Updated: 1:55 p.m., April 9: One teacher from North Marion Middle said she had no idea the march was happening. As far as she knew, this was the Marion County superintendent’s second annual literacy festival, featuring a woman dressed as Elsa from the Disney film “Frozen,” opportunities to paint faces, a Kona Ice truck and a reading of “Unity the Unicorn.” The open carry march, it turned out, was a block north, on the other side of the parking garage that bordered the festival.
There, congregated at the north entrance to the garage, march organizers gripped their pistols, rifles and fishing rods.
Yes, fishing rods. Because while Florida isn’t generally an open carry state, state statute 790.25 allows people either engaged in, going to or returning from camping, hunting or fishing trips to ignore the statute that prohibits open carry. So the crowd, armed with Glocks, Berettas and Ugly Stiks, planned to make the 10-minute walk to nearby Tuscawilla Park to fish. Many of them held signs and waved flags. “If there’s a gun around, I want to be in control of it,” read one sign sketched into cardboard with black permanent marker. “Gun Free Zones are Free Fire Zones,” read another. The flags were mostly American with some yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” banners highlighting the crowd, leaving no doubt about who the marchers were.
“We’re just like everyone else,” marcher James Dykes said. “We just happen to wear firearms to protect ourselves and others.”
Dykes is the man to start with. As one of the directors of Florida Carry, he helped organize the march. He said it was arranged in response to the March 24 “March for our Lives,” when hundreds of thousands descended on Washington D.C. and millions more joined in around the country to call for gun reform.
Attendees of Saturday’s march in Ocala — about 200 total — largely said their purpose was to educate the public about firearms by calling attention to themselves (although some park goers didn’t see it that way). Many of the marchers felt excluded from the national dialogue at a time when the majority of Americans are calling for enhanced firearm regulations, and they wanted to ensure that gun control advocates don’t monopolize the conversation.
“The way we’re being portrayed by anti-gun groups is incorrect,” Dykes said. “Law-abiding gun owners are very peaceful.”
They tried to show that by rehearsing firearm safety before the March began promptly at 11 a.m. That was followed by a disclaimer: “If we run into any opposition at all, arguing, yelling at us, just keep on going.” But there was no opposition to worry about as the group embarked from the parking garage and snaked a block west to the Ocala Downtown Square. With one large American flag leading the way and a truck honking in support, the marchers yelled — not recited, yelled — the Pledge of Allegiance, as if it was a hit song at a concert. Then a tall man in a long-sleeved orange T-Shirt emerged and announced that a moment of silence would be followed by a prayer. The silence lasted for 21 seconds before the prayer began.
“Our country has turned, Father,” he said, “and it’s all on us.
“We thank you that you are the creator, and that we have these rights, Lord,” he continued. “… That people will see our needs — that our rights can’t be trampled on… In Christ’s name we pray, amen.”
With that, the group chugged down East Silver Springs Boulevard waving its flags and cradling its guns. Its first support came from an eastbound Ford Expedition, then a westbound dark blue Ford Taurus. A white F-250 followed by a blue Hyundai Sonata continued to serenade the marchers, but the honking stopped once the group crossed over to the north side of the street and continued up Northeast Watula Avenue.
It was grey when they arrived, and it stayed grey for most of the day. They walked across a bridge that divided the lake in two and continued down a concrete path until they reached the far end of the lake, where grills were already set up. A playground was about 150 feet away.
“I’m fishing for the dumbest fish possible,” said one man whose plan was to cast a bare hook. “We’ve just gotta be doing this to be fishing — not to catch anything.”
Meanwhile, a child strayed from the group to coddle the park’s resident troop of baby ducks. “Look at the ducklings!” he called. “Look at the babies!”
The first and only opposition of the day came soon after.
“You should not be in our park!” yelled Katherine Vega, who carried her 13-month-old son, Mateo, in a stroller. “I’m so angry right now,” she said when approached.
Vega said she intended to bring Mateo to the park to enjoy the playground, but on her drive in, she saw the stream of marchers.
