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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2013-07-06

A look inside a survival group
By Brian Blanco

Photo by REUTERS/Brian Blanco

Photo by REUTERS/Brian Blanco

A young member of the North Florida Survival Group gathers an AK-47 rifle from the group leader's truck before heading out to conduct enemy contact drills during a field training exercise in Old Town, Florida, December 08, 2012.
There's a moment - I'm not certain if it's a second lost or second gained, but for 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, of course, had no ill intentions with the weapon. She was simply retrieving the gun for her militia's leader, a man she affectionately calls "Uncle Jim", 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... an opportunity I snatched up without hesitation.

It's not every day that a photojournalist gets an invitation to cover a militia gathering. They, understandably, tend to be fairly secretive groups who don't exactly keep the media on their Christmas card lists. When I first emailed 57-year-old former police officer Jim Foster introducing myself and requesting access to his group, the North Florida Survival Group, for a story I was working on about Second Amendment issues, I fully expected to have my email dragged straight to the trash, never to hear from him. Within hours he proved me wrong, leaving 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 haircuts 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.

Photo by REUTERS/Brian Blanco

Photo by REUTERS/Brian Blanco

A member of the North Florida Survival Group looks down the scope of his AR-15 rifle as he joins other members in performing enemy contact drills during a field training exercise.
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 President 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 Second Amendment rights. Are you willing to die to trying to take them from me?"

That was six days before 26 children and six adult staff members were shot and killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. 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 gets 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 Foster. "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."


Brian Blanco is a freelance photojournalist based in Tampa Bay, Florida area. Check out his work at his SportsShooter.com member page: http://www.sportsshooter.com/members.html?id=899.

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