6:00pm

Thu March 21, 2013
Guns In America: A Loaded Relationship

On Gun Ownership And Policy, 'A Country Of Chasms'

Originally published on Thu March 21, 2013 6:55 pm

The ideological gulf between gun owners and non-gun owners is a wide one — made all the more obvious by the ongoing debate over what, if any, gun control measures should be adopted in the U.S.

Sometimes, the debate feels like people are coming from different worlds, even for people within the same family. And while Americans are often willing to discuss their own views, it's rarer to hear conversations between people who own and love guns and those who do not.

Paul Gwaltney is one of the former. An NPR listener and self-described "avid gun enthusiast," he contacted All Things Considered after hearing an interview with David Keene, president of the NRA.

Gwaltney challenged NPR reporters to try to better understand guns and the people who enjoy them. At NPR's request, he agreed to host a group of friends and colleagues — all with diverse views on guns — for a discussion in his home.

Gwaltney lives with his wife and three children in Centreville, Va., a suburb of Washington. He collects some guns for target shooting, some for fun and others for their historic value. In the basement, the family keeps shelves of ammunition and a 36-gun vault; Gwaltney keeps one more handgun upstairs for protection.

Gwaltney's friend George Hartogensis has very different views on guns. Hartogensis, 54, served with Gwaltney in the Air Force nearly 25 years ago. "I'm a moderate, a political moderate," he says, "which means to my leftist friends I'm a conservative, and to my conservative friends I'm a flaming liberal."

Hartogensis does not own a gun. And among the group assembled in Gwaltney's home, he's the most ardent supporter of gun control. "We just have so damn many of them out there," he says. "We'd be better off if we banned them."

Athena Norman, 37, doesn't own a gun, either, but she grew up with them. Her 14-year-old daughter shoots handguns with her father. "But when it comes to the assault weapons," Norman says, "I am against a private person owning that."

Also among the group are the Riddles: Chuck and Renee, along with their son Jeremy and daughter-in-law Casey, visiting from Texas. Jeremy and Casey, who are having a child soon, recently bought two handguns. They want to be prepared, they say, to protect their home and family.

Renee Riddle is at the other end of the spectrum. She hates guns. Her husband, on the other hand, owns three. "All my guns are 25-plus years old," he says. He owns "a Walther 9 mm, a refurbished gun from the German police, ... a Smith & Wesson .357 and a snub-nose .38 — it's a small pistol."

"I don't even look at 'em," says Renee. "They're somewhere in the closet. I try not to even look that direction."

Formative Experiences

Renee Riddle grew up with handguns and learned to shoot with her father. But as an adult, she had a searing experience: an accident that killed a neighbor. The man was cleaning his gun when it went off, killing the woman who had been sleeping in the next-door apartment.

"She just sat up, just at the right time and it hit her and killed her," she says. "It was just strange or a fluke. And the fact that he was cleaning his gun and not knowing what he was doing — it's messed up both of their lives [and] their families because now he's killed somebody, just cleaning his gun."

As a teenager, Athena Norman also had a traumatic experience with a gun accident that almost took her life. She was "in the wrong place at the wrong time," she says. Two men were arguing at a party when one pulled out a gun. She was shot accidentally.

"It hit my heart first. It hit every major organ. I lost my spleen, half my stomach, half my bladder," Norman says. "It hit my liver, my intestines — it finally came out my back. It punctured both of my lungs. It was a pretty bad injury."

Even so, Norman says, the experience didn't change her view on guns. "The problem I see with what happened was the person, not the gun that he was holding," she says. "And if guns were outlawed, that person still would have found a gun illegally."

On Gun Control Proposals, A Range Of Views

Gwaltney and Hartogensis have been debating the purpose and efficacy of gun control measures for years.

"Certainly to protect children in schools, certainly we don't want to see mass shootings. But will those laws fundamentally ever change that equation?" Gwaltney asks. "Trying to restrict either magazine capacity or assault weapons because they look different than other firearms that might have the same destructive power — those ultimately don't get you to that goal."

