(Note: A sidebar to this story sums up gun laws in each Western state.)
TWIN FALLS, IDAHO - As 7 p.m. approaches, the high-desert sunlight lingers with a golden hue and 80 degree warmth, favoring the people who pull their vehicles into the downtown lot by the Lamphouse Theater. Disembarking and filing into the movie theater, they appear to be a Western cross-section: carefully stepping gray-haired ladies, a guy in an electric wheelchair, a few sweet little girls, the vice mayor, a toddler clinging to a mother's shoulder, two doctors, and the inevitable guy wearing camo pants.
Collectively, they would seem to have little to worry about. All around them on this mid-June evening, Twin Falls prospers, grown up recently into a livable small city of 40,000 residents, complete with branches of Old Navy and New York Burrito and Cold Stone Creamery, nestled in productive farmland and authentic sagebrush. Sprinklers green the crops at city's edge, emitting a comforting hiss that is music to desert dwellers.
The theater occupies the back room of a saloon complex. It's an intimate setting, where thick curtains baffle the walls and about 100 upholstered seats, on a downward slope, face the screen. The seats are mostly filled; some of the people are drinking beers they've carried in from the saloon. They've come to show (1) support for a man they respect, and (2) their insistence on the U.S. constitutional right to bear arms, which they see enshrined in the Second Amendment, right up there with the amendments guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion.
Ryan Horsley greets them as they walk in; he knows many by name. He's a young-looking 32-year-old with a perennially friendly manner and a Beach Boys-ian haircut. He's president of the Historic Downtown Twin Falls Business Improvement District, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, board member of the Chamber of Commerce.
Mainly, though, he runs Red's Trading Post, which bills itself, without much argument, as Idaho's oldest gun shop. His great-grandfather, Lowell "Red" Kinney, opened the shop 71 years ago. It's located a few blocks from the theater, in a building made of black lava rock pried from the land. Horsley took over the shop about eight years ago as other family members stepped back, and he changed it from a clutter of knickknacks into a formidable business that offers rows of assault rifles and nearly everything else a shooter would desire. Serving online customers as well as walk-ins, the shop sells 2,000 guns per year.
But now the federal gun-control agency — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (commonly called ATF) — wants to yank the license that allows Red's Trading Post to sell guns.
Horsley stands in front of the movie screen and thanks the crowd for showing up. He talks of how he's spent more than $50,000 in court battles against the feds in the past year, trying to keep his license. "It's been a real journey for my family and I," he says. "But the more you stand up, the more they want to knock you down."
The lights dim, and the movie begins. Titled The Gang, it was made by a super-hard-line national gun-rights group, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. The group believes the United States government has copied Nazi gun-control laws that disarmed Jews during the Holocaust; it is holding the movie's national theatrical premiere here tonight, with no admission charge, to reinforce Horsley and Red's Trading Post in the minds of the locals.
The Gang has the format of a documentary, presenting interviews and other evidence, but really it's a one-sided attack on the ATF. For 85 minutes, it charges that the ATF operates as a $1 billion "criminal organization," persecuting innocent gun dealers and gun owners, lying, conspiring with big-government politicians, and even murdering its way toward the goal of taking citizens' weapons and imposing tyranny upon them.
For some people, guns are like abortion, politics boiled down to a single issue.
Gun-rights absolutists have some reason to be concerned about the course of recent history; there has been an incremental creep toward nationwide gun control. Congress has passed laws in response to spectacular gun violence — first in the 1930s, as organized crime emerged, and then in 1968, 1986, 1993 and 1994, reacting to two race riots in Los Angeles and a wave of assassinations (with President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy killed and President Ronald Reagan wounded). Some state legislatures have taken their own steps, and gun-control advocacy groups have sprung up. Because of these regulations, which include heavier licensing fees that discourage small gun businesses, in the last 20 years the number of federally licensed gun retailers nationwide has declined by 80 percent, leaving about 50,000 in business today.
But the controls have awakened a powerful gun-rights movement composed not only of the single-minded National Rifle Association (3.6 million members), but also many smaller groups, down to the Wisconsin-based Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (about 6,500 members). This movement has thwarted attempts to pass more laws and rolled back provisions of existing regulations. It has also pushed new, blatantly pro-gun laws — allowing more people to carry concealed guns in more places, for example — while encouraging voters to evaluate political candidates in terms of their position on guns. And the number of civilian guns in the U.S. has continued to increase, topping 250 million now, more than one-third of the world's total.
The whole gun-rights movement has a Western flavor, invoking the frontier mythology of fast-draw self-defense, says one of the region's gun-fascinated academics, Jean Burbick, who is a professor of English and American Studies at Washington State University. She studied gun shows and other gun-related events in Idaho, Nevada, Washington and several states outside the region to write her 2006 book, Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy. At a gun show in Illinois, she found piles of Buffalo Bill memorabilia and booths for groups called Cowboy Action Shooting and the Single Action Shooting Society (members dress up like Wyatt Earp to do their blasting). She writes, "The mystique of the Western gun rested on an inflated belief in the individual and the power within reach of an ordinary human being."