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.
“Like so many Americans, when I was growing up I thought guns were the things that protected us from the bad guys – the outlaws, the Nazis, the red menace and the gangsters,” he said. “Now I know, through painful history, that guns are much more likely to be used by the bad guys or the mentally unstable against the rest of us.”
Control advocates point to a simple United Nations metric to make their case: In 2009, the rate of intentional murders in the United States was 4.4 per 100,000 people, more than double that of Canada and the United Kingdom. In Japan, which has one of the most restrictive gun-control regimes in the world, that figure was 0.4.
The gun lobby and its political supporters, for their part, frame the issue as a question of individual freedom. The constitutional right to bear arms, they contend, ensures everyone can have a weapon and that the state never attains a monopoly on the use of force.
Speak with most gun owners, however, and the motivation is more complicated. History plays a part: This was a nation whose roots are steeped in the use of weapons, from the wars that protected it to the pioneers that settled it. Lifestyle is important, too, from those who shoot for sustenance to those who do it for recreation. Firearms are an important part of their lives, and they fear any attempt to restrict the weapons will see a part of something they love slip away.
Between the homey, wood-panelled walls of Antique and Modern Firearms in a Lexington, Ky., strip plaza, you can find guns spanning more than 200 years of American history: a flintlock pistol from the late 18th century; Wild West cowboy rifles; modern shotguns suitable for hunting birds.
But one type of weapon isn’t for sale.
After the Connecticut shooting, Antique and Modern’s owners decided to stop selling assault rifles, the sort of gun Adam Lanza used to perpetrate his massacre.
Proprietor Charles Layson, a bespectacled, silver-haired 70-year-old, says a national debate on gun control in the wake of the shooting is a good thing. He points to some loopholes in the law – one that allows travelling gun shows to sell weapons without conducting a background check, for instance – that could be closed. He is adamant, however, that gun ownership is a right.
“There are some things that could be debated – there is some room for improvement,” he says. “But if you’re an honest citizen who’s never done anything wrong, why shouldn’t you be allowed to sell a gun to someone else who’s never done anything wrong? How much do you restrict the freedom of the majority in hopes of thwarting a criminal?”
Public opinion, meanwhile, has barely moved, even as funeral after funeral of each Connecticut child runs on cable television. Of the 1,219 people surveyed across the country this week in a Pew Research poll, 49 per cent said it was more important to restrict gun ownership than to protect the right to acquire the weapons. That number was up only 2 per cent from a similar survey in July, within the margin of error.
Caldwell, W.Va., is nestled in an Appalachian valley, where forested mountains once marked the frontier between the nascent nation and the vast unknown beyond. Today, they form a neat barrier between the coast and the country’s heartland. The economy has changed over the years – this hamlet relies largely on seasonal tourism for its livelihood – but locals still bag game to help feed their families.
“When the weather gets bad, there’s no work. You’d better get that meat in the freezer,” says Steve Hudnall, 40, who owns the local L & S Pistol Range with his wife, Lisa.
His father, Jack, makes his living dealing with the wildlife that encroaches on homes and farms in the area. A semi-automatic assault rifle, he says, is a useful tool of the trade.
“If you’ve got a pack of coyotes and you have to knock them out, sometimes that’s a good way to do it,” he says.
The television set in the Hudnalls’ business is tuned to a news channel, which has been dominated by non-stop coverage of the shooting for days.
“That makes me sick, because I have kids,” Ms. Hudnall says. “I could never use a gun on a person. Could you? Gun safety is of utmost importance to me.”
The only situation in which she could imagine shooting someone, she says, is to protect innocents from a gunman such as Mr. Lanza.
She isn’t alone. The idea that the nation would be safer if citizens used guns to kill those who would do harm is one of the NRA’s central principles. And, in some ways, it perpetuates itself in a positive-feedback loop: The more people have guns, the more others feel the need to pack heat to defend against potential threats.
John Carter, a clerk at Antique and Modern, sometimes carries a concealed pistol. He’s never pulled it out, but says he wouldn’t hesitate if his life were at risk.
“I’d rather be judged by a group of 12 than buried by six,” he says. “If you read about me, it won’t be in the victims’ column.”
For all the practical reasons gun owners proffer for their choice of weapon, the sheer enjoyment of firing them seems to be the most common attraction.
Patrick McMillion, a 45-year-old systems analyst at a high-tech company in Lewisburg, W.Va., started shooting BB guns competitively in elementary school. He later hunted with shotguns and eventually took up target practice as a hobby. Now, he stops by a pistol range to shoot four or five nights every week, and competes on Fridays.
“It’s hard to explain to some people, but it’s relaxing,” he says, reloading his Ruger Mark II, a handgun built for marksmen like him. “After a day of clicking a mouse and sitting in front of a keyboard, you come down here and you can do something where you see the results right away. It’s a form of relaxation for me.”
Tony Drosos, a 31-year-old contractor who stopped by Blue Ridge to pick up a couple of assault rifles, describes the weapons simply: “They’re fun, man.”
He and his brother, 30-year-old restaurateur Peter, are buying the rifles ahead of the expected ban, partly as an investment in case they go up in price. They’re also looking for pistols to give family members for Christmas.
The brothers are in favour of at least some increased controls. Peter suggests registering guns in peoples’ names, so they can be better traced; Tony says a cooling-off period is also a good idea.
Such nuance is unusual in the highly charged debate.
At a shooting range in suburban Lexington, the owner is reluctant to go on record, but eager to casually share his views with a reporter. He likens gun control to Prohibition: Ban the most powerful weapons, he says, and criminals will simply procure them illegally.
And what of Japan, where strict gun laws seem to have worked?
He pauses for a second before responding: “You know, I don’t think I’d want to live in a country where I couldn’t defend myself.”