Which way will the West go on guns?

by Jonathan Thompson

Amid all the talk, legislative proposals and presidential decrees inspired by the recent shootings in Connecticut and Colorado, perhaps the most significant was the announcement in early January that former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was starting a gun-control lobbying organization. Americans for Responsible Solutions seeks to raise $20 million by the next election cycle -- about the same amount the National Rifle Association spent to influence the 2012 vote. More important, symbolically, is the fact that this ambitious effort was launched in the West, where guns are part of the culture.

Giffords has long been a gun owner and gun-rights advocate. As a congresswoman, she was part of a cadre of Western Democrats -- along with Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and others -- who stayed in the NRA's relatively good graces because they supported firearms' traditional role. But then Giffords, along with 18 others, was shot down in a Tucson parking lot two years ago with a not-so-traditional gun: A Glock 9 mm with a 33-round magazine. Like the AR-15s used by both the Aurora and Newtown shooters, it wasn't something a Western rancher or hunter or even gunslinger would have carried back in the day.

These weapons have transformed the gun market, and the shootings have shaken the political landscape. With President Obama's proposed bans on assault weapons and high-volume magazines heading toward Congress, all eyes are on the remaining pro-gun Democrats and their potentially pivotal votes. For once, invoking Western tradition to shoot down gun control may backfire.

Westerners do love guns. Firearms were critical tools for settlers -- like dynamite, shovels and blacksmiths' bellows. Along with the horse and the cowboy hat, the Colt .45 and the Winchester rifle are icons of Wild West mythology. That myth survives today in Western gun laws -- some of the nation's most lax -- and in a firearms-related death rate about 30 percent above the national average.

So it's not surprising that some Westerners have reacted to the prospect of stricter gun laws as though their very identity were under attack. In 2012, more than 3.5 million firearm background checks were processed in the West, compared to some 2 million five years ago. Wyoming lawmakers are pushing to make it a felony to enforce any new gun regulations, and Colorado Republicans want to let teachers carry concealed weapons in the classroom. The Spring City, Utah, town council considered an ordinance requiring all residents to own guns. The Wild West, indeed.

Yet these reactions are more in line with Hollywood than history. After the Civil War, the nation was awash in cheap guns, and the occasional gunfight erupted, though never as bloody as today's shootings. In response, Western communities regulated firearms. By the turn of the century, Colorado statute restricted what kind of bullets and guns one could use for shooting game; most states had laws against concealed weapons; and many municipalities added their own restrictions -- Tombstone, Ariz., believe it or not, banned guns altogether during the 1880s.

For some, it wasn't enough. "Firearms in the daily walks of life have no place in our modern civilization, and should not be carried," said the mayor of Durango, Colo., in 1903, one of many town officials calling for a stricter crackdown. As long as the laws didn't infringe on the practical application of firearms, Westerners generally accepted them. Even later, when the National Firearms Act of 1934 restricted the sale of machine guns, the National Rifle Association didn't protest, acknowledging that such weapons were intended for battlefields, not the streets or the hunting ground.

Ironically, it was the decline of traditional gun uses that inspired firearm companies to start marketing semi-automatic handguns and so-called "modern sporting" assault-style rifles. By the 1980s, hunting had declined, and ranches and farms were being gobbled up by suburban sprawl. Gun sales waned accordingly. To open up new markets, companies started pushing civilian models of military and police guns, such as the AR-15 and the Glock 9mm, marketed not as tools, but as instruments of "fun" and symbols of power and masculinity.

The gun industry's savvy marketing has worked:  According to the annual report of the Freedom Group, whose subsidiaries include Remington and Bushmaster, the rifle market in general has grown at a 3 percent annual rate over the past five years, while the modern sporting market has ballooned at a 27 percent annual rate. The National Shooting Sports Foundation found that most gun-buyers weren't hunters and ranchers: 99 percent of modern sporting rifle owners are men, most with a background in the military or law enforcement, and they bought their rifles primarily for target shooting and home defense, not to hunt big game or kill ranch varmints.

Though this new gun-loving constituency can no longer boast of its rural heritage, it is powerful. Modern sporting rifle owners tend to have higher incomes than yesterday's hunters, and that money -- along with corporate donations -- fuels the gun-rights political machine, from the big-spending NRA to the even more extreme Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Reid, Tester and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (NRA grade: C+) will certainly face the wrath, and cash, of these groups if they vote for any new gun control, which may be why they've tended to be vague and noncommittal on the issue.

On the other hand, if they waffle, they'll have to answer to Giffords (NRA grade C in 2010). Hers is not the first gun-control special interest group, but it is on its way to being the biggest, dwarfing the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which has spent only about $5 million on lobbying and political campaigns in the last decade. Though Giffords will certainly be accused of "betraying" her Western heritage, her crusade actually hearkens back to a much older time.

"It is high time that the man who packs a gun should be suppressed, fined, jailed or run out of the country," opined the editor of the Cripple Creek (Colorado) Morning Times in 1899. "Legislatures and city councils are afraid to legislate against this class. If an ordinance were passed making it a misdemeanor to carry a revolver, there would be fewer revolvers, fewer coroner's inquests, less sorrow in homes and fewer widows."

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