Gun Owners Grapple With Shifting Conversations Around Firearms

Mar 12, 2018
Originally published on March 15, 2018 10:48 am

These past few days saw changes to our gun regulations on both the national and the local level after an emotional couple of weeks following the mass shooting at a Florida high school.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott signed a package of new gun regulations into law. They include age limits and a new three-day waiting period on certain kinds of powerful guns. Nationally, the Department of Justice began the process to ban bump stocks, as well, submitting that legislation Saturday morning.

With roughly 300 million guns in America today, many gun owners have been thinking deeply about the role of firearms in American life.

NPR's Renee Montagne spoke to a few listeners about how the shifting conversation around guns has affected how they view their own firearms.

"We're not able to have an evidence-informed debate because, effectively, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health are not allowed to study the issue," Elis, a listener from a small town in Rio Arriba County, N.M., says. Elis is a gun owner, but has not joined the NRA.

"I was very much against guns," she told NPR, "but I live rurally where hunting guns and guns to protect yourself are pretty commonplace."

"The county I live in is the size of Connecticut. At any given time, we only have two sheriff deputies patrolling the entire county. And my life was being threatened by a violent stalker. And I got really clear really fast ... I couldn't count on the police. I don't have close neighbors. And I got very comfortable with using my gun."

Elis owns small .38, which she says she took a lot of time getting comfortable with shooting on public lands. She says the rural-urban divide might prevent people from understanding why she owns a gun.

"I think if someone understood the circumstances I live in, the reality, they would understand that my thinking about guns really had to change by that life experience and will forever remain changed," she says.

JT, a listener from Terre Haute, Ind., understands Elis' circumstances very well. He has viewed gun ownership differently since 2012, when two people tried to break into his home.

"And it escalated pretty quickly," he says. "And I realized at that moment that I was going to have to take care of myself."

He owned a single-shot break action hunting shotgun at the time, but kept it stored in his basement.

"And to think if they would've gotten through the door that I could've shot one, reloaded and then shot another one if they're trying to do me harm really went against every bit of training I ever had," he says. "So I did move to a semiautomatic firearm after that."

JT says he became a member of the NRA after the shooting in Parkland, Fla. Joining the organization is the "most effective way for me to combat" soft bans on certain types of firearms, he says.

"They're not going to take them away, but they are going to deny their ownership to our kids and grandkids," JT says. "You know, when you've got big, big money coming out from foundations and donors to advocate for those soft bans, the NRA counters that. And though I don't agree with every piece of their message, they are effective at doing that. And I do think that that's very important that I participate in that."

Midwestern listener Scott disagrees. Scott was "born and raised essentially around firearms," he says. He grew up participating in shooting sports, hunted, trapped fish, and spent eight years in the military. He was a lifelong NRA member. But, after the Parkland shooting he says he left the NRA.

"You know, as more and more mass shootings happened, the political rhetoric from the NRA really started to change," he says. "You know, when I was younger, the organization seemed to be primarily focused on gun safety and hunters' rights. And they did themselves promote safe gun regulation and sensible, in my opinion, gun regulations. But as time went on, they changed, in my opinion."

Scott says he is glad that there are efforts to pass gun regulation on a local level, but would like to see that done on a national level, with gun laws "that are consistent from state to state, from county to county."

"I'm a concealed carry holder in multiple states, and the laws are different everywhere you go," he says. "So I would like to see sensible regulation. I would like to see consistent laws across the country versus the patchwork quilt of laws that we have now."

NPR's Hiba Ahmad, Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is The Call-In.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

MONTAGNE: These past few days saw changes to our gun regulations on both the national and the local level. In Florida, Governor Rick Scott signed a package of new gun regulations into law. They include age limits and a new three-day waiting period on certain kinds of powerful guns. And the Department of Justice began the process to ban bump stocks, as well, submitting that legislation yesterday morning. There are roughly 300 million guns in America today. And after an emotional couple of weeks following the mass shooting at a Florida high school, we wanted to hear from you, listeners who own guns and have been thinking deeply about their role in American life. We gathered together three of the listeners who reached out to us.

JT: My name's JT (ph). I live in Terre Haute, Ind. I am a gun owner. And I am a member of the NRA.

ELLIS: OK. My name is Ellis (ph). I'm from a small town in Rio Arriba County, N.M., called Dixon. I am a gun owner. And I am not a member of the NRA.

SCOTT: Hello. My name is Scott (ph). I live in the Midwest. I am a gun owner. And I am no longer a member of the NRA.

