American photographer Brian Blanco gained rare access to a group of survivalists in Florida. The North Florida Survival Group trains children and adults alike to handle weapons and survive in the wild. The group passionately supports the right of U.S. citizens to bear arms and its website states that it aims to teach "patriots to survive in order to protect and defend our Constitution against all enemy threats." In December, Mr. Blanco spent a day photographing the group. It was six days before the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn. He wrote about the photo shoot in his blog.
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, nine-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 organization teaches children and adults 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.
If you're looking for a well-oiled machine of a militia, the North Florida Survival Group will likely disappoint. Members are not all chiselled young males with high-and-tight haircuts straight out of central casting.
An elderly man in blue coveralls and a borrowed .22-calibre 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, they are united by their political beliefs.
Meeting the group just a few weeks after the re-election of U.S. 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.
For me, their position was summed up by an oversized T-shirt worn by a young boy in the group, who carried a Ruger rifle while covering the flank of a line of militia members searching for an imagined enemy. The shirt showed the logo of the North Florida Survival Group and was decorated with the slogan: "I'm willing to die to defend my 2nd Amendment rights. Are you willing to die trying to take them from me?"
I took [these pictures] six days before Sandy Hook. Six days before the country would launch into one of the largest and most heated gun-control debates in its history. Six days before so-called "assault weapons" and ammunition disappeared, in a frenzied buying spree, from gun-store shelves across the nation.
Before 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 per month. Now, after the attack, he says he gets about one person signing up every 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," Foster said. "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," Jim said.
"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.