For his part, Hartogensis says it "would be a good thing" if all guns were confiscated. And it's not that he doesn't think hunters and handguns are cool, he says. "I went out with Paul one time and shot and had a great time. But I'm willing to give that up."

Not surprisingly, Hartogensis favors gun registration and restrictions on magazine capacity. "I mean, what do we really need handguns for? I mean, they're cool, but what do we really need 'em for?" he asks.

Talk of banning guns, and certain types of guns in particular, gets under Gwaltney's skin. He says there's no functional difference between AR-style assault weapons that some, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, wants banned, and some of the vintage semi-automatic rifles he owns.

"When you get into the semi-automatic realm, everywhere you put the line ... is arbitrary," Gwaltney says. "If you put it down at a single bullet coming out of a gun, and you have to reload every time, you've completely restricted my right to self defense."

Gun owner Chuck Riddle chimes in to say he would support background checks for gun buyers. He even says it would be reasonable for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to institute checks at gun shows. That, he says, would be no different from proving your age to drink at a beer festival.

"You get your wristband that says you're legal to drink beer, and you can go buy beer in the beer fest," he says. "There's nothing that would prevent the ATF from doing the same at every gun show."

Jeremy Riddle says that when it comes to gun control, one thing he'd like to see is more training for gun owners. "It was a little concerning that you could go in and purchase a gun and not know anything about it," he says. "And now I've got this gun that I've never used ... never handled. Something didn't feel right about that."

So Jeremy decided to take courses in shooting and gun handling. He says he'd like others to have to do the same before purchasing a weapon.

For Gun Enthusiasts, Fear Of Stigma

Gwaltney says gun owners sometimes have a difficult time talking openly about gun ownership, particularly since the shootings in Newtown, Conn. "You know, we're vilified in the press. There's a lot of people that [say] anybody that owns an assault weapon is de facto or by proxy guilty for the Newtown shooting."

That has made him hesitant to speak out, Gwaltney says, "because I don't want everyone to know that I'm a gun owner and a collector. Because there's a stigma — at least from on the left side — out there ... I don't get that."

The events in Newtown have influenced others in the group, as well. Renee Riddle says it's made her more fearful, not just of mass shootings, but of more people arming themselves in response.

"I've seen people who are crazy outside of stores fighting. If they had a gun, I would think they were going to kill each other. And then you get in the crossfire," she says. "I've seen my son get very irate at drivers. I'm afraid if I get somebody really mad at me, they might shoot me if they have a gun sitting in the car with them legally."

'A Profound Sense Of Sadness'

Newtown didn't change Norman's views on gun control, but, she says, "since Columbine, the events have progressively gotten worse. It's a wake-up call. I don't think there should be a total ban, but I think something needs to be done so it doesn't continue to escalate."

Hartogensis is, in a sense, resigned. "I have to be honest — to me it's just more of the same," he says. "Until we change our culture and get guns off the street, we're gonna see that. That is the price we pay. I have a 10-year-old son and that is why I'm against guns. I don't want him to be shot."

Chuck Riddle is also saddened by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. But there's little that legislation can really do, he says. "You just have a profound sense of sadness that that's kinda where we are. ... My biggest concern is that I can't think of legislation that would have prevented Adam Lanza from being able to do what he did. If that's their intent, I think it's very hard to legislate that out of our society."

And Hartogensis offers one final thought — something made clear throughout the entire conversation: "We are a country of chasms."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As we were thinking about our series on guns in America this week, it occurred to us that there are rarely conversations across that divide, between people who own and love guns and people who don't. We wanted to open up that dialogue, and we'll get to that in a few minutes. But first, let's meet the man who will host that discussion, Paul Gwaltney. He's an NPR listener, a self-described avid gun enthusiast, and he sent us an email recently challenging us to go to a shooting range to better understand the culture. We decided to take him up on that challenge, and we meet first at his home in Centreville, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, where he lives with his wife and three children.

