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Kenny Brand of Blue Ridge Arsenal, left, assists brothers Tony Drosos, 32, and Peter Drosos, 30, with some of the firearms in Chantilly, VA Tuesday, December 18, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Kenny Brand of Blue Ridge Arsenal, left, assists brothers Tony Drosos, 32, and Peter Drosos, 30, with some of the firearms in Chantilly, VA Tuesday, December 18, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

America’s obsession with guns Add to ...

“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.

A problem

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.

A necessity

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.

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