Just a few miles inland from the Atlantic coast, in a modest, Florida subdivision, at the end of a gracious cul-de-sac, sits a well-maintained, five-bedroom house, boasting a two-car garage, an outdoor pool, and an elevated hot tub. The real selling point, however, is a small room on the second floor, where, behind a nondescript but well-secured door and a curtain of camo netting, lies one of the more impressive collections of firearms in private hands.
It’s not the largest collection. Topping off at around 150 pieces, it’s not even close. A few years back, an auction house in Idaho unloaded 1,000 pieces of hardware in a single sale — the cache of an avid collector said to have gotten a little jammed up, financially speaking, and who chose to remain anonymous. Indeed, most gun collectors prefer to keep their arsenals to themselves. And the owner of the Florida stockpile would have likely done the same — that is, if he hadn’t discovered Instagram.
“You can have a pretty horrible week and then spend 30 minutes on the firing range, and all the stress is gone, you’re smiling, you’re completely relaxed.”
Known as @gun_collector on the photo-sharing platform, he asked that Task & Purpose refer to him by his first name, Chris, for security reasons. A young-looking 45, Chris works as the chief operating officer of an internet e-commerce company and is the father of three grown children. He began posting images of his weapons collection five years ago, alongside the occasional action shot or Second Amendment meme, and he now posts a few images per week. Occasionally, he’ll include a glimpse of one of his three dogs or a piece of Star Wars paraphernalia (mostly Boba Fett). But other than that, it’s pretty much gun porn all the way, and that’s not meant as a slight. Chris’ pictures have an unmistakable sensuality: tightly cropped and carefully lit, they manage to be seductive without feeling showy or overdone. @gun_collector lets these deadly objects speak for themselves.
Chris has invited me for a visit to view the collection and maybe spend some time at a nearby shooting range, Lotus Gunworks of South Florida. I’ve brought along a colleague, Adam Weinstein, who, unlike me, actually served in the military and does not find triggers the slightest bit triggering.
Full disclosure: Although I am one of Task & Purpose’s editors, I’m a lifelong civilian. Until my meeting with Chris, I’ve never once discharged a weapon. Never even held one. Nor have I had any real desire to do so. I view guns mostly as an excellent way to kill people, and because I believe killing people is wrong in most circumstances, I’ve always favored limiting their proliferation. But as we all know, such efforts have largely backfired: Every new proposed regulation seems to send gun sales skyrocketing. Estimates place the number of firearms in circulation in the United States at more than 350 million, roughly enough for every man, woman and child to have a gun of their very own. And since 2009, manufacturers have doubled production.
There’s a famous quote attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” He was talking about stagecraft, but the point applies to the real world as well. Every gun manufactured and sold contains within it the potential for violence, an opportunity for somebody’s untimely death. Although the gun control debate tends to center on mass shootings, which are especially terrifying and sensational, these events are still fairly uncommon, statistically speaking. In fact, most gun deaths have nothing to do with multiple homicides or terrorism or drive-bys or domestic slayings or even accidents. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths are attributable to suicide — which, incidentally, is one of Chekhov’s recurring themes.
That said, even a guy like me has to eventually acknowledge the obvious: Guns are here to stay. Whatever crazed playwright is writing this drama has hung more than 350 million pistols on the wall, and a lot of them are eventually going to be fired.
In light of which, it seemed like as good a time as any for a longtime gun skeptic to give the other side a fair hearing, and maybe even give shooting a shot.
The @gun_collector was raised in New England, where firearms are relatively scarce. The first time he ever saw one growing up was during a family cruise, when his dad encouraged him to try trap-shooting — then a regular ship-board feature — and he found he had an aptitude for it. It wasn’t until his father died, in 2009, long after he had begun acquiring weapons, that Chris discovered what is now one of his prized items: his father’s old 16-gauge, bolt-action shotgun made for Sears & Roebuck in 1942. Among the other highlights of his collection are three versions of the Dragunov sniper rifle (one Russian, two Chinese), an FN P90, several custom built AKs, an Israeli Tavor X95, a pair of World War II-era M1 Garands, and a belt-fed RPD machine gun. He estimates the whole lot is worth somewhere in the low six figures.
Chris’ interest in firearms sprung from a fascination with history, in particular, Soviet military history, which he first began studying during high school. After college, he interned for Florida Sen. Connie Mack III, focusing on defense issues. That led to a job as a junior lobbyist for a defense trade association, followed by a transition into internet marketing.
He picked up his first piece, a Romanian SKS semi-automatic carbine, at a Virginia gun show. This was in 1994. More purchases followed that year: an AK-47, a Colt 1911, and a CZ 75 pistol. At the time, Chris was especially attracted to the Eastern European stuff. He prized authenticity. When a gun had been modified, he’d seek out the proper accessories and restore it to its original form. Although he shot the guns from time to time, it wasn’t his focus. “I wasn’t terribly interested in accuracy or defensive shooting,” he says. “I was just punching holes in paper, blowing off steam with friends.”
