We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: we adamantly denounce this sort of disgusting rhetoric.”)
It is not an overstatement, then, to say that the gubernatorial race is a battle for the soul of Florida, and a very close one at that: Gillum and DeSantis, who stepped down from Congress September 10 to focus on his run, are polling nearly neck-and-neck, with the latest polls showing Gillum with a slight lead.
And the two are, predictably, just as opposed on guns as on every other conceivable issue. DeSantis has said he would have vetoed the post-Parkland gun bill. Gillum, meanwhile, led a march at Florida State University the week after Parkland, demanding tighter gun control. “Enough is enough,” he told the students assembled at the rally. “And never again means never again, and it starts right now, thanks to every one of you.”
One of the strange things about this race, and the place of gun policy within it, is that both candidates’ experiences with guns, gun violence, and gun deaths are intimate, not just a matter of positions taken during a race. And both men have taken steps to emphasize—even exaggerate—their records on gun issues.
Gillum was first elected to the Tallahassee City Commission in 2003, when he was just 23. In 2012, after Travyon Martin was shot to death by George Zimmerman, Gillum was one of only a a few elected officials who vocally supported the Dream Defenders, a civil rights group who staged a sit-in at the Capitol to protest the Stand Your Ground law and try to persuade Scott to repeal it. (In August, the Dream Defenders endorsed Gillum, the first time in their organization’s six-year history that they’d ever issued an endorsement.) Gillum has repeatedly mentioned Martin’s death as proof that Stand Your Ground needs to be abolished.
“There’s a clear, stark contrast” between the two candidates on guns, says David Turner of the Democratic Governor’s Association. (The Gillum campaign didn’t respond to two requests to talk to the candidate or the campaign about gun issues; when I showed up at the Orlando campaign headquarters, I was also not permitted to talk to the lead organizer there, a young black woman named Sarah whose last name I couldn’t even get before Turner swept in, telling me, “Local organizers don’t go on the record.”)
“Gillum,” Turner added, “has stood up to the NRA, compared to Ron DeSantis, who’s in the NRA’s pocket.”
That’s true-ish. Gillum was personally sued in a 2014 lawsuit from two Florida gun rights groups, who were seeking to have a Tallahassee city ordinance overturned that banned people from firing guns in city parks. (Firing a gun in a city park is, incredibly, legal under Florida state law, and the gun rights groups argued that individual cities and municipalities shouldn’t be able to have laws on the books that conflict with state laws.)
The suit was dismissed in 2017, which Gillum celebrated in a blog post titled “We Beat the NRA and You Can Too.” But the victory wasn’t, in fact, quite the slam-dunk he painted: for one thing, the NRA wasn’t suing him, although they’d filed an amicus brief supporting the state groups. For another, a 1987 law had already given the state exclusive power over firearms laws, and the courts said clearly that the Tallahassee ordinance was “null and void,” but didn’t violate state law by remaining on the books.
DeSantis, meanwhile, recently earned a glowing endorsement from the NRA. “At a time when the Second Amendment is under attack like never before, Ron DeSantis has stood strong in protection of our freedoms and been a steadfast supporter of law-abiding gun owners,” said Chris W. Cox, chairman of the NRA’s Political Victory Fund in a press release, the NRA’s PAC. “DeSantis voted for the strongest self-defense bill ever to come before Congress, supported pro-sportsman legislation, and worked to protect the constitutional rights of our veterans.”
In a grim and literal take on the meaning of an arms race, DeSantis’s feelings about guns weren’t even impacted by the fact that he, himself, was very nearly the victim of a mass shooting. In 2017, DeSantis and Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina were leaving an early morning Congressional baseball practice when, DeSantis says, a man stopped them to ask if there were “Democrats or Republicans” playing on the field. DeSantis and Duncan both told national news outlets they believe the man who asked the question was James Hodgkinson, the shooter, who fired more than 70 rounds at the lawmakers on the field, critically injuring House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
DeSantis may, in fact, even have fudged things to make it sound as though he had more interaction with the shooter than he did. He appeared on Fox News the day of the shooting to claim he’d spoken to the gunman from the backseat of an aide’s car.
Duncan, meanwhile, in a detailed oral history put together by Politico, remembered that DeSantis was already in the car and he himself was just about to get in when the gunman approached.
No matter where he was, the incident didn’t seem to put even a small dent in DeSantis’ views. After Parkland, he said raising the age of gun purchases to 21 was “problematic” and said he thought the NRA would win a suit they filed against the state.
It’s been difficult, though, for anyone to get DeSantis to answer more direct questions about state policy: In the aftermath of the “monkey it up” comment, he’s been appearing solely on out-of-state media platforms like Fox News, talking about national issues like the Mueller probe. On September 12, the Tampa Bay Times reported that his campaign cancelled a planned meeting with the newspaper, “saying they wanted to give him time to flesh out his platform before taking questions.”