PAUL GWALTNEY: This is where we keep everything. So...

BLOCK: In the basement, Paul shows me shelves of ammo and their 36-gun vault.

GWALTNEY: And we're making room for a second vault because we're overloading this one. So...

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: It's full?

GWALTNEY: It is full. Yes.

BLOCK: And he keeps one more handgun upstairs for protection. How many guns in all? Paul tells me that's a question only non-gun owners ask, fixating on the number, implying that people have more guns than they need. For gun owners, he says, there is no distinction between need and want.

GWALTNEY: This would've been the infantry weapon in World War I.

BLOCK: Paul Gwaltney collects guns: some for target shooting, some for fun, some for their historic value. He's pulled out several guns to show me. He handles them with great care and obvious pride.

GWALTNEY: My grandfather was an infantryman in World War I, so that would've been the gun he carried.

BLOCK: Well, what's this?

GWALTNEY: This is a liberator pistol, an FP-45. It was actually made in my hometown in World War II. It was designed specifically to air-drop into the French Resistance.

BLOCK: And he shows me some new guns.

GWALTNEY: This is a Walther P22. This is a similar gun. I think, actually, the same gun the Virginia Tech shooter used.

BLOCK: And a couple of black AR-style assault rifles for both Paul and his wife.

GWALTNEY: His and hers. She bought one too. I'm starting to call them the Feinstein guns.

BLOCK: These are among more than 150 assault weapons that would be banned under Senator Dianne Feinstein's proposal, which is now expected to die in the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOCK)

BLOCK: Paul Gwaltney locks his vaults, and we head to an indoor shooting range, Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly, Virginia. The first thing you notice at Blue Ridge Arsenal is the display of ghoulish paper targets hanging behind the counter.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I got a wall full, eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

BLOCK: One target shows a grinning, crazy-boned skeleton holding a pistol, another aiming a shotgun, and there's one called crazy bones terrorist. He's cradling an AK-47, dressed in a turban and robe, with a long dark beard to resemble Osama bin Laden. Instead, we go with a sheet of bull's-eyes.

GWALTNEY: So we'll all just go out, have a great time, and we'll see when you come back out.

BLOCK: It was pretty quiet before lunch time, which is a relief. I have told Paul I have never handled a gun before, much less shot one. He wants me to start with the black AR-style rifle, the one he calls his Feinstein gun.

GWALTNEY: I'll start with five rounds in here for you.

BLOCK: Five rounds in a magazine that holds 30.

GWALTNEY: You want to release your slide on this side with your left thumb. There you go.

BLOCK: I'm aiming at the paper target 25 yards away. The rifle is pretty light, about 6 pounds with the magazine.

GWALTNEY: Finger on the trigger when you're ready.

BLOCK: There we go. Brace yourselves. It's going to get loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

BLOCK: Now, I expected this moment of firing an assault rifle to feel huge. But somehow it doesn't. The gun gives a bit of a kick, but not much. And while I did hit somewhere on the target, I wasn't at all precise.

GWALTNEY: You got all five on target. You were aiming here?

BLOCK: I was aiming there.

GWALTNEY: So it might be your sight picture. It might be settled down.

BLOCK: I can easily see that you'd want to try again and again to improve your aim.

Should we try again?

GWALTNEY: Sure.

BLOCK: Later that day, Paul Gwaltney gathers some friends and work colleagues together at his home, both gun owners and non. We want to talk about their own experiences with guns and how they see the gun debate. We start with someone who served with Paul in the Air Force nearly 25 years ago.

GEORGE HARTOGENSIS: I'm George Hartogensis. I'm 54 years old. I'm a moderate, a political moderate, which means to my leftist friends I'm a conservative and to my conservative friends I'm a flaming liberal.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: And he's not a gun owner. In this group, George is the most ardent supporter of gun control.

