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AMERICA'S GUN CULTURE: Nation wrestles with individual rights vs. safety measures in cultural, legislative tug of war

There are more civilian firearms in the United States than there are civilians, more licensed gun dealers than grocery stores and McDonald’s franchises combined, and more deaths by firearms than by traffic accidents.

Guns are an indelible part of the entirety of American culture, an aspect venerated or vilified depending on who’s engaged in the conversation.

Gary Bayne, of Allegheny County, owns dozens of firearms – from handguns to long guns, including AR-15-style rifles. He’s a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, medically retired law enforcement and a certified instructor in firearms training and gun safety.

Bayne says he supports legislation intended to reduce gun violence: safe storage requirements, universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders.

“Half the people who own firearms should probably not,” Bayne said. “It blows my mind that there’s no standards or guidelines for someone to be trained on something that could take a human life in a matter of seconds.”

Heidi Otiker, 40, of Kokomo, Indiana, bought a pistol when she became a mother. She says that protecting her children and herself was the priority reason for the purchase.

Heidi Otiker

Heidi Otiker

She carries routinely, and she stresses gun safety as an owner – so much so that she thinks training should be a prerequisite when purchasing a gun.

“I should have the right to protect myself,” Otiker said. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. You can’t just categorize every gun owner in this country to be a killer.”

There were an estimated 393 million civilian-owned guns in the U.S. compared to 326 million citizens in 2017, according to an oft-cited global study by the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey. That was before the pandemic supercharged a record rush on guns and ammo in 2020 and 2021.

The average gun owner owns five firearms, according to the 2021 National Firearms Survey. A Pew Research Center survey found that seven in 10 gun owners own handguns, the most popular firearm. That’s followed by rifles and shotguns.

Ownership is constitutionally backed by the Second Amendment, observed by ardent supporters as an essential tool to protect life and home – and guard against government tyranny without having to fire a single shot.

APTOPIX Pittsburgh Gun Laws-Synagogue Shooting

Val Finnell, left, gives a thumbs down, as others applaud after the Pittsburgh City Council voted 6-3 to pass gun-control legislation, Tuesday, April 2, 2019, in Pittsburgh. The bill, introduced in the wake of the synagogue massacre last October, places restrictions on military-style assault weapons like the AR-15 rifle that authorities say was used in the attack that killed 11 and wounded seven. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Val Finnell is the Pennsylvania director of Gun Owners of America. He said gun owners are too often pegged as only having concern for their firearms, nothing else. The Second Amendment provides a right to the protection of life and property, he said, a right bestowed by God and anterior to government dictates.

“There’s certainly a greater interest in going back to the root of what the Second Amendment actually means,” Finnell said. “I think the evolution (of gun culture) has been more to return to what the original understanding was of our right to keep and bear arms.”

Sociologists point to culture shift in 2000s

But gun violence increasingly plagues American life.

Daily shootings in cities and rural towns. Suicides committed out of public sight, keeping them out of the public’s mind. Devastating instances of mass public shootings such as the May incidents, with 10 Black people murdered while shopping in a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., and 19 children and two teachers massacred inside an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

More people died in 2020 of gun-related injuries in the U.S. than in any other year on record, according to a Pew Research Center report citing the most recently available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That same year, 22.8 million guns were sold in the U.S., the highest total available per industry estimates, a Forbes report found.

Guns are used in more than half of suicides and in four of every five homicides in the U.S., CDC data show.

The rate of gun homicides jumped 35% from 2019 to 2020, increasing the most among young to middle-aged Black males. Suicide rates were about flat in that same time frame, with middle-aged to older white males most at risk.

There seems no good measure of the political gap separating advocates for gun rights and those for gun violence prevention.

Grant Reeher

Grant Reeher is a professor of political science and director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.

The historic tradition of individualism in the U.S. may give some understanding to how the nation reached this point, suggested Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.

“We are fundamentally more individually oriented than people in other nations,” Reeher said. “In our thinking, we start with individuals; we don’t start with communities and we don’t start with collectives. and it’s reflected in a lot of things. We have a Bill of Rights that is baked into our Constitution.”

“Those are individual rights – the rights of individuals against the government.”

David Yamane, sociology professor at Wake Forest University, shifted his research focus from religion to guns in 2011. He’s a gun owner and defines himself as a liberal. He’s led studies tracking shifts within America’s gun culture.

David Yamane

David Yamane is professor of sociology at Wake Forest University.

Hunting and recreation had once been the main factor for gun ownership. In the 2000s, self-defense took precedence.

Yamane calls the shift Gun Culture 2.0.