In 2010, however, he began working as a marketing director for a tactical training company, Progressive F.O.R.C.E Concepts, headquartered in Las Vegas. As part of the job, Chris was allowed to take whatever courses he liked; so far, he has completed 290 hours of tactical instruction.
As his skills grew, Chris gradually became less interested in collectable guns than in firearms he actually enjoyed firing. At this point, he’s ready to let go of a few historical pieces and focus on the tactical models, but so far, he’s only sold three. One was an old AR-15 (he now builds his own, to his personal specifications), and the two others were rare versions of the old Soviet bolt-action rifles, which he traded for the RPD. He doesn’t really count the Bira — a hand-cranked 19th-century Nepalese machine gun — which he stumbled on a few years back and only owned for a week or so before flipping it on an episode of Pawn Stars for twenty grand.
“There’s this joke in the online gun community,” he says. “Our biggest fear is when we die our wives will sell our guns for what we told them we paid for them. It’s funny, but it’s kind of true.”
Chris was a fairly early adopter of Instagram. “When I started doing the firearms photography on there, no one was doing it,” he says. “It was almost almost a completely foreign concept for people to share pictures of their collection. So I grew in popularity pretty rapidly.” He now has more than 117,000 followers, hardly Dan Bilzerian numbers but a respectable following.
Over the years, he’s learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t on the platform. “The historical firearms do not perform as well on social media as the modern tactical stuff,” he says. Image quality has become increasingly important; casual snapshots don’t fly the way they once did. And finally, photos with people in them, even the so-called “gun bunny” shots, garner fewer likes in general.
“On one hand, there’s a lot of people who enjoy looking at both beautiful women and firearms, and like Reese’s, it just goes well together,” Chris says. “But on the other hand, a lot of my followers take the attitude that the gun should sell itself. It doesn’t need an attractive woman to do it.”
That’s fine with Chris. He maintains the feed because he is enthusiastic about firearms and wants to share his passion. As a result, his style leans toward the educational. Those who prefer a flashier approach tend to gravitate to feeds like that of Austin Weiss, who has about triple the follower count and features considerably more lifestyle content, including shots of Weiss tooling around Milan in designer sneakers; automotive glamour pics; duckface selfies courtesy of his attractive wife, Katie; and a good dose of #MAGA attitude. Interestingly, the two men live in the same town.
“When I first started, Austin helped me out with advice,” Chris says. “He’s an entrepreneur and he plays the social media game exceedingly well. His collection isn’t as big as mine but it’s more high-end.”
Although Chris sold t-shirts for a while, the @gun_collector feed is now strictly non-commercial. “I’m not out there pushing product,” he says. “Most of the big gun accounts, they’re selling ads. They’re charging you to get a picture up there.” He also mostly posts his own pictures, unlike some competitors. “A lot of accounts repost the best of everyone’s content and monetize it for themselves,” he explains. “They get these huge followings.” It used to drive him crazy. He’d find one of his images on someone else’s site without attribution and fire off a takedown notice. If that didn’t work, he’d report the account for an IP violation. Some of the more brazen offenders even pretended to be him in an effort to get free stuff from gear manufacturers. “Finally I stopped caring,” he says. “It’s never going to stop.”
Before we head over to the range, I ask Chris if he believes the ownership of firearms should be regulated, and how. Not surprisingly, his interpretation of the Second Amendment is broad. While he accepts that some regulation is necessary, he thinks the usual call for “common-sense gun control” is silly.
“Common sense to somebody living in an urban center is much different than somebody living in the rest of the country,” he says. “It’s kind of a big similarity to how Trump won the election. Most of the politicians — especially the anti-gun ones — come from these big urban centers. They should get out of the city more and understand what people use guns for. It’s a part of the inner fabric of this country for a wide array of people.”
As a result of this cultural divide, he says, some of the laws on the books are deeply misguided. “They’re so convoluted they don’t make sense,” he says. The assault-weapons ban, for instance. “The percentage of crimes assault rifles are used for is very, very low compared to other guns. Yet people focus on what they see in Hollywood.”
Then there’s the recent movement to legalize suppressors, which he wholeheartedly favors. The opponents, he says, “are basing their whole understanding on information that comes from movies, where you pull the trigger and there’s no sound at all.” In fact, even with the best suppressors, gunshots generally produce 100 decibels of sound — so loud you need ear protection indoors.
“I have many friends in the shooting community that use hearing protection but have still lost a considerable amount of hearing from shooting guns,” he says. “It’s a health issue.”