MONTAGNE: We're only using one name to identify them because talking about guns has gotten pretty intense. And we wanted them to be able to speak honestly without fear of retaliation. I started by asking JT about why he owns guns.

JT: Back in 2012, I had a attempted break-in at my house. And it escalated pretty quickly. And I realized at that moment that I was going to have to take care of myself.

MONTAGNE: Did you have a gun at that time?

JT: I did. At the time, I actually had it stored in the basement. And so I found - you know, there were two people trying to break into my house. And I had a single-shot break action hunting shotgun. And to think if they would've gotten through the door that I could've shot one, reloaded and then shot another one if they're trying to do me harm really went against every bit of training I ever had. So I did move to a semiautomatic firearm after that.

MONTAGNE: JT, let me just stay with you for a second here. You were not, as I understand it, a member of the NRA until after the shooting in Parkland, Fla.

JT: That is correct because in the wake of the Parkland shooting, you have folks that are looking to - I'm going to say - soft ban certain types of firearms, where they're not going to take them away, but they are going to deny their ownership to our kids and grandkids. And so the NRA is the most effective way for me to combat that. You know, when you've got big, big money coming out from foundations and donors to advocate for those soft bans, the NRA counters that. And though I don't agree with every piece of their message, they are effective at doing that. And I do think that that's very important that I participate in that.

MONTAGNE: Scott, you were, I think, something like a lifetime member of the NRA. And you left after the Parkland shooting.

SCOTT: Yes, that's correct. So born and raised essentially around firearms my whole life, participated in shooting sports, eight years in the military - really just kind of born and raised with it. Hunted, trapped fish, you know, my whole life. You know, as more and more mass shootings happened, the political rhetoric from the NRA really started to change. You know, when I was younger, the organization seemed to be primarily focused on gun safety and hunters' rights. And they did themselves promote safe gun regulation and sensible, in my opinion, gun regulations.

But as time went on, they changed, in my opinion. And that change turned them from a safety organization to an organization that primarily stoked the fires of their members and stoked the - you know, added fuel to the fire in the form of fear. And so, you know, when I would go to their website and read their magazines and read the Armed Citizen articles - and while I do believe in the Second Amendment, and I will probably always own a firearm or, actually, several firearms, I decided I'm not going to give into the fear anymore.

MONTAGNE: Ellis, jump into this conversation.

ELLIS: Well, I have to say I really agree with Scott. We're not able to have an evidence-informed debate because, effectively, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health are not allowed to study the issue. At the same time, I hear a lot of what JT says. I was very much against guns, but I live rurally where hunting guns and guns to protect yourself are pretty commonplace. The county I live in is the size of Connecticut. At any given time, we only have two sheriff deputies patrolling the entire county. And my life was being threatened by a violent stalker. And I got really clear really fast.

I guess with a really clear realization of my values of Western self-reliance and maybe frontier justice - that it was my responsibility to protect myself, that I was a single woman living alone. And I couldn't count on the police. I don't have close neighbors. And I got very comfortable with using my gun. And my gun was a .38. It was small. I took a lot of time on public lands shooting it and getting comfortable with it. And I think one of the divides in this country is the rural-urban divide. And I think if someone understood the circumstances I live in, the reality, they would understand that my thinking about guns really had to change by that life experience and will forever remain changed.

MONTAGNE: JT, I'd like to have you respond to what Scott and Ellis just said in the sense that both of them are much less enamored of the NRA than you are.

JT: And I totally understand. With Ellis, I'm 100 percent onboard with having the CDC study gun violence. No one left or right of this issue should be afraid of the data. Let the data help us mold a customized solution for these issues because, yeah, we've got 35,000 gun deaths, and a large portion of those are suicides. And I don't want anyone to think I don't care about those suicides. What I do care about is making sure that they are addressed correctly instead of these rule urban one-size-fits-all gun control measures that really are trying to address the most two separate societies and how they handle and interact with guns. And on Scott's side, I detest the Armed Citizens section because those are so personalized.

MONTAGNE: Could you, when you say Armed Citizen, just elaborate for people who wouldn't know what that...

JT: It's just a - it's like a small column that they have in some of their print and web-related content that I'm going to say goes through and describes in fairly great detail self-defense gun uses. And I think covering them in such great detail does push that narrative of fear that is one of the main things I don't care of when it comes to the NRA. I wish they would come back to their roots a bit for safety.

