An amendment revisited
Old Town, Florida
By Brian Blanco
You feel a moment. I’m not certain if it’s a second lost or a second gained, but in that moment the Earth stops. It’s the moment you watch a child, a young girl in purple shoes, pull a loaded AK-47 assault rifle from the cab of a pick-up truck.
The child, 9-year-old Brianna, had no ill intentions with the weapon of course. She was simply retrieving the gun for a man she affectionately calls “Uncle Jim”. He is Jim Foster, a 57-year-old former police officer and the leader of the North Florida Survival Group. The organisation teaches children and adults alike to handle weapons, and Jim refers to it as a ‘militia”.
Jim was the man who, after feeling out my intentions in a two-hour meeting at a chain restaurant a few weeks earlier, had granted me permission to photograph his group’s field training exercise. It was an opportunity I snatched up without hesitation. It’s not every day that a photojournalist gets an invitation to shoot a militia gathering. Understandably, they tend to be fairly secretive groups who don’t exactly keep the media on their Christmas card lists.
When I first emailed Jim requesting access to his organisation for a story about second amendment issues, I fully expected to have my email dragged straight to the trash, never to hear from him again. Within hours he proved me wrong. He left a phone message thanking me for contacting him and agreeing to meet with me face to face, albeit sans cameras or tape recorders.
It wasn’t exactly the response I was expecting from a man whose first few sentences under his “About Me” section of his website, under a photo of him dressed head-to-toe in camo and holding an AK-47, says that he believes our freedom as Americans is in jeopardy and that our government is moving us toward socialism. I knew, based on the political messages and blog entries on his site that he and his members would have strong political opinions and that it might be necessary for me to dust off a cheesy line I stole years ago from an even cheesier Nick Nolte movie from the 1980s where Nolte, playing a predictable version of a war photojournalist, is asked what side he’s on and his response: “I don’t take sides, I take pictures.”
If you’re looking for a well-oiled machine of a militia, the North Florida Survival Group will likely disappoint. Members are not all chiseled young males with high-and-tight hair cuts straight out of central casting. An elderly man in blue coveralls and a borrowed .22 caliber varmint hunting rifle protects the flank of a younger man in a full ensemble of tactical gear and a tricked-out AR-15 assault rifle but while their gear may separate them, their political beliefs unite them.
To their credit, I never had to use my Nolte line with the members of Foster’s group. While the members of the group were clearly passionate about their distrust of our government and, more specifically, our president, they never tried to force-feed me their opinions or interrogate me for mine. Foremost on their minds was gun confiscations. Meeting the group just a few weeks after the re-election of Barack Obama, the prevailing concern among the group was when the next gun ban would be coming and how they should stockpile ammunition and weapons to prepare for it.
An over-sized t-shirt containing a slogan and the logo of the North Florida Survival Group on a young boy carrying a Ruger rifle while covering the flank of a line of militia members searching for an imagined enemy summed up their position with the shirt reading: “I’m willing to die to defend my 2nd amendment rights. Are you willing to die to trying to take them from me?” – That was six days before Sandy Hook. Six days before the country would launch into one of the largest and most heated gun control debates in the country’s history. Six days before so called “assault weapons” and ammunition disappeared, in a frenzied buying spree, from gun store shelves across the nation.
Prior to the shooting at Sandy Hook, Foster said he received on average about one or two people inquiring about signing up for the North Florida Survival Group. Now, after Sandy Hook, he says he get’s about one person signing up per day. “When I first got into this, I thought I’d never have to use these skills in my lifetime but we as citizens have a duty to defend the constitution.” said Foster. “Now it looks like groups like ours are going to be called up to defend the constitution even if it means using force.”
“The government is trying to disarm us,” said Jim. “There weren’t enough dead bodies to do it before, but now they’ve got the bodies of 26 dead kids and I’m afraid that’s enough for them to get what they want,” he said, referring to the 20 children and six adults who were shot at Sandy Hook.