“I don’t expect anything to happen to me, but I will make sure to the best of my abilities that nothing will happen to me, because I’ll see it coming, hopefully. I’m always scanning — I’m always looking around the room.”
He also criticized the administrative rule, recently struck down, that barred “mentally impaired” Social Security recipients from gun ownership. Though numerous media outlets portrayed the rule as preventing the mentally ill from obtaining firearms — a reasonable goal, he and I agree — in fact, the ruling focused on Social Security recipients on “disability support,” meaning that they require a representative to help them with the paperwork. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily correlate to mental illness, as my colleague Adam Weinstein noted in a recent Task & Purpose article.
Personally, I don’t view the relative lack of homicides committed with assault weapons as a reason not to place some controls on their ownership. But on the other issues, I was surprised to find myself in agreement with Chris once I’d heard him out.
And he acknowledges cases of overreach on the gun-rights side. “I’m going to get a lot of people yelling at me,” he admits. “But I’m not a big fan of open carry for open carry’s sake.” For one thing, he points out, it makes you a target, especially if you don’t have good situational awareness. “If a criminal comes in to rob a convenience store, and you have somebody with a concealed firearm and somebody with an open-carry firearm, who is the criminal going to go for first?”
Moreover, it just isn’t a good look for gun-rights advocates. “You have those individuals sauntering to Starbucks and Walmart with a gun on their hip and scaring people,” he says. “That doesn’t do anybody any good. It just provides ammunition for the other side. I think if your state has open carry, you sort of have a responsibility as a gun owner to not be antagonizing the general public. Why push it at people?” He sighs. “Honestly, I just feel like, This is why we can’t have nice things….”
Lotus Gunworks bills itself as “not your ‘everyday,’ run-of-the-mill gun shop,” which seems apt — particularly if your image of such an establishment involves a windowless cinder-block box in an overgrown lot out by the railroad tracks. By contrast, Lotus is a cheerful spot in a strip mall, just across Route 1 from a Cold Stone Creamery and a Papa Johns. Its employees are young and jocular, and they kind of look like they belong in a sitcom.
For his part, Chris is nothing like I’d expected either. I’d pictured a Floridian version of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle or “Dirty” Harry Callahan — an angry dude in cargo shorts and Tevas. But for a guy who has devoted his spare time to assembling a massive arsenal, Chris is an inordinately composed, upbeat, and even-tempered individual. Even when he has to remind me to keep my finger clear of the trigger until I’m about to fire, and to keep the barrel pointed toward the target, he does so without a hint of impatience.
We start by shooting two handguns, an HK VP9 and “the venerable Glock 19.” I hold the guns as instructed, with my left finger along the barrel, the grip notched into the web of my right hand, my thumbs snug up next to one another. It feels pretty awkward, but it works. With the target set at 12 feet, my first shots all wind up grouped tightly in the bulls-eye. We quickly move on to firing several shots in quick succession, releasing the trigger only enough to re-engage it between discharges.
Then Chris gets out the big guns. Adam and I try out a CZ Scorpion EVO carbine, a custom-built AR-15, a short-barrel AKS 74U, a short-barrel PS90, and a Israeli Tavor X95. Then the shop offers to let us try out an MP5 submachine gun, one of the many guns available for rental on-site. But first, a staff member gives me some pointers: Start with single shots, keep downward pressure on the barrel, and “just burp it.” The last time I burped something it was wearing a onesie, and it’s hard to square the gentle treatment of an infant with the experience of firing a deadly firearm on full auto. Still, I do as I’m told, and the clip is empty before I know it.
After we’ve squeezed off about 700 rounds in an hour or so, Chris asks me to name my favorite. There’s really no contest. Firing a machine gun is a fucking blast. I don’t doubt for a minute the SEALs who favor the MP5 regard it with as much affection as a newborn infant.
As for my accuracy, I am pleasantly surprised to discover that I’m actually a decent shot. “You did fantastic,” Chris says, expressing warm praise for my “groupings.” I can’t help noticing that I actually outshot the guys in the next bay: local police officers undergoing their annual qualification tests. “Those shots weren’t exactly center mass,” Chris tells me later with a wince. “I noticed a few shoulder shots. But they were still within the scorable range….” This is not reassuring. Neither are the statistics for law enforcement officers in my home city of New York, where a few years ago, the “hit rate” — the number of fired bullets that actually find their intended target — was found to be just 18%. In one notorious incident, NYPD officers responding to a shooting near the Empire State Building fired 16 rounds, killing the gunman and also managing to wound nine bystanders in the process. For all the allure of firearms, it strikes me they take considerable skill to use effectively.
