About 13 kilometres from the National Rifle Association’s headquarters, Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly, Va., is bustling as the days count down to Christmas.
A businessman buys a pair of pistols to give as gifts to his father and girlfriend; a young woman, hoping to purchase a gun for protection, listens intently as her date instructs her on the finer points of firing one; a middle-aged welder puts an assault rifle to his shoulder and takes aim at a paper target emblazoned with the likeness of Osama bin Laden, each shot echoing between the range’s cinderblock walls.
The store, located in a northern Virginia industrial park, is at the epicentre of the gun debate coursing through the nation in the wake of last week’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Customers here represent a cross-section of their nation’s gun owners: young professionals, middle-aged women, college-age hipsters.
Neither the caricatures of whiskey-swilling men in overalls en route to a turkey shoot nor the shabby survivalists gearing up for the next Armageddon, many appear prosperous, polite or subdued. They’re just a bunch of people going shopping. And for them, driving to Blue Arsenal is a reflexive way of life, like someone from North Vancouver or Mississauga heading to the nearest Canadian Tire.
Mark Warner, a gregarious clerk at Blue Ridge, says he acquired his passion for guns during a childhood spent on a farm, where he learned to hunt. Today, he shares the pastime with his twin 12-year-old daughters. “To me, an assault rifle is a recreational tool that’s fun to use. … It’s a great, fun thing to do in a controlled environment,” says the 41-year-old, who shares the same name as the Democratic senator who this week became one of a handful of “pro-gun” lawmakers to come out in favour of stricter gun control.
Brian Patti, a 28-year-old with red hair and a cheery disposition, stands a few metres away, waiting on a friend he is instructing in the use of a pistol. He inherited his interest in the weapons from his grandfather and sees in them a connecting thread through his country’s history.
“It’s more than a gun. It’s a piece of national identity,” he says. “And I like the challenge of going to the end of the range and trying to shoot something the size of a quarter.”
Drive west from the nation’s capital and you will quickly encounter states where the Second Amendment is sacrosanct, and firearms pervade society – whether used for hunting, kept as collectibles or purchased for the sheer fun of blasting off rounds at targets. And in these places, many see no connection between these quotidian objects that permeate their everyday lives, and the otherworldly violence that a troubled young man wrought with an assault rifle on Sandy Hook Elementary School. Such things seem to unfold in a faraway parallel reality.
Which shows how difficult it will be for President Barack Obama and the lawmakers a half-hour’s drive away to bring in tougher controls on gun ownership.
The Connecticut shooting that left 20 young children and six educators dead has put guns back on the nation’s agenda. Mr. Obama is promising a set of legislative proposals – likely to include a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines that allow guns to fire up to 30 rounds without reloading – next month. He has found support in unexpected quarters.
Senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, both of whom enjoy high ratings from the NRA – the country’s influential pro-gun lobby group – have called for action.
On national television, Mr. Warner declared “enough is enough,” while Mr. Manchin said “everything should be on the table.”
Congressman John Yarmuth, who represents staunchly conservative Kentucky, released an emotional statement, arguing that the only way to make the nation safer was to cut down the number of firearms.