Guns R Us
Is it time to re-examine the West's extraordinary fascination with firearms?
(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."
Whatever the reason, four of the top 10 states in the nation in licensed gun dealers per capita are located in the West: Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Idaho, the latter having 664 licensed dealers, including Red's. Most of the rest of the Western states are above the national average in terms of gun-dealing. And in the last 15 years, most Western states have made it easier for people to get a state permit to carry concealed weapons. (View a map of gun groups, gun dealers, and gun personalities in the western states. 160kb .pdf)
The West isn't entirely free of gun regulation; in primary and secondary schools and on college campuses, for example, guns are generally banned. Still, there's a lot of wrangling over exactly where to draw the lines, making gun laws an inconsistent mess, each state adding its own layer to the federal gun-control system.
Machine guns, for example, are highly regulated. Sort of. If you're an average citizen, by federal law you can buy a machine gun from a specially licensed dealer, if you submit fingerprints for a comprehensive check for any past criminal activity, and if you can afford to pay a $200 tax on each machine gun. The machine guns themselves must be at least 21 years old (no kidding). Your state may impose more restrictions, or it may not. Just in case the cattle dung ever hits the fan, Western civilians have acquired the special permits to own more than 50,000 machine guns, according to a 2000 federal report.
For other kinds of guns, millions of sellers and buyers who do not have formal gun businesses — they use classified ads, flea markets, word-of-mouth, and gun shows — remain nearly unregulated, except in the few states that have applicable laws. That helps explain how 17-year-old Sulejman Talovic was able to go on his shooting spree in a Salt Lake City mall on Feb. 12 (six people dead, including Talovic, and four wounded). Talovic bought a pistol from a couple of guys he met at a fast-food restaurant, authorities say.
Gun shops — theoretically the primary firearms marketplace — must be federally licensed. The clerks are required to do basic, instant background checks on all their customers, by Internet or toll-free call, tapping into a federal database that supposedly reveals who is too much of a criminal, or too mentally ill, to own a gun.
But there are big gaps in the database. States are supposed to tell the feds about court actions that record their residents' mental illnesses, for example, but states are often negligent or late in passing on the data. That helps explain an April 16 shooting spree back East: Seung-Hui Cho was able to buy his guns from a Virginia shop, even though he'd been court-ordered into psychiatric outpatient treatment two years earlier. The Virginia system had not reported his illness to the federal database, and that recordkeeping failure helped enable Cho to shoot and kill 32 people before he shot himself at Virginia Tech University.
Also by federal law, gun-shop clerks must fill out detailed federal forms, and they must keep the resulting paperwork on who buys what guns for 20 years after each sale. But, in a glaring act of hypocrisy, the federal government keeps its copies of the sales records for only one day and then destroys them, because the gun-rights movement, citing concern for gun owners' privacy, successfully pressured Congress and the Bush administration to require the shredding. Some state governments see this intentional federal ignorance as negligence, and they collect the records within their borders.
Anyway, the federal paperwork is where Red's Trading Post got into trouble, mostly. The feds say the clerks at Red's didn't properly fill out forms on several hundred sales, out of many thousands of total transactions. The ATF made its case by dispatching agents to inspect Red's records in 2000, again in 2001, again in 2005, and then at least four times this year.
Paperwork imperfection can indicate larger problems. Last year, the feds yanked the license of Northern California's biggest gun shop, Trader Sports in San Leandro, charging that the owner could not account for 1,723 guns. Gun-control groups said hundreds of those missing guns could be linked to street crimes.
But only a few gun shops have problems that big. At Red's, the ATF's inspection in 2000 determined that 25 guns were missing. Horsley says he was getting his record-keeping up to speed after his relatives had run the shop on a smaller scale. When the ATF discovered the guns were missing, he tracked down about half of them; the rest may have been stolen, he says. Since 2000, he adds, no guns are missing. In their voluminous court filings against Red's, the feds do not report any more missing guns, nor do they link any of the missing guns from seven years ago to any street crimes. The offenses at Red's mostly have to do with what could seem like technicalities: recording incomplete addresses of customers, not keeping 20 years of sales records in correct order, failing to check a few customers' IDs properly.
Horsley calls them "minor errors" and contends that more than 95 percent of his paperwork has passed muster. He's mounted a furious resistance to what he sees as harassment. When an ATF regional boss in Seattle decided to yank his license in 2006, Horsley appealed the decision through an ATF administrative hearing, which he lost. Then he filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boise, challenging the decision. On March 31 this year, Judge Edward Lodge issued a temporary injunction, allowing Red's to stay in business until he weighs additional evidence. The judge, an Idaho native, said that it appeared the ATF had exaggerated its case against Red's, and that allowing Red's to sell guns for a while longer "would not place the public's safety in jeopardy."
Since that ruling, the ATF has inspected Red's four times in rapid succession, finding additional violations. Everyone is waiting for the judge to make a final ruling.
Horsley has presented his side of the dispute directly to the public, in interviews in the Twin Falls daily newspaper. He's run TV ads about his battle and posted them on Red's Web site; supporters have spread them onto the global YouTube site. He's also posted an online petition, which, apparently, more than 2,000 people across the nation have signed. He's done interviews on national radio shows sympathetic to his plight.