“Self-defense was always part of the reason people owned guns – it just wasn’t the center of the culture,” Yamane said.

Yamane likened civil unrest around police brutality and racism in recent years to social movements in the 1960s. Concerns about crime grew beginning in the middle 20th century. It’s grown in the decades since, manifesting as the dominant theme of 21st-century gun ownership.

The latest Gallup polling showed 88% of respondents most often cited self-defense as the reason they own a firearm, followed by target shooting and hunting. In 2000, 65% of respondents to Gallup cited self-defense, slotted between target shooting and hunting.

“I think we oftentimes live in two different worlds,” Yamane said. “We have a world of gun owners for whom guns are very normal and most of the outcomes they see with guns are positive. People outside of gun culture largely see negative outcomes with guns. It’s easy for those two sides to misunderstand each other.”

In the Texas Legislature following the Uvalde shooting, there were calls for reform but also for protection of gun rights.

The older sister of victim Jacklyn “Jackie” Cazares urged lawmakers to honor her sister and other victims and pass restrictive gun legislation.

“I’m here begging for you guys to do something; to change something because the people that were supposed to keep her safe at school, they failed,” said 17-year-old Jazmin Cazares.

Immediately afterward, Suzanna Hupp, a gun rights advocate and former Texas legislator, testified that a former law barring concealed carry caused her to leave her firearm in her car parked outside a restaurant in Killeen, Texas, when a mass shooting occurred in 1991. Twenty-three people were killed, including both of her parents, and Hupp urged the lawmakers to consider the potential consequences of gun control.

“I was mad as hell at the time, at my legislators, because they felt they had legislated me and other people in that restaurant out of the right to be able to protect ourselves and our families,” Hupp said. “Let’s be clear that the gun is just a tool. It’s a tool that can be used to kill a family, but it’s a tool that can be used to protect a family.”

Jennifer Carlson, a sociologist and associate professor at the University of Arizona, cites Yamane’s work in her own studies into gun culture.

Jennifer Carlson

Jennifer Carlson is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona.

Carlson said the 1960s were the last time a majority of Americans supported a ban on handguns, the primary weapon for committing crimes and also for self-defense. It dipped below 50% that decade and never recovered, she said.

“I think that right there is the datapoint that told us the story of the shift,” Carlson said.

More back violence against political foes

Data on gun sales back up recent trends of surges in election years. When President Barack Obama was elected, Carlson said there was a sense that Democrats would pursue heavy regulations on guns. That sense remained when presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton sought office in The White House. But Donald Trump won instead, sending gun manufacturing downward the following year. Carlson called it the “Trump slump.”

There came a point between 2010 and 2020 when rhetoric around guns became more vitriolic, Carlson said. Political partisanship became more evident among conservatives and liberals.

Carlson referred to an academic study from 2019, titled “Lethal Mass Partisanship” by Nathan Kalmoe, of Louisiana State University, and Lilliana Mason, of the University of Maryland. In it, two surveys were conducted with questions centered around moral disengagement, taking pleasure in a political opponent’s misfortune and violence.

The questions range from whether only one particular party wants to improve the country to whether one wished an opponent would get sick and die to whether violence is justified to achieve particular political goals. The study concluded that between 40% and 60% embraced partisan moral disengagement, but just 5% to 15% embraced partisan schadenfreude or endorsed partisan violence.

“Even so, their views represent a level of extreme hostility among millions of American partisans today that has not been documented in modern American politics,” the study’s authors wrote.

Fears of gun bans drive up sales in U.S.

Wade Cummings is general manager of Georgia Gun Club, a gun shop and range in Buford, Georgia. Semiautomatic weapons are the most popular type of firearm sold at his store and anywhere else, Cummings said, especially when the 1994 federal “assault weapons” ban expired in 2004.

The pandemic year of 2020 saw gun and ammo sales skyrocket in the U.S. Georgia and Tennessee each had more than 900,000 background checks for first-time gun owners that year; Alabama, more than 1 million.

Inventory was low as domestic manufacturing dipped from a peak of 11.5 million new guns made in 2016. The industry couldn’t meet demand even as manufacturing in 2020 nearly matched the previous high.

“We never saw anything like we saw in 2020, though. It was insane,” Cummings said. “People are coming back and buying the gun that they wanted a year and a half ago, so those numbers, it’s a lot higher than 2021.”

Byron Gentry, 37, owns Infinity Solutions in Portage, Indiana, one of the largest firearms training facilities in Northern Indiana. Gentry is an NRA-certified weapons instructor. The first gun he bought, at age 18, was an AR-15-style rifle. The self-described Second Amendment absolutist preaches safe weapons handling.

