Inside the Big Buck Sport Shop, where mounted moose and deer heads loom over rifles, handguns, targets and ammunition, the customers have no doubt: More gun laws will not save lives.
Fifteen miles south, in the city of Pittsburgh, many confronted by a steady stream of gun violence are just as certain: To reduce the carnage, stricter gun control is needed.
This divide has existed for decades, separating America into hostile camps of conservative vs. liberal, rural vs. urban. As the nation responds to the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., the gulf rarely has felt wider than now.
After the gunman invaded an elementary school with a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and magazines of 30 bullets each, there was a brief moment of unity amid the nation’s grief. Across partisan divides, politicians said something must be done about weapons based upon military designs. Many wondered if even the National Rifle Association would adjust its staunch opposition to gun control.
Then, both sides regrouped. With President Barack Obama pushing for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and memory lingering of Obama’s divisive 2008 comment that some Americans “cling to guns and religion,” positions hardened.
Listening to the public discourse, and to citizens in places such as Pittsburgh and the Big Buck Sport Shop, people seem to be speaking different languages entirely. Communication has broken down amid a flurry of accusations, denials, political maneuvering and catch phrases.
“You have to place some people in the category of ‘you cannot communicate with them,’” Big Buck salesman Dave Riddle said Friday, standing between a rack of rifles and a glass case full of used handguns. “Their minds are set; they cannot change.”
A short drive away, at the New Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, editor and publisher Rod Doss pondered how to tell gun enthusiasts about his belief that assault weapons should be banned.
“I don’t know that they would hear me,” Doss finally said. “Their culture is totally different. They’ve grown up around guns. It’s part of their life and their lifestyle. It’s second nature. Hunting, shooting, it’s the love of guns.”
Doss does not own a firearm: “I don’t feel a need for any. I personally don’t live in fear.” His newspaper, which covers the African-American community, publishes detailed information on every Pittsburgh homicide because most are black-on-black crimes.
“I’m awestruck with their fascination with guns,” Doss said of his suburban and rural neighbors. “When you look at it from that perspective, it’s hard to relate to anything.”
Locally, nationally, even globally, this is the issue that places people at odds — a fact seen by the passionate, often angry conversations that are ringing out across the world in the days since the Newtown shootings. Harry Wilson, author of “Guns, Gun Control and Elections: The Politics and Policy of Firearms,” sees common misperceptions on both sides.
Wilson, a Roanoke College political science professor, would like gun-control advocates to know: “Gun owners are not idiots. Gun owners are not in favor of gun violence. Gun owners are in many ways like them, and would genuinely like to see gun violence reduced. Obviously they have a different solution. But they’re people too, just with different perspectives.
“And what I would want gun owners to know is: The large majority of people in favor of gun control don’t really want to take all of your guns.”
Guns were inseparable from America even before their enshrinement in the Second Amendment. With guns we secured the nation’s independence, seized vast territory from indigenous peoples wielding arrows and tomahawks, and forged an ethos of personal freedom. Today, according to most estimates, there are about 250 million guns in our nation of 310 million people.
America has a higher rate of gun deaths than most similarly developed nations: 3.2 firearm homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That compared with a rate of 0.5 per 100,000 in Canada; 0.2 in Spain; 0.2 in Germany; and 0.1 in the United Kingdom and Australia. No data was available for Russia.
To many gun enthusiasts, though, these numbers have nothing to do with guns themselves.
With so many guns in circulation, they say, people intent on killing will always find a way to do it. Nor do they fault high-capacity magazines, because it can take only seconds to reload a standard 10-bullet version.
Some even say the solution to gun violence is more guns — to deter, and to fight back against the bad guys.
“The easy, lazy conclusion is that [gun violence] has to do with firearms,” said Sam Liberto, a business consultant shopping in Big Buck with his two young sons. “We should look at the root cause: parenting or lack thereof, mental illness, video games. The underlying forces are probably far more important.”
Liberto does think gun laws could be tightened, to track and collect more sale information. He’s against an assault-weapons ban but expects one to happen soon, as a first step to outlawing even more guns.
So after Newtown, Liberto hustled to buy the same type of semiautomatic rifle used by the school gunman. On his iPhone was a photo of his weapon’s handiwork: an Osama bin Laden target that featured a face full of bullet holes.
“It’s a target item,” Liberto said of his purchase. “Unlike a hunting rifle or a sport shotgun it has less kick, a lighter weight. It’s designed to be carried. It’s just nice, a nice gun to shoot.”