Why one Riverview man bought his first gun after the Pulse nightclub shooting

A family man from Riverview never much considered buying a firearm. Then came Charleston. And Paris. And the Pulse nightclub.
The mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, was the final straw for J.T. Tapias of Riverview, who bought a semiautomatic pistol shortly afterward to protect himself and his family. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
The mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, was the final straw for J.T. Tapias of Riverview, who bought a semiautomatic pistol shortly afterward to protect himself and his family.LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Published August 13 2016
Updated August 14 2016

It took a lot to persuade J.T. Tapias to buy a Glock.

The 38-year-old lives in Riverview with his wife and young daughter and owns a gym in downtown Tampa. He has been to shooting ranges, but never owned a gun, and never considered himself a "gun guy."

But on June 17, 2015, a white supremacist killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C. Tapias started worrying that his gym — named Fit Method 4:13, after a Bible verse — might be a target for religious attacks.

In November, gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 in Paris, many inside a popular theater. Tapias and his wife, Ana Maria, stopped going to the movies.

"I kept saying, 'You know that the movie theater's a death trap if you don't have a weapon on you,' " he said.

The final straw came June 12 when a gunman killed 49 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Shortly afterward, Tapias went online and ordered a Glock 42, a semiautomatic pistol with a six- shot magazine. He plans to carry it every day, just in case.

"Had we been in a situation like that, at least if someone comes up with a weapon and attacks you, you can push them back a little bit, you know?"

After the ghastly violence at Pulse, thousands of Floridians sought, as Tapias did, the power to push back.

• • •

Crowds worry Tapias.

"If we're in any kind of situation now, especially after the Orlando events, where there's a lot of people, I just — call me paranoid or whatever you want," he said, "but I still don't even want to be there."

That fear affects his daily life.

Tapias "freaked out" after Ana Maria left her cell phone at home, something he never would have done before.

"It's kind of that sense of insecurity of just being out there, not having a way to communicate with her," he said.

When he eats out now, he finds a seat facing the door. He declined to have his photo taken with this story; he didn't want strangers to recognize him as a gun owner. And on the Fourth of July, his Glock not yet having arrived, he decided the family should stay in and watch fireworks on TV.

"I just don't want to be in a public place without anything to defend myself," he said.

Mostly, he's concerned for Ana Maria and daughter Saramia, who is 6 months old.

"This wouldn't even be on my mind if I weren't a married man with a baby," he said. "I'm not fearful in that sense, but with a family, it's a different story. You have that sense of responsibility — you're kind of a protector, especially with two women."

Tapias worries that gun violence will be the norm for his daughter's life.

"I'm thinking now, like, she's going to grow up in a crazy, crazy world," he said.

• • •

Tapias is hardly alone in the way he feels, said Lacey Wallace, a criminal justice assistant professor at Penn State Altoona. Safety fears drive gun sales after mass shootings, and blaring, round-the-clock news coverage can intensify peoples' desire to arm themselves, she said.

"That can drive some of those gun purchases — people watching the news and thinking, 'Oh man, this could happen to me,' " she said. Fear that a mass shooting will prompt new gun control laws can also drive purchases, she said.

After the Pulse shootings, state background checks indicate that gun sales surged at a higher rate than at any point in the past five years. In the two weeks after the shooting, an average of 3,900 checks were conducted per day, nearly twice as many as the prior two weeks, a Tampa Bay Times analysis found. The 94 percent increase following Pulse was larger than the 69 percent increase in background checks in the two weeks after the 2012 Newtown, Conn., shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.

In June, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement recorded more than 92,000 background checks, a 57 percent increase from the same month last year. In July, there were about 91,000 more, up 46 percent from July 2015.

The data only track background checks, and don't measure gun sales. Someone can buy two guns with one background check, for example. And while licensed dealers are required to submit background check requests, private sellers aren't, meaning the total number of guns sold is likely higher than the data indicate.

Guy Lemakos, who owns the gun shop Phoenix Ordnance in Pinellas Park, said many of his sales after the Pulse shooting were to people buying their first gun, or their first in years.

"These are people that never really intended to (buy a gun)," he said. "They didn't want to, but they feel compelled."

Buying a gun may not make Tapias and the others feel any safer in the long run, said Will Hauser, a criminology and criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University.

A 2010 study Hauser co-authored and presented at the American Society of Criminology annual meeting looked at surveys of people taken three years apart. Respondents — some of whom bought guns in the interim — reported how safe they felt each time.

The findings surprised Hauser.

"Guns don't actually make people less fearful of being victimized," he said.

Hauser thought that might mean owners eventually get used to living with a firearm and lose any new feeling of security from when they first got it.

"You might feel safer for a short period of time . . . but after a while, the gun becomes a normal part of your life," he said.

Plus, Hauser thought, seeing a gun every day could make it harder to forget about crime.

"It's a constant reminder of why you have the gun in the first place."

• • •

Tapias said he never considered religious violence before the Charleston shooting.

"These were things that, living here in the U.S., you never think about," he said.

With Paris and Pulse, he became more worried, and said he had friends nearby both shootings, though neither was harmed. He has also brushed close to hostility himself.

A couple of months ago, he said, he was at work when a man came into the gym harassing and threatening people. It got him thinking that his gym, which opens at 4:45 a.m., was vulnerable.

"If someone were to come in here, what would I do?" Tapias asked. "I mean besides fighting, if they have a weapon, I'm done."

Still, he heard from people close to him urging him not to bring a gun into his home. Part of it was his upbringing. He's Hispanic and was raised in New York. He said people close to him don't hunt, so there was never reason to have a gun in the house.

"They're not part of our culture," Tapias said.

Friends and family also said having a gun would create more problems than it would ever solve. When Tapias told his mother that he was buying a gun, she had "the typical Spanish mom response which is, 'Why would you get a gun? That can cause more trouble, and so many more problems.' "

He said one of his friends in Colombia, a police officer, backed up his mom.

"And this is a guy who's in some serious situations," he said. "He tells me all the time, having a gun can open up a can of worms."

• • •

Nathan Bangs — Tapias' client who helped him buy the Glock — founded Shooters Tampa Bay, a gun enthusiast Facebook group. He also takes part in team shooting competitions. Bangs said he often gets calls from friends asking for advice on buying firearms, especially after mass shootings. He said he always has a serious conversation with them.

Bangs asks if they're ready for such a responsibility, and whether they'll get training. He emphasizes another important question: "You have to actually look at yourself and say, 'Are you capable? Are you willing to take a life?' "

Tapias said the key to carrying a gun safely is good training.

"I remember when I didn't know how to drive, I was scared, but it was based on the fact that I didn't know how to drive," he said.

He said he'll pass along shooting skills to his daughter, but not too soon. Carrying a gun, he acknowledged, requires a certain level of maturity.

"Now, I see as part of me being a responsible father, to teach her eventually how to shoot," he said.