“The largest portion of people that I’m noticing that are buying guns are people that are scared they’re going to get banned,” Gentry said, referring to semiautomatic rifles. “I taught a class and probably about 20% of that class had bought an AR-15 either during the Obama scare or during the last couple of months or when we had a lot of the rioting (following the police-involved murder of George Floyd in Minnesota), and they bought it because they were scared, but they were mostly scared that it was going to get banned.”

Advocate: ‘Gun laws absolutely save lives’

The codification of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act seemed a monumental moment when in late June, Congress adopted the measure and President Joe Biden signed it into law – monumental not so much for the bill’s scope and potential impact but for the fact that it was passed at all.

The bill amends current law to clarify who needs a federal license to sell firearms and enhances background check for those under 21 when purchasing a gun to include juvenile mental health records. It also aims to close the “boyfriend loophole” to prevent a domestic abuser from working around prohibited weapon possession laws.

Total aid carried in the bill is estimated at $13 billion, largely for mental health and school supports such as crisis intervention, remote consultations through community behavioral health clinics, school mental health counseling and training.

Prior to this bill, it’d been about 30 years since a significant regulation on weapons possession was enacted, the federal ban on “assault weapons” that expired in 2004.

“God willing, it’s going to save a lot of lives,” Biden said after signing the bill.

Gun violence prevention advocates seek greater layers of regulation and accountability for the trade and possession of firearms, such as red flag laws for temporary repossession when credible threats of harm are made, universal background checks and heightened age limits.

There’s also a push for bans on “assault weapons,” a reference to certain semiautomatics such as AR-15-style rifles.

AR-15s are mass-produced and appealing for adaptability and performance, featuring an array of add-ons that are functional or cosmetic. They’re light and powerful. They’re the style of rifles used in the Buffalo and Uvalde killings; in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 in 2018; in the country music festival shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 in 2017; at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 were killed in 2012.

It’s important to note that rifles aren’t the most common weapon used in mass shootings.

Semiautomatic handguns were used in 77% of mass shootings studied by The Violence Project, supported by the National Institute of Justice.

That same study found that 77% of weapons used in mass shootings were purchased legally, 13% illegally and 19% of the weapons used were stolen.

Massachusetts boasts some of the toughest laws in the nation regulating firearms. The Bay State first implemented a ban on assault weapons in 1998, when a similar federal law was already in place. In 2004, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney signed a permanent ban into law before the federal policy elapsed. It has survived several legal challenges.

In 2014, lawmakers gave police chiefs the right to go to court to deny firearms ID cards to buy rifles or shotguns to people whom they feel are unsuitable. A red flag law was instituted allowing firearms to be confiscated from gun owners undergoing mental health crises.

Gun control advocates say the strict requirements have given the largely urban state one of the lowest gun death rates in the nation, while not infringing on people’s right to bear arms.

“Gun laws absolutely save lives,” said John Rosenthal, a gun owner and co-founder of Stop Handgun Violence. “Here in Massachusetts, we regulate guns like cars, both of which are inherently dangerous consumer products.”

N.Y. law scrapped by Supreme Court

New York, too, has some of the strictest state gun control measures in the nation. Further restrictions were added following the Buffalo shooting. The 18-year-old charged in that case had acquired a semi-automatic rifle despite being investigated for alleged threats made against a school he had attended one year earlier. The new age limit for such purchases is 21.

The state’s red flag law for emergency firearms confiscation was strengthened to allow health care providers to ask judges to temporarily remove guns from people deemed to be at risk to themselves or others. Previously, extreme risk protection orders had to be initiated by police, schools or relatives.

Another New York law, however, was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. The state’s restriction on concealed carry permits to those with specific demonstrated need was undone by the high court, effectively strengthening an individual’s right to carry in public.

Tom King was introduced to guns when he began using a BB gun and an air rifle as an 11-year-old member of the Boy Scouts. That was 64 years ago, and today he is president of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, as well as a board member of the National Rifle Association.

King urged the NRA’s backing of the lawsuit that culminated with the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in the concealed-carry case. The advocates who want to impose additional restrictions on law-abiding gun owners are fighting a losing battle, he argued.

“Once you get outside of the cities, you’re never going to get rid of the gun culture,” King said.

Eric Scicchitano is the CNHI Pennsylvania statehouse reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ericshick11. CNHI State Reporters Asia Ashley of Georgia, Joseph Mahoney of New York, Christian Wade of Massachusetts, Ali Linan of Texas and Kim Dunlap of the Kokomo (Indiana) Tribune contributed to this report.

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CNHI Statehouse reporter

Eric Scicchitano is the CNHI Statehouse reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ericshick11.

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