Neal Wiseman can see his entire shop from where he stands, behind the glass display case at Dixie Guns and Ammo, but he can't see the future. Not yet.
That doesn't mean he isn't going to try. Wiseman is in his 30s, with a soldier's buzzcut and the friendly forward momentum of a high-school wrestling coach. A pair of iPhone earbuds frames his face as he greets customers.
It took a little faith for Wiseman to buy the business, tucked into a chainlinked corner of a Pompano Beach public-storage park, with a partner in 2008. Sales are brisk, but the feds are always a distant threat, ready to shut him down for selling a stolen gun or failing to check registrations. The shop relies on hand-painted signs and word of mouth. But Wiseman has bigger things to worry about: He is part of a growing segment of people who believe that modern society is on the verge of collapse.
Some patrons at the shop fit a stereotype of "survivalists": the sometimes-camoed, always-armed fellows who wander in and out of the gun shop and banter about calibers at the counter. But the image of the hostile sociopath hoarding guns under a tarp is an outdated one, and it's not good PR for those in the movement. Survivalism has gone family-friendly, and its proponents call themselves "preppers."
Terrorism, alien attacks, the Mayan Apocalypse — the typical doom-and-gloom scenarios for the end of the world — are on some preppers' minds. But what really scares Wiseman and many of his cohorts is the chance of economic failure. He imagines a worthless U.S. dollar, all financial investments wiped away, and along with them all the rules that govern behavior or property.
Wiseman used to sell residential real estate, but around 2005, he thought he saw home prices begin to flatten. "I got extremely defensive in my positioning," he says. He sold off 14 properties and became a police officer. "I thought things were going to really crash at that time," he says, "so I was wrong. But the situation is progressively getting more volatile."
He leads me into the back office, where he does his bookkeeping, and shuts the door. There are bars over the window. Settling into a swivel chair at his desk, Wiseman unpacks a rifle from a cardboard box and nonchalantly pieces it together, aiming for a moment at a spot on the wall.
If society should collapse, one thing is sure: The glass counter and electronic cash register separating his business from his customers won't count for much. In a scenario in which there is no money, no electricity, no doctors, and no food, the people who haven't prepared — the "zombies," as they're called in the prepper community — will swarm around the preppers who have. Wiseman will need to find a new way of living, taking survival and protection into his own hands, leaving behind his reliance on the value of a dollar or a policeman's word. "For now, I'm still selling shit that other people made," he admits. "I haven't found my place in that society."
Wiseman turns to the computer and pulls up the archives from a Meetup group he moderates — "South Florida Survivalist Network, Region 6," with 333 registered members. They discuss various end-of-the-world scenarios (officially called "shit hits the fan," or SHTF, in prepper lingo). He reads a quote from another prepper, based in Philadelphia: "It always has been and always will be the power of the mind that has the most influence on the course of human events. Practice now, store now, think outside of your comfort zone. Each and every moment that our [electrical and communications] grid is up is a blessing."
We get up to leave, but we're trapped in the office: Not realizing that we were still in the back, Wiseman's partner has closed up the shop and gone home, locking us in. Before I fully register what happened, Wiseman has unsheathed a machete. He uses it to jimmy the lock in a single motion.
His home is on a quiet block on the far side of the Intracoastal Waterway, in the beachside town of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Wiseman has rigged it so that pipes connected to the gutters flow into plastic rain-collection barrels. A fledgling vegetable garden blooms by the front door.
"I'm currently prepared to self-sustain for at least a full year, with no contact with the outside world, with a family of four and two dogs," he explains. Inside the garage, he keeps his "preps," or supplies. Instead of kayaks and bicycles, he stores food, fuel, tampons, and toilet paper. He's negotiated with Publix managers for about a dozen buckets of vacuum-packed bulk grains and beans. A shelving unit holds rows of pasta, vegetables, fruit. He's calculated exactly how many rations his family will need to stay alive.