Pulling the trigger in the Treasure State



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"That's because when you're shooting," he says, "you're focusing."


To say that the United States citizenry is the most armed citizenry in the world is a little misleading. True, there are 88 guns per 100 people in America (the next closest is Yemen with just under 55 guns per 100 people). Also true, America is home to an estimated 35-50 percent of the civilian-owned guns in the world. And, yes, one of the most influential and visible political lobbies in America is the National Rifle Association, which spends millions of dollars every election cycle to protect the Second Amendment rights of Americans.

Despite all that, people who own guns in America are the exception, not the rule. According to the 2010 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, less than a third of American homes had a gun. The all-powerful NRA has 4 million members, representing about 1 percent of the population (by contrast, the AARP has 38 million members). In other words, there is a disproportionate number of guns and gun fervor in a country where most people aren't packing, which suggests two things: 1) People who own a gun probably own more than one, and 2) People who own guns really, really love them, and don't want anyone taking them away.

Here are some reasons why someone would want to take their guns away: On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into their high school with a TEC-9 (9mm semi-automatic), a Hi-Point 995 carbine rifle and two 12-gauge shotguns, one of which Harris named "Arlene." They killed 13 and wounded 21. On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho used a .22 caliber Walther P22 and a 9mm Glock to kill 32 and wound another 17 at Virginia Tech. And on July 20, 2012, James Holmes, dressed in tactical gear, walked into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises wielding a 12-gauge Remington, a Smith and Wesson M&P 15 rifle, and a Glock 22. He shot 70 people, killing 12.

Or on March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley fired a .22 caliber revolver six times outside of a Washington, D.C., hotel in a failed attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Four people were injured. James Brady, President Reagan's press secretary, was shot in the head, leaving him partially paralyzed. Brady has since started an anti-gun campaign. In 1993, his campaign succeeded in seeing the Brady Act signed by President Bill Clinton, which required background checks for individuals purchasing guns.

Today, the Brady Campaign ranks the states with the strongest (read: strictest) gun laws. California is No. 1 with a score of 81 out of 100 possible points. Hawaii is No. 6 with 50 points. Montana is tied for 47th with a score of 2.

Living in Montana, it is easy to forget that most Americans don't own a gun, because in Big Sky Country gun culture seems to be thriving. Between September 2010 and February 2012, federally licensed gun dealers in the state ordered 16,888 FBI background checks; only two other states, Kentucky and Utah, ordered more per 100,000 people. That figure doesn't even take into account guns purchased by Montanans from Montana gun manufacturers. In 2009, Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed the Montana Firearms Freedom Act, which among other things, says Montana-made guns bought by Montana citizens don't require background checks. The federal government doesn't recognize the law. Since it passed, statewide manufacturing of guns has grown 82 percent.


After shooting, Stu and Jamey take me to the Great Falls Shooting Complex's club house, a corrugated-sided building that stands up against the brown-grey bleakness of prairie. Inside, we find four men, each of them either a director of the shooting complex, a competitive shooter, or both. All of them are members of the NRA.

I begin by asking the group how they each came to appreciate firearms. Patrick, a neat, skinny guy with combed salt-and-pepper hair, talks about his family, and the bonds guns have strengthened: "When [your father] hands you your first rifle, you'll never get that feeling again. It takes time. You have to be there one-on-one, engaged with one another...talking about what a gun can do if it's done wrong, what it can if it's done right. Because this day and age, everyone is going sideways."

The rest of the men have similar stories. John, a bearish man with an Oklahoma drawl who claims to buy five to 10 guns a year, says the prize gun in his collection is a 1925 A5 that his granddad bought his father the day his father was born. "I have four grandkids now, and I bought each of them a .22 on the day they were born," he says. "Teaching them all to shoot, seeing the grin on their faces, it's irreplaceable."

Then James, whom everyone calls Chief and has the unlikely vibe of a church-going Al Bundy, echoes what I had already experienced in my brief shooting career. "There's something about taking something in your hand, whether it's a gun or a bow and arrow or a Frisbee," he says, "and hitting something way over there and not only doing it consistently but also making that target smaller and smaller and smaller. That feels good."

As the conversation ebbs, I ask the men what they would say to someone who suggests guns be made illegal.

Jamey Williams didn't need much time. "Self-defense."

He offers a supporting anecdote: "I witnessed an assault this summer. I was in a city and we called the police and you would not believe how long it took them to get there. There could have been plenty of people dead if it had escalated to that level. It took the police 7 or 8 minutes to get there."


Today, the NRA is a political and ideological juggernaut in the world of firearms. Its website is plastered with banners reading, "Send Obama His Walking Papers," "Gun Laws Ring Hollow with Voters" and "Handgun Stopping Power: Did Your Favorite Load Make The Cut?" But it was not always this way.

After the Civil War, a journalist named William C. Churchman and a lawyer named George Wingate returned to New York City and commiserated on the lack of marksmanship of their fellow Union troops. They agreed on the importance of an organization dedicated to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis." In 1871, they found the National Rifle Association.

In the beginning, it raised funds to open shooting ranges around New York City. The goal was to provide education in marksmanship and safety. The NRA quickly became a club of recreationists and competitive shooters. It wasn't until the 1930s that the NRA became politically involved. The National Firearms Act (1934) and the Federal Firearms Act (1938) represented the first major gun-legislation in America's history, proposing a firearm licensing system and heavily restricting the purchase of automatic weapons. Though not in an official lobbying capacity, the NRA came out in support of the measures. Then NRA Executive Vice President Milton Reckford told the House Ways and Means Committee, "We believe that the machine gun, sub-machine gun, and sawed-off shotgun, and dangerous and deadly weapons could all be included in any kind of a bill, and no matter how drastic, we will support it."

In the years following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and in the midst of the civil rights movement, the NRA began to evolve into the political force it is today. In reaction to a bill proposed by President Lyndon Johnson which would have extended a ban on mail-ordered rifles and shotguns, then-NRA President Harold Glassen called the measure the government's attempt to "foist upon an unsuspecting and aroused public a law that would, through its operation, sound the death knell for shooting sport and eventually disarm the American public."

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