HARTOGENSIS: We just have so damn many of them out there.

BLOCK: In fact, he says, we'd be better off if we banned them. Also among the non-gun owners...

ATHENA NORMAN: Hi. I'm Athena Norman, 37. I grew up with guns. I am for some handguns...

(LAUGHTER)

NORMAN: ...but when it comes to the assault weapons, I am against a private person owning that. My daughter who's 14 shoots handguns. Her father does own two or three handguns.

BLOCK: Our group is rounded out by the Riddles - Chuck and Renee along with their son Jeremy and daughter-in-law Casey - who are visiting from Texas. Jeremy and Casey recently bought two handguns, a .40 caliber Springfield and a 9 millimeter.

JEREMY RIDDLE: It's mostly just for home defense right now. We're going to start a family soon, so I want to make sure that I can do all I can to protect the family.

BLOCK: Casey, what about you? You're pregnant. You have a baby coming in May.

CASEY RIDDLE: Yes, ma'am.

(LAUGHTER)

RIDDLE: My number one goal is protect my family, especially when we have our baby. The reason why we have two guns is his gun is way too big for me. So I had to get a gun that was smaller for me and more comfortable for me.

BLOCK: As for Jeremy's parents - Chuck and Renee - she says she hates guns. Her husband Chuck owns three of them.

CHUCK RIDDLE: We've got a Walther.

RENEE RIDDLE: No, we don't.

RIDDLE: I'm sorry. I have a Walther 9 millimeter that actually is a refurbished gun from the German police, so it - all of my guns are 25-plus years old. So Smith & Wesson .357 and then a snub-nose .38. It's a small pistol.

BLOCK: And, Renee, what did you just say? You said, we don't.

RIDDLE: We don't have - I don't have any guns.

(LAUGHTER)

RIDDLE: I don't even look at them. They're somewhere in the closet. I try not to even look that direction.

BLOCK: Renee grew up with handguns. She learned how to shoot with her father. But as an adult, she had this searing experience: a gun accident that killed a neighbor.

RIDDLE: She was asleep in her apartment. And the guy in the apartment next to her was cleaning his gun, accidentally went off. She just sat up, just at the right time and hit her and killed her.

BLOCK: Really?

RIDDLE: Yeah.

BLOCK: And do you remember what was going through your mind when that happened?

RIDDLE: Well, it was just strange that - or a fluke - and the fact that he was cleaning his gun and not knowing what he was doing, it messed up both of their lives - I mean, their families because now he's killed somebody, just cleaning his gun.

BLOCK: Anybody else whose lives have been crossed by gun violence in any way, Athena?

NORMAN: When I was a teenager, I was the victim of a gunshot. I was not the intended victim, but it was really a in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time.

BLOCK: What happened?

NORMAN: It was - if you want to call it a party, whatever it was, and there was an argument, a fight, an altercation between two other gentlemen and one had a gun, and I was actually shot. It did a lot of internal damage. Luckily, I'm still here today. But as far as how it impacts my views on guns, it's very minimal. The problem that I see with what happened was the person, not the gun that he was holding.

BLOCK: Hmm. How old were you?

NORMAN: Sixteen.

BLOCK: And you said you had serious injuries?

NORMAN: It was a .22 pistol. Luckily, it was not hollow tip, but it hit my heart first. It hit every major organ. I lost my spleen, half my stomach, half my bladder. It hit my liver, my intestines, and then finally came out my back. It punctured both of my lungs. But that - it was a pretty, pretty bad injury.

BLOCK: I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear you say that that did not change your views on guns.

NORMAN: It didn't. It changed my view on life, I think, but again, it was the person. And if guns were outlawed, that person still would have found a gun illegally.

BLOCK: And that points to the problem in this gun debate. Our host Paul Gwaltney chimes in. Will any of the proposed gun control laws work or do they punish the wrong people? This has been an ongoing, feisty debate between Paul and his friend George Hartogensis for years.