DeSantis’s lack of specificity on some state issues hardly matters to the base who’s expected to vote for him. On the question of guns, though, DeSantis doesn’t need to do more than declare himself a big fan to keep the support of Florida’s more conservative base, and Gillum hardly needs to do more than say he’s opposed to earn the ire of the same people. Guns are such a wedge issue that talking about them makes people harden into caricatures, in ways that can be dizzying to see.
A mile from the Gillum campaign office is a gun store with a Confederate flag on the wall; the opposite wall is painted to look like an even larger Confederate flag. The owner of the store agreed to talk about gun issues, on the provision that neither he nor the store be named. Clad in a camouflage MAGA hat, he used that anonymity to complain about Gillum playing “the race card,” a few minutes later, he tried describing Trayvon Martin as a “thug,” to see how that would go over.
“Trump is bad for the gun industry, actually,” he said. He speculated that people buy more guns when they’re afraid of losing their gun rights. “In the three months before the election, when everyone thought it was going to be Hillary, everyone was buying like crazy. If Gillum’s a gun-grabber, things are going to go nuts.” Nonetheless, he added, “I hope DeSantis wins. I don’t want to see any Democrat get elected.” He pointed out that he already runs background checks on his customers, as required by federal law, and notifies the ATF and the local sheriff if someone buys more than two handguns from him in a 10-day period. “But there’s always gonna be a nutcase that slipped through the system,” he added, shaking his head.
This wasn’t, in itself, a helpful conversation, but it was instructive as a reminder in just how polarized the gun debate has become. Elected officials like Rep. Smith see something larger at stake here than just one election.
“The Florida legislature has been a test tube for the NRA,” he told me. “It was the first state legislature to pass the Stand Your Ground law and now they have them in twenty-something states. 20 something states.” NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, he says, played a huge role in shaping the guns laws here. “This is her legislature. She owns it. She can come up with the most harebrained, ridiculous and irresponsible and dangerous ideas and she can get the Florida legislature to pass them and then they spread like wildfire to other states.”
But Smith truly believes that’s about to change. “You have communities of color who are disproportionately impacted by gun violence and will vote as a bloc for gun reform,” he says. “LGBT voters still reeling after the attack at pulse are going to vote as a bloc. Young, newly registered voters and the Parkland community is voting as a bloc for candidates that believe in gun safety. We’re forming a diverse coalition of voters that are the majority. And come election day, it’s going to make a difference.”
Just two miles south of where the candidates were making their promises, barely a mile from the gun store draped in differently-sized Confederate flags, the place that was once Pulse Nightclub was quiet. The building itself has been hidden from view by a snaking black wall that wraps around it and is adorned in photos: portraits of the 49 victims of a mass shooter who murdered them on June 12, 2016, photos showing the marches and rallies and prayer vigils that followed. There are round mint benches with wooden tops set in front of the wall for people to sit; they read LOVE.
Asked about the governor’s race, about the idea of any kind of real political change, Neal Whittleton shook his head. He’s 47, a veteran and former police officer who was once head of security at Pulse. He was there the night of the shooting, and since it happened, he’s been interviewed dozens, maybe hundreds of times. He’s relived that night so many times his delivery of what happened is worn smooth, like a worry stone. The gunman was in the club for more than three hours, shooting first across the main dance floor, eventually forced back into a side room, the Adonis Lounge, by Whittleton and other staff, and eventually barricading himself into a bathroom, where he killed even more people. Police didn’t breach the wall of the club with an armored vehicle until 5 a.m., after the gunman claimed he was putting explosive vests on hostages.
Since the shooting, Whittleton provides security to the Pulse memorial site, eight hours a day in the blistering heat, every day. He doubles as the merch guy, sitting in a small patch of shade beneath a makeshift booth, selling Pulse shirts and makeup bags that benefit the OnePULSE Foundation, created by the club’s former owners. One day, perhaps, it will be a museum. Today, it’s where Whittleton contemplates what he perceives as his personal failures. While he saved hundreds of Pulse patrons that night, he thinks he should’ve saved more.
“I’m a failure,” he said, evenly, with no particular emotion. “Forty-nine people died. If this was a military situation, I’d be getting yelled at by my commanding officer.” He paused. “I should’ve left in a bag.”
Whittleton was aware of the rally happening a couple miles away, but he didn’t concern himself with it much. He has a hard time believing anything much will change, politically, in Florida.
“It would have to be a landslide,” he said of Gillum. “He’d have to beat him so bad that [DeSantis] called an hour before the polls closed to concede.”
He knew the stakes, of course—“If his people lose Florida, Trump might lose the next election”—but that seems like a distant possibility. “I’ve just seen too much. I’m way too discouraged. The president controls the climate. We’re living in Trump’s weather.”
A guy and a girl in their early 20s stepped away from the memorial, looking a little dazed, and bought a shirt from Whittleton. He made change for them and settles back in his seat. It was hard not to wonder if it was difficult for him to be here, day after day, outside one of the most concrete symbols of the way gun violence tears communities apart.
“It’s my pleasure to be here,” he replied. “I don’t want to be anywhere else in the world.”