The feds have been characteristically tight-lipped about their enforcement actions.
Answering questions in writing, Deborah Ferguson, an assistant U.S. attorney for Idaho who is pressing the ATF's case, says, "This dealer has failed to record the dispositions of firearms, failed to properly keep and record ATF Firearms Transactions Records (ATF Form 4473), failed to fill out multiple handgun sales forms, failed to properly record and adhere to the regulations involving the transfer of firearms under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and failed to comply with other critical laws and regulations regarding the distribution of firearms. … Close scrutiny of firearms traffic is undeniably of central importance to federal efforts to prevent violent crime and to assist the states in regulating the firearms traffic within their borders. Large interests are at stake, and inspection is a crucial part of the regulatory scheme, since it assures that weapons are distributed through regular channels and in a traceable manner and makes possible the prevention of sales to undesirable customers and the detection of the origin of particular firearms."
Zach Ragbourn, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C., a group founded after then-White House press secretary James Brady was wounded in the attempt to assassinate Reagan, says: "It's not up to individual gun shops to decide which laws to follow."
Twin Falls has at least 26 licensed gun dealers, including pawnbrokers; many thousands of people in the area own guns and use them regularly for hunting and recreational target shooting. But the little theater didn't quite fill up for the premiere of The Gang.
Many gun owners — probably most — believe that some regulations are reasonable. That became apparent in gun news that broke on the day of the movie's premiere: In a rare bipartisan vote, the U.S. House of Representatives tried to close the loophole exposed by the Virginia Tech shootings, passing a bill to require all states to report mental illness court actions into the federal database for instant background checks. The bill, headed for consideration in the Senate, enjoys support even from the mighty NRA. But it has exposed a rift within the gun-rights movement: The super-hard-liners think even this small step is unconstitutional.
Some in the audience for The Gang make derisive remarks about the NRA being, well, unmanly. Insufficiently hard-charging. Collectively, a wuss. The movie does too, directly or indirectly, through interviews with producer Aaron Zelman, the bespectacled chief of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and Larry Pratt, the head of Gun Owners of America, a Washington, D.C.-area group that calls itself "the no-compromise gun lobby." The movie's narrator talks of "the halcyon days" of the 1950s and 1960s, when you could buy military weapons, "even cannons."
Zelman says, into the camera, "It is precisely the guns that are restricted (i.e., machine guns and cannons) that are most useful for resisting tyranny." He points out that there is no federal agency regulating freedoms of speech and religion. "Why do we regulate a (similar) constitutional right?" he asks.
Highlighting apparently authentic documents, The Gang reports that the ATF's terrible traits were on display at a staff retreat in Tennessee: While performing skits, drunken ATF agents defecated on stage and bit the heads off live snakes.
The movie — available for $29.95 in DVD format from the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership Web site — includes no substantial interviews with ATF staffers or gun-control groups and no acknowledgment that some gun dealers break major laws, allowing guns to fall into the hands of street criminals and even mass-murderers.
When the movie ends, Horsley stands at the front again to talk, and some in the audience pose questions and express anti-ATF sentiments. No one brings up the shooting spree that bloodied Moscow, Idaho, just three weeks earlier: Jason Kenneth Hamilton, a 36-year-old janitor who belonged to the Aryan Nations group, rapid-firing about 200 rounds from two military-style semiautomatic rifles, killed his wife, a city police officer and a church sexton, wounded two other cops and a college student, and then killed himself. The shooter had a criminal record in four states, but he'd been able to buy his guns — one by mail from an out-of-state dealer and one from a home-based Idaho dealer — and ammo because of looseness in the regulations.
The people in the audience must know of the incident, but apparently think the actions of an unbalanced shooter don't bear on their gun rights.
Horsley tells the crowd that the ATF is trying to bankrupt him with legal bills, so even if its case against him collapses, he'll be out of business. "They don't like their actions to be exposed — that's what's happening," he says. "I'm going to continue speaking out."
"We give them the rope to hang us with," says one audience member.
Another guy asks, "What CAN we do, short of having a standoff in the street, which some of us here are ready to do?" Horsley seems reluctant to talk about that kind of confrontation. Instead, he echoes the movie's demand that everyone should rise up and pressure Congress to abolish the ATF.
In a phone interview, Professor Burbick says the gun-rights movement began not only in reaction to gun laws, but also as a reflection of white men's anxiety about the civil rights movement. Right-wing politicians have deliberately exploited that anxiety, exaggerating the dangers of government power and of criminals who supposedly target every unarmed person, she says. "The gun has become a fetish — an emotional response to a changing America," she notes, "the idea that somehow, the social problems of the U.S. will be solved through private gun ownership and a lot more guns."
The night after the premiere, Horsley hosts a second showing of The Gang, and the little theater is packed this time, with some of the audience standing. In the audience the second night are the former head of the Twin Falls Chamber of Commerce and the vice president of a local bank. Judging by the rapt attention, favorable comments and head-nodding agreement exhibited by both nights' audiences, the movie could fill more seats in an extended run.
Ray Ring is Northern Rockies editor for High Country News.
NOTE: In YouTube videos posted to YouTube, Ryan Horsley talks about Red's Trading Post -- its history, his troubles with the ATF, and why he doesn't sell machine guns.