By Tony D'Souza | Photography by Fred Lopez
If you Google "Sarasota concealed carry course," as I did shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting, the link that pops up is the website of Sarasota's Armed Citizens League. Click on it, and immediately you know you've landed in the right place: The first image is the barrel of a gun pointed at you by a pretty, brown-haired girl. If she pulls the trigger, you'll be shot point blank in the face. It's a startling image, as blunt in its message as the Armed Citizens League's name.
I set out on this piece with unusually high emotions; I have young children, and the images from Connecticut that moved me most were of parents wandering bewildered in a parking lot because their kids had been killed.
But I'm also a gun owner. I grew up hunting, have a shotgun that I keep locked up and haven't touched in the four years since my first child was born. I do plan on teaching my kids to shoot one day. That said, I've always voted against the NRA.
With these complexities in mind, I called Sarasota's Armed Citizen's League—motto "When Seconds Count…Police Are Minutes Away"—in late December to inquire about taking its concealed carry course. I'd been interested in concealed carry even before Sandy Hook; according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which handles the state's applications, 1.2 million Floridians have current concealed carry permits. The state's law took effect in 1987, and "[T]here has been slow but steady growth," notes a departmental report. "However, in recent years, demand has surged to unprecedented levels."
The Armed Citizens League's website—that pretty girl pointing that gun under the sexy double entendre "Got Protection?"—promises "Everything you need to apply for a Florida Concealed Weapons Permit." The cost? Only a $20 "donation."
"Armed Citizens League," said the man who answered in a startlingly deep voice, velvety as a radio announcer's. My prejudices against people as into guns as this guy were in play, but when I revealed myself as a reporter calling because of Sandy Hook, he didn't hang up as I expected, but invited me over. His name: Todd von Bender. We made an appointment for the Saturday after Christmas.
I imagined Von Bender would be a typical right-wing gun nut who would tell me with a smile all the reasons why the government could try to pry his guns—to quote the late, loony NRA spokesman Charlton Heston—from his cold, dead hands.
Todd von Bender, when I got to his house, was not at all what I expected.
* * *
Aside from my gun nut assumptions about Von Bender, I also figured the Armed Citizens League's headquarters would be filled with actual armed citizens blasting away at an indoor firing range.
What I found instead was a modest home in a quiet neighborhood off Stickney Point, the door opened by a tall, friendly 50-something with a ponytail, three smiling, mixed-race children peering out from behind him. Von Bender had invited me to bring my kids, and I had my three-year-old son with me. As our kids played together in an adjacent bedroom, Von Bender and I swapped stories about being stay-at-home dads. This conversation took place before a coffee table laden with handguns, Von Bender's pet bull and king snakes in their glass terrariums against the wall.
"Basically, I closed my construction business four years ago; there was no work," Von Bender told me. "My wife is a surgical technician; I take care of my kids. I'm a certified NRA instructor. The Armed Citizens League started five years ago when my wife's girlfriends wanted concealed carry training that was easy to understand. We had a cheesy, do-it-yourself website for a while; two years ago, a student provided the professional one we have now. That really helped get us out there."
Going by the Armed Citizens League website, one would be forgiven for imagining a vast group of Sarasotans who comprise an ideological armed militia, holding meetings, paying dues, staunchly defending the Second Amendment. Sarasota's Armed Citizens League, I quickly understood, is really just Todd von Bender.
Von Bender, 51, told me his love of guns began when he was young; guns had been the only common ground between him and his uncommunicative father. He grew up in Cupertino, Calif., joined the 82nd Airborne at 18, had a nine-year military career that included stretches as a drill instructor and arms trainer and later earned a degree in aerospace engineering from San Francisco State. He worked for Boeing until layoffs in the early '90s prompted him to start a construction business. He and his wife, also from California, met when she was 18, Todd nearly two decades older. The couple spent seven years in Denver, three in Vegas; they moved to Sarasota seven years ago, attracted by the schools and beaches.Thirteen years ago, Von Bender earned his first NRA instructor's certificate, hoping to one day use it for just what he's doing now.
Von Bender left the room and came back with a copy of Blood & Thunder roller derby magazine. On the cover was a pretty African-American girl in kneepads and skates, wearing a helmet and looking like she wanted to tackle somebody.
"Madame Battleaxe," he grinned and said. "I gave her that name."
My right-wing gun nut had turned out to be a long-haired, stay-at-home dad; his wife, an African-American who once skated for the Tampa Tantrums in the Tampa Bay Derby Darlins roller derby league.
