Longform

Assault Rifles Are Big Business in Florida as Federal Ban Looms

As Suleiman Yousef fires a sleek black AR-15-style rifle, orange and blue muzzle bursts flash inside the Trail Glades Gun Range in West Miami-Dade. The rapid-fire rounds ping off a metal target 100 yards away. His thick arms hold steady against the explosive recoil.

Then Yousef, a 31-year-old South Miami self-defense trainer with a bald dome and bushy beard, hands me the heavy weapon. His friend Sean Yamuni, a 33-year-old one-armed marksman, shows me how to release the safety with my right thumb. "You want to rest your cheek against the stock," Yamuni instructs. "Look for the red dot in the scope."

My heart races as I awkwardly take aim and unleash 28 bullets, most burying themselves silently in the earthen berm behind the target. It's both exhilarating and terrifying.

Semiautomatic rifles like this Knight's Armament SR-15 have taken center stage in a reignited push for gun control in the wake of Adam Lanza's Newtown massacre, with politicians from Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado to President Barack Obama calling for new federal bans and millions of enthusiasts triggering a gun-buying mania so frenzied dealers can't keep up.

Florida is ground zero for the clash. For years, the National Rifle Association has used Tallahassee's compliant legislature as a test tube for gun-friendly laws. The Sunshine State was the first to pass Stand Your Ground, which has spread to 17 other states and earned national media attention after the Trayvon Martin killing, and the first to break a million concealed weapons permits. Thanks to generous tax breaks, gun manufacturers have flocked to Florida under Gov. Rick Scott.

There's also plenty of carnage wrought by Florida's gun obsession. In Miami-Dade, 80 percent of the 63 homicides in the past year have been gun-related. In Broward's major cities, 25 out of 37 homicides from the past 13 months involved a gun, by New Times' unofficial count. Mass shootings in black neighborhoods may not garner Lanza-like press, but they've become a regular part of life from Overtown to Miami Gardens, where 25-year-old Brandon Bryant was recently cut down by more than 50 rounds from a high-powered rifle at a Super Bowl party.

In the wake of Sandy Hook Elementary's stomach-churning horror, both the Republican and Democratic parties have gone hyperbolic, from NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer likening gun control proposals to discrimination, to President Obama tearfully invoking Newtown's child victims in his State of the Union last week. But Florida's relationship with guns goes much deeper than broadsides fired by right-to-bear-arms zealots and liberal loudmouths. Thousands of regular Miamians like Yousef and Yamuni own assault rifles. Hundreds of others like Bryant's family have been crushed by shootings. Scores of small businesses thrive by buying and selling guns.

To try to better understand our state's complicated love affair with the weapons Obama wants to ban and Limbaugh wants in every closet, I dove headfirst into Florida's gun culture — from a local manufacturer to the sellers, buyers, and die-hard enthusiasts to the everyday victims of violence in Miami's poorest neighborhoods.

Fact is, creating a Florida without guns — or even without assault rifles — is about as probable as enforcing a topless sunbathing ban in Miami Beach. Surprisingly, almost everyone I met agrees Florida and the nation need tighter controls, less scaremongering, and an end to mass shootings.

How to get there, of course, is as complex as the aluminum and steel mechanisms launching rounds from the SR-15 in my hands.

The Manufacturers

An overhead swivel lamp illuminates Jorge Corbato's workspace inside a cramped concrete warehouse off Bird Road near Tropical Park. In the early afternoon of February 1, the 48-year-old Cuban-American carefully uses a lathe to cut a 20-inch steel tube. A husky Miami native with short salt-and-pepper hair, Corbato wears a denim apron to catch metal shavings. After peering down the tube, he stops the machine, satisfied.

He carefully screws the barrel into an AR-15 receiver, the part of the rifle that includes the trigger, the magazine port, and the serial number. Over the next hour, he adds the barrel shroud, the firing pin, the pistol grip, and the stock.

It's the first AR-15 that Corbato has built in two weeks, but not for lack of business. In fact, semiautomatic rifles — and the more deadly assault rifles — are so in demand he's had trouble getting enough components for his shop. (AR-15s are technically not assault rifles because they can fire only one bullet with each pull of the trigger, but are often lumped in with the M-4, the military version, which can fire multiple rounds.)

"I can't produce every single part myself," he says. "Before Sandy Hook, I was making 25 AR-15 rifles a week. Everything I had built, I sold. Now when customers call me, I have to tell them to call back in a couple of weeks."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.