SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
More than any other country, the United States seems to have an instinctive affinity for guns.
Given its rugged history and penchant for individualism and self-reliance, perhaps that isn’t altogether surprising. After all, the U.S. was born out of armed revolution, in which musket-wielding colonists fought off their British overlords. Later, westward expansion and tales of swashbuckling gunslingers enshrined the mythos of firearms into the national psyche.
The passage of time hasn’t diminished Americans’ fondness for guns.
According to a Gallup poll released in October 2011, almost half of respondents reported having a gun on the premises of their house or property, and one in three claimed to personally own a gun.
At a minimum, these answers imply more than 100 million guns exist in the United States today. The true figure probably is much higher because many citizens own a cache of multiple firearms. Another estimate, from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, puts the number at 270 million – or about 88 guns per 100 people. The next closest country, Yemen, measured 55 guns per 100 people.
In short, America packs a lot of heat. And its citizens tend to bristle at any infringement, real or perceived, of their beloved Second Amendment rights.
Guns are back in the national spotlight in the wake of the recent Aurora massacre. After a brief hiatus to grieve for the 12 victims killed in the attack, politicians have begun to murmur, albeit tentatively, about policy changes to curb gun violence.
It remains to be seen whether gun control will feature prominently in the presidential campaign this fall. To this point, guns have not been a pressing issue for most voters. The ailing economy and stubbornly feeble job market win that contest by a wide margin, regardless of political party affiliation. In another Gallup poll taken earlier this year on voter priorities, guns didn’t even register.
But according to one segment of U.S. society – the gun lobby and its supporters – the election in November carries grave ramifications for the future. A potential second term for President Barack Obama, in their view, would entail an unprecedented assault on their right to bear arms.
Based on Obama’s tenure in office, it seems an odd argument to make. During the 2008 campaign, he supported reinstating the federal assault-weapons ban, which had prohibited semiautomatic firearms and high-capacity magazines while in effect from 1994 to 2004. The president has not proposed the idea since, although Aurora could change the equation.
The only substantive firearms bill signed into law during Obama’s first term actually expanded gun rights by allowing civilians to conceal-carry inside national parks and bring guns onto Amtrak trains (as long as they are unloaded and remain inside checked baggage).
Strangely, the president simultaneously has drawn the ire of the National Rifle Association and received an “F” grade from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national advocacy group that favors “sensible gun regulations.”
The dearth of gun legislation has not stopped the NRA’s longtime CEO, Wayne LaPierre, from making a series of vociferous warnings.
LaPierre has called Obama’s inaction a deliberate, carefully crafted ruse – or “massive Obama conspiracy,” as he puts it – to lull gun owners into complacency before “dismantling” the Second Amendment and pursuing a sweeping gun grab if re-elected.
Local gun owners and instructors offered varied reactions to LaPierre’s elaborate theory.
To Gene Pearcey, Obama is the latest in a long string of politicians intent on disarming the public in order to consolidate more control.
“The Second Amendment is not about duck hunting. It’s about having a means to defend yourself, whether from home intruders, massive riots or a tyrannical government that becomes too powerful,” Pearcey said. “(The administration) can say whatever they want. But quite honestly, I don’t believe them.”
J.D. McKnight struggled to reconcile Obama’s verbal support for gun rights as president with his earlier statements as an Illinois state senator and the reputation of the Democratic Party.
“To be fair, (Obama) publicly said he was not against the private ownership of firearms or the use of firearms for self-defense,” McKnight said. “But some literature suggests he has a private agenda. And traditionally, Democrats are anti-gun to some degree.”
Jeff Mannix gave the conspiracy talk no credence whatsoever.
“It’s all fabricated. All fear-mongering. Obama has been pretty kind to gun rights,” Mannix said. “They like to start rumors to inflame panic and paranoia. And people buy it. It’s a good fundraising tool.”
LaPierre has closed several letters to NRA members with an appeal to renew or upgrade their memberships, or otherwise donate financially.
“Sign up friends and neighbors. The future of our liberty, our free America is in our hands,” he wrote.
A tall order
Excising the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights, which LaPierre purports is Obama’s ultimate goal, would be a colossal undertaking. Amendments to the Constitution require a two-thirds supermajority vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures. In the age of the filibuster, when even minor bills are stalled in Congress indefinitely, the odds of that happening look virtually impossible.
But to those suspicious of Obama, that is small comfort. They worry the president would try to sidestep the procedural red tape by nominating liberal Supreme Court justices, approving international arms treaties and using executive privilege.
“It’s a big fear for those of us who have been paying attention,” said Velbeth Jones, chairwoman of La Plata County Republicans. “Look what (Obama) has done by executive order. He’s saying ‘don’t arrest illegal immigrants.’ That’s circumventing our laws. He’s taking the laws on the books and saying ‘don’t abide by them.’”
Adding fuel to the fire are the proposed United Nations Arms Trade Treaty and “Fast and Furious” gunwalking scandal on the U.S.-Mexico border. Various conservative politicians and pundits have construed them as evidence of Obama’s intent to covertly “chip away” at gun rights.
The administration has denied the accusations in both cases.
Boon for business
In late 2008, consumers across the country flocked to gun shops in droves, skittish that president-elect Obama and would enact a barrage of restrictions. Demand for handguns, rifles, shotguns and ammunition spiked and have remained high since.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the U.S. gun industry has risen in value from $19 billion in 2008 to more than $31 billion last year. June was the 25th consecutive month where the number of FBI background checks was higher compared with that same month the previous year.
“The Obama factor” has become something of an inside joke among the gun crowd, with industry experts facetiously labeling the president “salesman of the year.”
Sellers in Southwest Colorado recalled the 2008 firearms rush as if it was yesterday.
“We had lines out the door,” said Bruce Dominey, owner of Rocky Mountain Pawn & Gun.
Eric Taylor, who works at Goods for the Woods, has noticed history beginning to repeat itself this year.
“There were shortages of certain products. It happened in 2008, and it will happen again. People have started stocking up early,” he said.
On the other hand, Steve Artherton, a gunsmith at Shooter’s World in Cortez, thought gun panic wasn’t unique to Obama.
“Whenever there’s a change in power, there’s concern with rights being treated as privileges,” he said.
Lesser of two evils
Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee for president, seemed to echo LaPierre’s sentiments when speaking to the NRA in April.
“We need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen and those who seek to protect their home and family,” he said. “President Obama has not; I will.”
Left unsaid was Romney’s own checkered history with the gun crowd. During an unsuccessful Senate run in 1994, Romney famously said he didn’t “line up” with interest groups, including the NRA. He later signed a state assault-weapons ban as governor of Massachusetts and tripled registration fees on gun owners.
Since embarking on his two presidential campaigns, however, Romney has tried to adopt a more gun-friendly image, becoming a “lifetime NRA member” in 2006 and describing his “small varmint” hunting exploits.
Some gun advocates feel they will be settling for two unsatisfactory choices this year.
“I don’t think, for Second Amendment supporters, (Romney) will be their hero,” said Jeff Crank, a Colorado Springs radio host and former president of the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition. “The lesser of two evils? Perhaps. I think there’s some truth to that.”