SCOTT: I would agree. Sorry, this is Scott. I thought of it as a tool to glorify the use of firearms in self-defense mode. And, again, I've been shooting for a long time. And I go to a range fairly often. And over the years, I've noticed a big change when I go to a shooting range in the people that I'm shooting with. And so I think the mentality has changed from a shooting sport, where I want to be accurate. I want to - you know, it's a hobby. You go to the range now it's all about, you know, self-defense and, you know, the drug cartels are coming. The bad guys are out there. These people are after you. ISIS is here. There are cells in the - you know, I mean it's just - it's this constant fear mongering. And, you know, and people - the people that I see purchasing and using firearms on a regular basis quite frankly scare the hell out of me.

MONTAGNE: This brings us pretty much to something that everyone's talking about today, and that is gun regulations. And the Florida legislature and also the governor, Rick Scott, surprised a lot of people when they passed regulations that hadn't even been considered possible to pass in that state a month ago. Where do you stand on gun regulations? Scott.

SCOTT: I'm glad that they're acting and that there's a discussion. So they're acting. They're trying to get regulation passed. But I think I would like to see national gun laws. I would like to see gun laws that are consistent from state to state, from county to county. I'm a concealed carry holder in multiple states. And the laws are different everywhere you go. So I would like to see sensible regulation. I would like to see consistent laws across the country versus the patchwork quilt of laws that we have now.

MONTAGNE: JT, I want to get your reaction to regulations partly because you do own an AR-15, which was, at one point, banned until about 15 years ago. Would you be willing to go back to that? That is to say, would you be willing to give it up in the interest of preventing future mass shootings?

JT: I would not because I don't believe they're exclusive. When you look at these, yes, a couple of high-profile shootings have been - that weapon has been used. At the same time, you know, the true scourge when it comes to gun crime is pistols and cheap pistols. I don't want anyone to think that I'm heartless or that I don't care. I do want people to realize that to try and look at these in such a black-and-white way to say if you like your gun, if you're not willing to support this than you then you want your gun more than you want to protect kids, you are going to drive huge amounts of gun owners away from even discussing these issues.

From a regulation standpoint, I really hope that we can get away from ruling by a slim majority to ruling with consensus. As Scott said, you know, the patchwork of laws for concealed carry in the United States is really a pain. You know, you could - we could've talked about a national discussion - let's bring the age from 18 to 21 nationally - and at the same time pass a national concealed carry reciprocity act. Those are the kinds of compromises.

They're going to bring everybody to the table. But instead, each side is trying to get their slim majority through and just ram it through, and then everybody's miserable until the next election swings and then the other side undoes it, as opposed to - let's bring some real compromise to the table and talk about these because you could get some of those small regulations through. Not to say that I support them. But I'd probably stomach them if you could tie them in with a lot of the stuff that the pro-gun community's after right now.

SCOTT: Yeah, I absolutely agree.

MONTAGNE: Gun owners are often typecast in a certain way. What do you all wish people knew?

ELLIS: Yeah, I think - I'm a educated, thoughtful Democrat. I think I felt very lonely in addition to being very frightened when I made the decision to get a gun because I know that there's a lot of urban, you know, Democrats who would kind of put us rural people, lob us all together as sort of a bunch of yahoos. That's a hard thing. And it was a hard enough situation to literally get up at night and take my gun to the bathroom with me because that's how frightened I was. And I don't think it's something that many members of my family and friends who live in more urban areas really understand - what it means to live somewhere where you really are that vulnerable.

MONTAGNE: JT.

JT: I think for me, the portrayal of the classic country bumpkin gun owner persists. And Scott mentioned earlier, you know, it's changing. The culture is changing. And it's not just to a more defensive gun use or a more militant use. But you also have folks that subscribe to all political leanings that view the gun rights as an important part of their lives. And I'm going to use a word that I've heard on NPR a couple of times - tribalism - you know, kind of overcoming that tribalistic sense that we tend to develop over time, especially as politics get more heated, and we all kind of retreat to our corners - remembering that gun ownership is a common thread throughout American life and history. And it can help, you know, bring us all together at the table and talk about stuff.

MONTAGNE: That was Scott, JT and Ellis. Thank you all for joining us for this discussion.

JT: Thank you.

SCOTT: Thank you.

ELLIS: Thank you so much for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

MONTAGNE: Lulu Garcia-Navarro will be back next week with The Call-In. There's been a lot of attention paid to the problem of childhood obesity over the last 10 years. But recent data shows things are getting worse in age groups from preschoolers all the way to teenagers. Does childhood obesity affect your family? How are you handling it? And what are your questions? Call us and let us know at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name, where you're from and your phone number. And we may use it on the air. That's 202-216-9217.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.