GWALTNEY: We've talked many times about what is the goal of a lot of this legislation? Certainly, to protect children in schools. Certainly, we don't want to see mass shootings. But will these laws fundamentally ever change that equation? The simple fact of trying to restrict either magazine capacity or assault weapons because they look different than other firearms that might have the same destructive power, those ultimately don't get you that goal.

BLOCK: George, ideally for you, what would you like to see in this country with gun ownership?

HARTOGENSIS: Well, you know, I would like to see the guns confiscated. I think that'd be a good thing, but I know that that won't...

BLOCK: Hold on. You're talking about all guns?

HARTOGENSIS: Yeah. You know, I mean, I'd - I think hunters are cool. I think handguns are cool. I went out with Paul one time and shot, had a great time, but I'm willing to give that up.

BLOCK: And what laws would you realistically want to see?

HARTOGENSIS: Well, I think registrations are good. I think the ammunition thing, the clips.

BLOCK: The smaller magazines, you would say?

HARTOGENSIS: Smaller magazines, you know, I mean, what do we really need handguns for? I mean, they're cool, but what do we really need them for?

BLOCK: George, the provocateur, gets under Paul's skin. As Paul sees it, there is no functional difference between an AR-style assault weapon, like the ones Senator Feinstein wants to ban, and some of the vintage semiautomatic rifles he owns. He says drawing those distinctions doesn't make any sense for people who understand guns.

GWALTNEY: I think there are - the Second Amendment right that I have that I can select the firearm that I'd like to use to protect myself, to use for sporting, to use for hunting.

HARTOGENSIS: So do I ever have a right to own a stinger missile?

GWALTNEY: I mean, it's all - it is about destructive power, right? We've made...

HARTOGENSIS: Right.

GWALTNEY: ...that distinction that says people don't carry personal missile defense systems. People recognize the destructive power of those weapons. But when you get into the semiautomatic realm, everywhere you put the line in this argument, to me, is arbitrary. If you put it down as a single bullet coming out of a gun and you have to reload every time, you've completely restricted my right to self-defense.

BLOCK: But where Paul Gwaltney fears knee-jerk restrictions on guns post-Newtown, Renee Riddle worries about more and more people arming themselves.

RIDDLE: I have more of a problem with, because of these mass killings and things, people now are carrying guns. I'm afraid of more things happening like what happened to Athena. I've seen people that are crazy outside of stores fighting. If they had a gun, I would think they were going to kill each other, and then you get in a crossfire.

I've seen my son get very irate at drivers. I'm afraid, you know, if I get mad - somebody mad at me, they might shoot me if they've got a gun sitting in the car with them legally, you know? I would be afraid of Jeremy with a gun.

(LAUGHTER)

RIDDLE: I swear.

BLOCK: You're afraid of your own son.

RIDDLE: I would be afraid. I mean, I really would be afraid. And I think a lot of people are going out now to get guns because they think they're not going to be able to.

BLOCK: What about the restrictions that are being talked about now? Chuck?

RIDDLE: Well, as far as background checks go, I don't necessarily have an issue with background checks. I mean, if - you can even do background checks at gun shows. If the ATF wanted to set up a booth and require everybody, I mean, you go to a beer fest now and you go to the booth and you get your wristband that says you're legal to drink beer, and you can go buy beer in the beer fest. There's nothing that would prevent ATF from doing the same thing at every gun show.

BLOCK: How big a chasm do you think there is in our country, a division between people like Paul and Chuck who - and Jeremy and Casey, who are gun owners and very strong supporters of the right to own guns and people like Renee and George, who are on the other side? I mean, how much conversation goes across that divide? Renee and Chuck, you live in the same house and I'm not sure you have that conversation.

RIDDLE: Personally, I don't even - I don't say a lot about it because I know I can't win the argument. I just listen and I say I don't like guns and I go about my business.

