BROOKSVILLE — Gun rights advocates will gather at state capitol buildings across the country Saturday. The Sunshine State's event, however, will be 200 miles south of Tallahassee.
Florida's edition of the Guns Across America rally will be at the Hernando County Fairgrounds in Brooksville.
Not a problem, organizers say.
"Florida is 447 miles long," said co-organizer Damon Locke, a 38-year-old paramedic and former Marine who lives near Orlando. "The best venue is Central Florida, where we can have people from all angles coming in."
Guns Across America is the brainchild of Eric Reed, a gun rights advocate in Texas who wanted to push back against gun-control measures proposed in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. Each event is billed as "a peaceful and motivational rally that will send a positive message of gun ownership to the nation."
By Thursday, rallies were set in 47 states, Reed said a few hours after President Barack Obama unveiled sweeping proposals that included bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines like the ones used in Newtown.
Reed said he was lying in bed recently, wondering why no one had organized a rally as the president and lawmakers talked of such measures.
"I decided, why not me?" he said. "Somebody's got to speak up to get Americans unified to stand up for our Second Amendment rights."
A 38-year-old airline captain who lives in the Houston area, Reed already had a way to enlist volunteers. In November, in the wake of the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., last July, he created a Facebook page titled Gun Controls = More Crime. The page now has more than 14,000 fans.
He posted the idea for a rally, got a positive response, then asked for help organizing events in every state.
"The moment I clicked on it, I knew I had to get involved because there wasn't a representative signed up for Florida," said Deb Howard, a 56-year-old Spring Hill resident and disabled mother of two. "I believe in freedom, I believe in the Constitution of the United States of America and I believe we must follow it with no exceptions."
Reed connected Howard and Locke, who tried to get a permit to hold the rally in front of the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando. According to Locke, officials there required a permit application 60 days before the proposed event.
With little time, Locke and Howard decided on the Hernando fairgrounds, about 75 miles to the west. Fairground managers are no strangers to Second Amendment supporters. The Hernando Sportsman's Club hosts a gun show at the site four times a year.
Facebook supporters expressed skepticism.
"Isn't this a very remote area for such an important public display of the Second Amendment?" asked someone named Tom Pendas. "Why not downtown Orlando or Miami Beach where the media will be forced to take notice? I don't believe anyone other than the attendees at this demonstration will know it took place in Brooksville."
In a reply, Locke explained the hurdle in Orange County and noted the lineup of speakers, which includes a Florida state House member (Republican Jimmie T. Smith of Inverness), a former U.S. Senate candidate (retired Army Gen. Mike McCallister) and other "community leaders."
"We did the best we could, and I would appreciate the support," Locke wrote.
"I will see you in Brooksville," Pendas replied.
Locke and Howard say they used their own money to reserve the fairgrounds. They hope to recoup the expense by charging $1 for parking and asking for donations. Any proceeds beyond the costs will go to charity, Howard said.
There will be no gun sales or demonstrations, organizers said.
"The media portrays gun owners in a negative light," according to event rules posted on the Facebook page. "We want to show America we are your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends, and you encounter us every day. Please wear what you would to church, business, or a school event."
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.
CORRECTION: This story has been edited to correct the number of gun shows the Hernando Sportman's Club hosts each year at the Hernando County Fairgrounds.