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World Gun culture woven deeply into American social fabric

Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Cox bows her head during a prayer at a vigil to honour victims of the Umpqua Community College shooting on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015.

AMANDA LUCIER/NYT

A half-hour's drive west of Portland, Ore., deep within the forestland that separates the city from the ocean, a ruined train track runs alongside the Salmonberry River.

Following what remains of the tracks, mangled by mudslides and years of neglect, makes for a pleasant day hike. The forest, thick with moss-lacquered trees and nests of amber chanterelles, is quiet – save for the trickle of the Salmonberry, and a hail of gunfire. On the old logging road leading to the trailhead, dozens of shooters congregate. They come here to practise, their targets crudely drawn on old wooden boards placed haphazardly in the roadside clearings. On a bright summer day, the forest comes alive with the pop-pop-pop of handguns – the shooters as much a part of the landscape as the hikers.

On Thursday, Oregon became the site of the 45th school shooting in the United States this year, after a 26-year-old named Chris Harper-Mercer walked into Umpqua Community College in the small logging town of Roseburg armed with five handguns and a rifle. In 10 minutes, Mr. Harper-Mercer killed more people than all the fatal shootings in Japan last year.

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Once again, the massacre unleashed a torrent of calls for tighter gun-control laws – the most pained of which came from U.S. President Barack Obama. In the United States, where there are almost as many civilian firearms as there are civilians, almost all talk of gun legislation now seems to ebb and flow with the frequency and intensity of mass shootings.

But that kind of debate obscures a simple American reality: Throughout much of this country, from rural towns, such as Roseburg, to the vast majority of the Deep South, guns are part of the social and cultural fabric. In these places, there exists a significant portion of the population that views gun ownership not as a standalone issue, but as a bellwether of individual freedom. For this outspoken and politically influential bloc, any measure to limit weapons – even a recent proposal to ban a single type of armour-piercing bullet – impinges on the basic American right to be left alone.

In one Georgia town named Kennesaw, gun ownership is mandatory. The law is purely ceremonial, meant not to compel but to make a statement.

Earlier this year in Kennesaw, The Globe and Mail interviewed Robert Jones, the town's unofficial historian. With his rifles on display upon the kitchen table, he explained why he owns a set of weapons he hardly ever uses.

"People ask me, 'Why do you have guns, do you hunt?' No. 'Do you target-shoot?' Rarely," he had said.

" 'Well, why do you need a gun, who do you need to protect yourself from?' And my response is: 'To protect myself from liberals like you, who want to abrogate my constitutional rights.' "I think if liberals had their way … they would take every private gun away."

Many firearms supporters ascribe to the notion that any gun-control measure inevitably precedes every gun-control measure. But twinned with this ideology is something far more tangible – the persuasive power of money.

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Guns and ammunition constitute a $17-billion (U.S.) industry in the United States, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, with an indirect economic impact of more than $40-billion. Roughly 134,000 people rely on the weapons business to earn a living. The National Rifle Association, the biggest and most influential of many industry lobby groups, shells out more than $3-million a year to just about any candidate opposed to gun restrictions.

Pressed by ideological and financial pressure, few politicians who depend on the pro-firearm vote have ever seen a gun-control law they saw fit to support. The day after the Oregon shooting, even as a parade of big-name Democrats voiced their support for tighter restrictions, several Republican presidential candidates dismissed them off-hand: Ohio Governor John Kasich said increased use of the death penalty and stiffer prison sentences, not new gun laws, were needed to stop mass shootings.

Jeb Bush dismissed tighter controls, saying: "Look, stuff happens, there's always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something, and it's not necessarily the right thing to do."

In reality, when it comes to gun control in the United States, that impulse to do something has rarely resulted in something being done. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, 2012 – when a man killed 20 children – U.S. states have passed more laws to loosen gun laws than to tighten them.

On Friday, Democrat Richard Blumenthal became the latest politician to try once more to turn that tide. The Connecticut senator introduced federal legislation that would ban gun sales until background checks are complete (in some parts of the country, the law allows for "default sales" if background checks are still pending after 72 hours).

"Gun violence is a public health epidemic and menace that must be met at peril to our moral as well as physical survival," Mr. Blumenthal said. "We cannot allow another tragedy to pass with only words of grief and regret."

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But there have been no shortage of tragedies, no shortage of potential turning points at which, ultimately, no turn was made. There have been 142 school shootings in the United States since Sandy Hook. Thursday's killings in Oregon were the first school shooting since an incident in Sioux Falls, S.D. – one day earlier. None has prompted even temporary reconsideration among those who oppose any measure to make weapons harder to obtain.

"Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out," Mr. Obama said on Thursday. " 'We need more guns,' they'll argue. 'Fewer gun safety laws.' Does anybody really believe that?"

In much of the country, the answer is an unflinching Yes.

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Past mass shootings in the U.S.

April 16, 2007

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Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on the Blacksburg, Va., campus before killing himself. The dead included 27 students and five faculty. Another 17 people were injured by gunfire.

April 3, 2009

Jiverly Wong, 41, killed 13 people and injured four others at an immigrant-services centre before killing himself in Binghamton, N.Y.

Nov. 5, 2009

Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and injured 32 others at an army base in Fort Hood, Tex. He has been sentenced to death. The U.S. Department of Defence called the shooting an act of workplace violence.

July 20, 2012

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James Holmes, 24, sprayed bullets during a midnight screening of a Batman movie at a theatre in Aurora, Colo. He killed 12 people and wounded 58. He is sentenced to life in prison.

Dec. 14, 2012

Adam Lanza, 20, killed 27 people in Newtown, Conn., at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including 20 children and six school staff before killing himself. Earlier, he had killed his mother.

Sept. 16, 2013

Aaron Alexis, 34, killed 12 at the Washington Navy Yard. The former U.S. Navy reservist died in a gun battle with police.

April 2, 2014

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Ivan Lopez, 34, shot three people and injured 14 others at the Fort Hood military base in Texas. The army specialist killed himself.

Michael Chen

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