Madame Battleaxe was at work that first day I visited. Most of the house was packed in boxes; the Von Benders would soon be moving to a new home east of I-75. As our kids watched TV, Von Bender stood in front of me for nearly two hours and with that radio announcer's voice of his, delivered a seamless infomercial about gun safety and Florida's concealed carry law. It was impromptu and slick, peppered with his grinning vocal tic—"You get the idea?" Throughout the lecture, he picked up unloaded revolvers and semiautomatics from the coffee table, cocked them, pulled the triggers.
Finally, Von Bender led me into his garage, where there was a paper bull's-eye target taped to the door. Here his students were required to fire one shot with a gun in order to qualify for a concealed carry permit. By his own estimate, Von Bender has seen 10,000 Floridians take his course over the past five years, including employees at local businesses like Walmart and Aflac. How he keeps all those bullets from spraying through his garage door and into his neighbors' living rooms is the foundational secret behind his Armed Citizens League.
"You get the idea?" Von Bender grinned and asked as he explained his secret. I did get the idea. I was also now a co-conspirator in Todd von Bender's smart interpretation of Florida's ridiculously lax concealed carry law.
* * *
Two weeks later, I was again sitting in Todd von Bender's living room, in his new home, which looked strikingly like the last. One of the snake terrariums was in the corner, the same small arsenal of handguns arrayed on the coffee table. This time, however, nearly 40 Sarasotans sat around me on folding chairs, all here to "donate" $20 to take Von Bender's concealed carry course, all as seemingly confused as to how a gun class could take place in a living room as I had been on my first visit. A large African spurred tortoise, another Von Bender family pet, slept before the legs of the students in the first row.
In an example of the power of Internet marketing, Von Bender's Armed Citizens League's website is so filled with web crawler-pleasing keywords that it dominates the local competition, some of who charge anywhere from three to four times as much. It's attracted clients to Von Bender's free gun appraisal service from as far away as Indonesia. I was here because of the website; today, apparently, so was a two-man TV news crew, neither of whom wore any network insignia.
At 9 a.m., Von Bender began the same lecture I'd previously sat through. He was wearing a black buttoned-down shirt with "Armed Citizens League" stenciled on the breast. His shirt was untucked, he was wearing shorts, there was the sleeping tortoise, the snake. Yes, his NRA instructor's certificate was framed on the wall. But shouldn't a gun class, one might wonder, feel a little less odd than this?
Any questions as to the strangeness of the setting quickly fell before the confident cadences of Von Bender's deep voice, his easy humor, his winking, "Get the idea?" Von Bender has given the same speech nearly every Saturday morning for the past five years; it's apparent within moments that he knows what he's talking about. He covers the history of firearms, calibers, velocities, jacketing. He offers easy-to-follow demonstrations on the various types of guns, calls semi-automatics "chainsaws" because of their rapid and overwhelming power. "If you're looking to shoot yourself," he told us, "I highly recommend you get a chainsaw. An honest man carries a revolver."
After the lecture, Von Bender let everyone in on the secret he'd already revealed to me. "One man's provision is another man's loophole," he said, prefacing his deconstruction of Florida's concealed carry law. The loophole, Von Bender explained, is that though Florida law requires a concealed carry applicant to "demonstrate competence with a firearm," nowhere in its language does it say the firearm must contain a bullet.
"Get the idea?" he asked and grinned.
Von Bender led us into his garage, where one by one we fired a blank round from a revolver at the paper target taped to the door. Since nothing came out of the gun, there was no real reason to point it at the target. Afterward, he gave us each an "Armed Citizens League: Concealed Handgun Basic Safety" certificate. Pending background checks, fingerprinting, and $112 in state application fees, 40 more of us had completed everything we needed to do to carry concealed weapons in Florida. It had taken only two hours, and not a bullet had been fired. The tortoise had slept the whole time.
* * *
Todd von Bender took in roughly $800 that Saturday morning; he says he views his requested $20 not as a fee, but as a "bare bones donation," his class as an "educative community service." Likely, he could ask much more. So many Floridians have applied for concealed carry permits that it's become a cottage industry; the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has hired additional staff and its website warns of a backlog of as long as three months.
"There has been exceptional interest over the past six months," Whitney Schiver, an analyst with the department, told me. "Applicants do not have to reveal why they are applying, so we don't know what's behind it."
Most of the people in Von Bender's class were past retirement age. If they had made it this long without carrying concealed weapons, why did they need to now? A theme emerged as I talked to some of those leaving Von Bender's home. One woman, a caregiver, told me, "I'm doing it to tell the government whether you give me a permit or not, I'm going to do it. It's my right."