Back in the range’s lobby, the TV is tuned to Fox News. British Prime Minister Theresa May is addressing the media, responding to a terror attack that’s unfolded in London while we’ve been having our shooting lesson. It seems the killer’s weapons of choice included a Hyundai Tuscon and a pair of knives. “A deranged individual is going to do what a deranged individual is going to do,” Chris says. “There’s no shortage of methods to kill people in this world.”
After we wash the gunpowder from our hands and load the firearms back into the trunk of Chris’ Charger, we stop by the Lotus retail shop next to the range. “So did you absorb enough freedom to go back to New York?” staff member Eric Spicer asks me with a grin. I tell him I think I have. “This is the Sunshine Gunshine State,” he adds cheerfully. “There’s no limitation to what can be had and what can be done. Everything from 2.9 semi-automatic saws to shotguns, short barrels, suppressors, machine guns. If you fill out the paperwork and you’re patient enough, anything can be had. Hell, grenade launchers…”
My colleague Adam asks him why the shop is called Lotus. After all, the lotus flower is one of the primary symbols of Buddhism, a religion that preaches nonviolence. As Buddha tells his monks, “Even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching.” This is not a sentiment often heard around the Sunshine Gunshine State these days, nor any other state, to be honest.
Turns out the name is a reference to the lotuses that grow in the Ohio River, not far from the shop’s original location outside Louisville, Kentucky. Which is not to say that shooting doesn’t have a certain calming effect that some devotees compare to meditation. “It’s definitely a cleanser,” Spicer says. “You can have a pretty horrible week and then spend 30 minutes on the firing range, and all the stress is gone, you’re smiling, you’re completely relaxed. Five minutes behind a machine gun, and you know exactly your purpose again. It’s better than therapy and probably on par, price-wise.”
“Shooting is definitely therapeutic,” Chris agrees. “It lets me have a huge stress release. After a long week at the office running a company, it lets me refocus myself on something other than work.”
During lunch at a nearby restaurant, Chris is careful to sit facing the entrance. He has a conceal-carry permit, and as usual, he is packing heat. “I live in a pretty safe town,” he says. “I don’t expect anything to happen, but it can. It’s just all about situational awareness and knowing what’s going on around you.”
Chris has trained himself never to look at his smartphone in uncontrolled environments, especially while pumping gas. “That would mean taking my focus off of everything around me, and I’m making myself a target by doing that,” he explains. “So I just don’t do it. I don’t expect anything to happen to me, but I will make sure to the best of my abilities that nothing will happen to me, because I’ll see it coming, hopefully. I’m always scanning — I’m always looking around the room.”
I tell him I can’t imagine living that way, that for me, constantly scanning my environment for potential threats sounds hellish. I’d rather scan the world for possibilities, for scraps of truth, for opportunities to connect with other people — even people who might seem threatening on first glance — than worry about taking them out before they do the same to me.
Then again, maybe that’s because I live in New York City. When I moved to town in the early 90s, it was considered prudent to carry a second wallet, so you could satisfy a mugger without giving up your ID and credit cards. Charles Bronson’s blockbuster vigilante fantasy “Death Wish” still felt fresh. But the city’s a pretty safe place these days, at least if you’re not hanging around the Empire State Building on the wrong morning. In fact, lately, we’ve actually been leaving our front door unlocked. It’s just easier. That way, when we’re not home, the UPS guy can leave our Amazon deliveries inside so they don’t get wet.
Of course, I may be naive. Someone could easily invade my home, hog-tie me, torture my kids, and make me watch. I know, I’ve seen movies. And civil society may well come loose at any moment. Store shelves will empty out. ATMs will stop dispensing money, which won’t be worth shit anyway. Neighbors will turn on one another, and those with weapons will organize themselves into roving bands like in a Cormac McCarthy novel and enslave the rest of us.
I realize all that, but for now, I tell Chris, I’m okay risking it. “That is a fine way to go through life and chances are nothing will ever happen to you,” he replies, as the waitress sets down our salads. “But on the one-off chance that something does happen and you don’t see it coming, you’re going to pay for it dearly.”
In the end, we do find one area of common ground: utter contempt for the practice of walking around staring at a smartphone.
On the drive back to his house, I ask Chris what annoys him most about the people on the other side of the gun debate. “Take any anti-gun person or somebody on the fence and show them what I have in my collection, I will say 95% of the time they’re going to say I am a gun nut,” he says, “that there’s something wrong with me because I have this many firearms. And I kind of get defensive and bristle at that, because I’m a professional. I’m an executive in a company. I have a wonderful family. I have a great home life. I have dogs and cats. So I am a normal person. It’s just that I choose to collect firearms instead of stamps or knickknacks.”
As he pulls the Charger into the driveway, an older woman waves from the yard. “That’s my mother-in-law,” he says. “Now, she would definitely say I’m a nut.”