“What caught my attention,” she said, “was the guns that they were all carrying.”
Vega considers her views on guns centrist, but she fumed over the marchers bringing their firearms to a park where children and families were present.
“This is crossing the line,” she said. “There is no need to bring this to the park where the children play.”
Plenty of children were part of the march, though, and she said that was OK. She just didn’t want other children — children whose parents’ only option was to leave the park — to be surrounded by guns.
“Them taking advantage of a stinking little loophole,” she said, “that’s just as bad as the things they’re trying to protest.”
Soon after Vega voiced her concerns, someone on the lake’s wooden dock reeled in a channel catfish — the first fish of the day — and earned applause and scattered woos from spots around the shore.
Douglas Bell was fishing with his wife and 9-year-old son, Greyson, when the first fish was caught, but he soon returned to his car with his son to fetch some gear. While they were gone, his wife caught the day’s second fish — another channel cat — which fell off the hook and flopped back into the sewer-brown water. When Bell returned, he explained his intention wasn’t to offend Vega or anyone else.
“It opens up a dialogue,” he explained. “That’s what it does.”
And there were some examples to support his claim. People did approach the marchers — not many people, granted, but some — to ask about what they were doing. The marchers explained they were marching for their second amendment rights, or as 62-year-old Dennis Miller clarified, for “all rights.”
“We’ve gotta be able to keep our rights,” he said, “or they’re gonna take ‘em from us.”
Miller also summarized what seemed to be a common thread among attendees. While gun control advocates view increasing restrictions in order to prevent more mass shootings as common sense, Miller and other marchers see the ability to protect themselves as paramount.
“It’s common sense for people to be able to protect themselves,” he said. “It’s a natural thing.”
Another common thread was simultaneous dread and excitement for Senate Bill 7026, which was signed by Governor Rick Scott on March 9. The dread was caused by the restrictions — raising the minimum age to purchase rifles to 21 and banning bump stocks — while the excitement was caused by the provision that funded arming certain school staffers under certain conditions.
There seemed to be near universal agreement that arming teachers will make schools safer despite the potential for accidents. Most attendees agreed that if training is administered properly, and as long as no teachers are forced to participate, then they think it could help. Although some admitted they don’t see a solution that leaves the second amendment intact while preventing every shooting. Bell, for example, noted that in exchange for living in a “free and open society,” people accept certain risks.
“Freedom is dangerous,” Bell said. “Always has been.”
Ruben Espinosa drove up from Sunrise, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, at “0300” to march. He spent three years in the Army and works for Alamo now. He heard about the march via Facebook on Thursday and texted his boss on Friday.
“God and country,” he wrote, “I’m not coming to work.”
The 26-year-old sported a rifle and a black long-sleeved shirt as he puttered along the park’s path. He said he’d never attended a rally before, but this time felt different. He felt attacked, and that moved him to action.
“I said enough,” he said. “I called BS.”
His goal was to show that guns, in his view, are not scary. “It should look like this,” he said of the pro-gun movement. “We’ve got kids, family, fishing rods. Soon, we’re gonna be barbecuing. And nothing bad’s gonna happen.”
He turned out to be correct about that last point, and marchers trickled out of the park without any shots fired or feuds flaring up. Dennis Fields was among them.
Fields got his first gun — a .22-caliber rifle — from his mother when he was 13. He used it for target practice and, just once, shot a squirrel. His interest in firearms continued as he aged, and he summarized the main points of most marchers: The promotion of firearm safety, the preservation — with few limitations — of the second amendment’s current interpretation and the desire to get people to see the issue his way.
A great way to do that, he reasoned, is to do exactly what marchers did. That’s why more marches are being planned across Florida, according to a Florida Carry organizer, with one coming to Gainesville sometime this summer.
“I’ve been open-carry fishing for years,” Fields said, “and I don’t like fishing. It’s all about rights.”
*Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a previous version that incorrectly attributed quotes from James Dykes to Chris Wagoner.