Another woman, on disability, said she took the class, "Because of Obama, he's trying to take our rights away. I don't trust him. He's messing with the Constitution."
A group of older women broke into cautious laughter when I asked why they had decided to take a concealed carry course just weeks after Sandy Hook. "With the dictator we have as a president taking over everything we do, word has it soon there won't be any guns," a retired medical professional told me. "All this stuff with Sandy Hook just gives the people who don't want you to have guns more of a reason to say, 'Oh, look.'"
"If they take our guns, the bad guys will be the only ones who have them," said another.
Every student who attended Von Bender's class that day was white; Von Bender has built what can be interpreted as a racial subtext into his lecture. He proposes scenarios in which someone carrying a concealed weapon is suddenly attacked in a parking lot. The "bad guy" is always a baggy pants-wearing "gangbanger."
"I'm at the mall and going out to my car and run into some gangbanger," he said during the class. "Bang! Bang! Bang! Did you see the size of the crowbar that guy had? Now back in the day you'd throw your leg over your horse and you'd be gone. Nowadays, what do I want to tell the 911 operator? 'I just shot somebody'? What's another way of putting that? When you're speaking to 911 you say, 'You have got to see the size of the crowbar this person was going to kill me with! I thought I was going to die!'"
Von Bender told the class that concealed carry students paying high prices for shooting lessons are throwing away their money. "According to FBI statistics, 90 percent of the time what you're shooting at is seven feet away," he said. "I can hit my clock on the wall left-handed and blindfolded at seven feet."
And if you do have to pull your concealed weapon? "Sixty percent of the time what you're shooting at is an adolescent," Von Bender said. "You'd better think about that now. Can you drop a hammer on a girl?"
Whitney Schiver at the Department of Agriculture was surprised to hear about the use of blank rounds in a concealed carry course. "I have not heard that explanation [of the law]," she said. "When we find out about a trainer using alternative devices as substitutes for live fire, we notify the Bureau of License Issuance not to issue licenses to individuals who submit certificates from that trainer." Still, she concedes, "We do not have regulatory authority over these instructors."
If the state office issuing the permits does not have authority over instructors, who does? "His certificate from the NRA is what allows him to teach that class," Schiver explained.
* * *
Marion Hammer, former president of the NRA and the NRA's chief lobbyist in Florida, prickled when I called her and asked if the NRA allows instructors to issue certificates without live fire. "Any instructor who would do that is skirting the law," she said. "Have you read the law?"
I had. The law states, "'Firearm' means any weapon (including a starter gun) which will, is deigned to, or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive." It says nothing about live fire. When I pressed her, Hammer testily asked, "Do you know who I am?"
According to the NRA itself, "There is no single individual responsible for enacting more pro-gun legislation in the states than Marion Hammer." Not only did Hammer, as reported by Bloomberg, author the very concealed carry law we were discussing, but she also had a hand in drafting "Stand Your Ground," the controversial lethal force legislation (opposed by Florida law enforcement), pushed Docs vs. Glocks, prohibiting Florida doctors from asking patients about guns and gun safety (opposed by the Florida Medical Association) and even created the NRA's Eddie Eagle mascot.
I asked Hammer if the NRA requires live fire in its courses. "Yes," she told me emphatically. How many rounds does the NRA require a student to fire? "How many the instructor feels," Hammer replied.
"Would one round be sufficient?" I asked her.
Hammer hung up.
An hour later, I received a call from Ken Wilkinson, assistant director of the Department of Agriculture's Division of Licensing. He asked me about the class I had attended. "We're always concerned when we hear stories like this," he said. I knew who Wilkinson was, but had never placed a call to him. I asked him how he got my number. Had the NRA's Hammer—who is not a state official—called him—a state official—and told him to respond? "We know Marion well," Wilkinson said. He then described South Carolina's concealed carry law, which requires rigorous live fire training. "None of that exists in Florida law," Wilkinson conceded. "The law is what the law is."
Both Hammer and Wilkinson wanted Von Bender's name, which I declined to give. Von Bender himself is well aware of the fine points of the law's language.
"When I first started teaching, I expected there to be criteria," he told me during one of our discussions. "I called [the state]; there is no standard. Starter pistols are on the list of statutorily defined firearms; I picked the one on the list that works best for my situation. If you were taking your course at a junior college, there would be no firearms; they're not allowed. Florida accepts hunter safety certificates, DD 214s (military Discharge from Active Duty certificates). Neither is proof that someone has had any handgun training. The NRA itself doesn't have a concealed carry course. No one is regulating the instructors in Florida. That's 100 percent correct."