BLOCK: Do you talk to your friends at all about guns?

RIDDLE: I have a couple of friends that, well, just before all of this started and - she and I were talking and she's also an elementary school teacher, and they were talking about having guns in the schools. And we're all like, well, that's not a good idea. We both kind of whispered under our breath, I don't like guns at all anyway. And we did talk about the fact that we don't talk about it very loudly because we're not in the majority, and so we just kind of keep it to our self. But the thought of having some of the people that I know in the schools carrying guns for protection does not make me feel secure.

BLOCK: Does it strike you, Paul, that there are two communities here, there are gun people and there are non-gun people, and there's very little that bridges that conversation?

GWALTNEY: I think so. I mean, I think that there's a lot of hesitancy on gun owners. You know, we're vilified in the press. I mean, there's a lot of people that call for, you know, anybody who owns an assault weapon is, you know, de facto or by proxy, guilty for the Newtown shootings. I mean, I've heard that. And, you know, I think it makes all of us hesitant to speak up, and I think even as Renee says, she's found likeminded people to share, we do as well. We know who we can talk to and it's interesting. I mean, as you've seen in my collection, you've taken pictures, I'm generally hesitant because I don't want everyone to know that I'm a gun owner and a collector because there is a stigma, at least from - on the left side out there and it's just - I don't get that.

BLOCK: How, if at all, has the shooting in Newton, Connecticut, changed things for you personally, any of you? Jeremy?

RIDDLE: For me, it's - I'm more worried about, you know, society in general and being able to protect myself from these people who obviously want to do harm to other people. And it's, you know, it didn't turn me anti-gun, it turned me more like, well, I better start taking care of myself and family and, you know, start getting all my protection in order and, you know? But on gun control, I do think there are some things that we can do to really help. I'd like to see a lot more education in this country.

I think - especially people who are going to be purchasing guns, I'd like to see them have to take maybe classes and training in shooting and that kind of stuff before you even purchase a gun. I mean, I was kind of - it kind of blew my mind that I was able to go in, pass the background check. I mean, I did everything legally, purchased a legal gun. And now I've got this gun that I've never used, never seen, really, a handgun in person, you know, never handled.

Something didn't feel right about it, so that's why I took it upon myself to learn, you know, how to handle it and to go take the courses necessary and to take some training in shooting. But it was a little concerning that you can go in and purchase gun and not know anything about it.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

RIDDLE: That's a little disturbing. So I'd like to see some more education in this country.

BLOCK: Casey? Thoughts about how Newtown changed anything for you and how you feel.

RIDDLE: I just realized that people are just crazy. And my sister is an elementary school teacher. I mean, after that, she really wants to have a gun on her at all times, not to protect her but to protect her students.

BLOCK: George?

HARTOGENSIS: I have to be honest. To me, it's just more or the same. Until we change our culture and get guns off the street, we're going to see that. That is the price we pay. And I have a 10-year-old son, and that is why I'm against guns is because I don't want him to be shot.

BLOCK: Athena.

NORMAN: It didn't change my viewpoints on gun control or the Second Amendment. However, it did have me thinking that since, and I would say probably since Columbine, the events have progressively gotten worse. It's a wake-up call. I don't think there should be a total ban, but I think something needs to be done so it doesn't continue to escalate and get worse.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Chuck?

RIDDLE: Like George said, you know, you just have a profound sense of sadness that that's kind of where we are. Again, my biggest concern is that I can't think of legislation that would have prevented Adam Lanza from being able to do what he did. If that's their intent, I think it's very hard to legislate that out of our society.

BLOCK: And on that note, we wrap up our roundtable discussion on guns in Centreville, Virginia. We heard from Chuck and Renee Riddle, Jeremy and Casey Riddle, Athena Norman, Paul Gwaltney and George Hartogensis, who offers this final thought, something made clear all through our conversation: We are a country of chasms. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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