* * *
As Todd von Bender was interviewed on his lawn by the mysterious TV crew after class that morning, I finally met Madame Battleaxe, his wife of 18 years. She came out from the house in a T-shirt and shorts looking as athletic as she did on the cover of the roller derby magazine.
"The demand [for the class] is really high right now. Usually every election year, people worry about their gun rights," Talia von Bender, 35, told me. We talked briefly about her kids, ages 13, 11, and six; the older two are on the autism spectrum. She blames autism on diet and over-diagnosis, has a tongue piercing, and seems the opposite of what anyone would term a "gun nut."
I asked her if she believed, as many of her husband's students do, that Obama intends to disregard the Second Amendment. "I don't think he's going to necessarily take away guns, but some special interest groups are going to influence him and he doesn't know what he's doing. Sandy Hook? He stole those guns. Why would you hurt me, a legal citizen?"
As for the element of race in her husband's class? "A gangbanger can be Hispanic, he can be black, he can be white," she said. "That's what Todd means. If people think 'black,' then that's what they think. I grew up in a very bad part of town in Bakersfield. I'm not one for guns, but I think guns are necessary to protect yourself. A carry society is a polite society. Think about it; if I know you are carrying, I'm not going to mess with you."
As he finished his TV interview and the camera crew packed up its gear, Todd von Bender told me, "My sense is that 80 percent of the people who have come here are genuinely afraid and want to protect themselves.The biggest question I get isn't pertaining to guns, it's their concern over what happens to them if they shoot someone. It's sad. You follow the law and then have to worry about your own government throwing you in jail."
Just before I left, I chatted with the TV crew. They were from Miami, the sound guy told me, handing me a card. The reason they had no network insignia, I suddenly understood, was because they were trying to stay low-key. The card had Arabic writing on it. They were Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera in Sarasota? I knew how Al Jazeera would spin the story: crazed America and its lust for guns. And maybe Al Jazeera would be right. Forty-nine states now have concealed carry laws; Florida's—authored by Marion Hammer—was among the first, and is one of the most liberal. Unlike other states, Florida does not require applicants prove a "good and substantive" reason to carry a weapon. Florida issues permits by mail, does not check national mental health records, does not reveal permit holders' identities, and allows law enforcement no discretion over those eligible to carry. As for its firearms training standards? It's left that up to the NRA.
One of the gun policy experts I spoke with, Dr. David Hemenwey, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health, told me, "People who get permits have this notion they'll be attacked, but they're not at risk. The risk is to inner-city youth. Studies show street violence is between people of the same race, income level and class. There's a 99.99 percent chance people who get permits can only use the gun inappropriately because they're not going to be attacked. From a public health standpoint, Florida's a scary place.
"We do know what happens if you do shoot somebody," Hemenwey continued. "What is your life like afterward? Studies consistently show you're at much higher risk for addiction, for PTSD. It's not a good thing."
Von Bender knows this himself. In the biggest irony of all, the concealed carry instructor doesn't carry a concealed weapon.
"You're a compassionate person, right?" Von Bender said to his students, describing a dead gangbanger he had just shot in one of his hypothetical examples that morning. "This poor creature? With the smell of the copper and the blood? It's the most God-awful thing you'll ever see in your life."
Then he grew reflective.
"It's what I had to do in the 82nd Airborne," he told us softly. "Most of my students know I don't carry. I can't. This is for you. I cannot do it anymore."
The Florida Law
Applicants must be 21 years old, U.S. residents, have no disqualifying criminal record and earn a certificate of completion from a firearms training class, any NRA firearms course, hunter education course, shooting sport competitors, active duty military, or military DD -214 form (honorary discharge). They must also be fingerprinted and have a background check and pay $112.
Where You Can—and Can't—"Carry"
Permit holders may carry weapons on their person or in their car; they can't carry them at
—Police stations, courthouses, jails and prisons
—Polling places, Florida Legislature, county and other government meetings
—Schools, colleges, universities
—Airport passenger areas
—Professional athletic events
Some Florida legislators, including the region's Rep. Greg Steube, want to allow concealed weapons at colleges and universities. NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer says she will push to allow "open carry," already legal in a number of states. Hammer and other proponents say this will protect those with concealed weapons from being harassed if they accidentally expose them. Opponents, including the Florida Sheriffs' Association, say openly carrying weapons is intimidating to bystanders and will threaten public safety.
Tony D'Souza's third novel, Mule, is set in Sarasota and has been optioned for a feature film. His "Eyes Wide Shut" in our September Guide to Giving was featured on Longform, a national website showcasing outstanding long-form journalism.