NEW YORK (AP) – Lobbying for gun control in the United States often means proving how much you like firearms.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state recently passed some of the strictest gun control measures in the country, often reminds people he is a hunter. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who founded a gun control advocacy group after surviving a gunshot wound to the head, says she and her husband keep two guns in a safe at home. Vice President Joe Biden boasts that he owns two shotguns. And the White House recently released a photo of President Barack Obama skeet shooting at the Camp David presidential retreat, trying to silence skeptics of his claim in an interview that he has actually shot a gun.
The message is obvious: They, too, are a part of America’s gun culture. In a country where at least a third of households have firearms, it’s hard to impose stricter arms rules without support from gun owners. That means reassuring Americans that nobody is going to take away the guns they bought legally.
Gun rights groups scoffed at what they called clumsy and obvious attempts by Biden and Obama to ingratiate themselves with firearm owners even while trying to limit their rights.
“It’s transparent, cynical and hollow and gun owners see right through it,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an association that represents gun manufacturers.
But gun control proponents have pressed on with such efforts ahead of a crucial Senate vote on legislation backed by the Obama administration in response to the Dec. 14 shooting of 20 children and six educators at a Connecticut school.
A recent $12 million ad campaign, bankrolled by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, urged moderate Republican and Democratic senators to support expanding federal background checks for gun sales, a system that currently applies only to federally licensed dealers. Advocates want to include gun show sales.
Far from criticizing guns, the ad shows a scruffy-faced man holding a shotgun in the back of a pickup truck. He argues that background checks don’t infringe on the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees the right of citizens to bear arms and is often cited by gun rights defenders.
“For me, guns are about hunting and protecting my family,” the man says, as two children play on tire swings in the background. “I believe in the Second Amendment, and I’ll fight to protect it. But with rights come responsibilities. That’s why I support comprehensive background checks, so criminals and the dangerously mentally ill can’t buy guns.”
Broader background checks face an uphill battle in Congress, along with proposals for a ban on military-style assault rifles and limits on ammunition capacity. Many Republicans and some Democrats represent states where citizens have vocally expressed fears that their gun rights will be taken away in the wake of the Connecticut shooting.
Gun sales nationwide surged after the school attack as people rushed to buy weapons they feared would be banned. Some communities have voted to allow teachers to carry firearms in schools, arguing that guns make people safer. A handful of small towns have even issued ordinances requiring their residents arm themselves.
The powerful National Rifle Association, which spent at least $24 million during the last U.S. election cycle, has stoked those fears, suggesting that the White House’s real intention to eventually to ban all firearms. “It’s about banning your guns … PERIOD!” NRA leader Wayne LaPierre wrote in January email to the group’s 4 million members.
But gun control advocates see evidence that, since the Connecticut shooting, many firearms owners are more open to stricter laws than the NRA contends.
Recent polling shows that more than 80 percent of Americans support extending federal background checks to include gun show sales and private purchases. Colorado, a state with a strong frontier tradition of gun ownership, passed legislation last month that expanded background checks to apply to personal and online sales and limited magazine capacity to 15 bullets. Connecticut followed suit with an even stronger bill to ban more than 100 previously legal weapons. In Maryland, legislators have approved a measure that, among other things, requires people who buy a handgun to submit fingerprints to state police.
Obama and others are touting such efforts as signs that the country can bridge one of its deepest cultural divides: The split between mostly rural Americans who cherish guns for hunting and self-defense and urban citizens who equate them with gang violence, drive-by shootings and young lives lost.
“I’m 100 percent for expanded background checks, because if you have something to hide, we don’t want you to have a gun,” said Jaci Turner, a gun owner who lives in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. “I don’t have anything to hide, so I’ll answer all your questions.”
Turner, a dog trainer, grew up around guns in Minnesota. Weekends were often spent hunting or on the shooting range with her father. She and her husband, a big animal veterinarian, have shotguns, a rifle, a handgun and are in the process of acquiring a semi-automatic gun. She plans to take her 6-year-old daughter to the shooting range for the first time this year. Like many people from Colorado, Turner considers guns a normal part of enjoying the great outdoors.
“One of the biggest reasons for carrying a handgun is we spend a lot of time in the back country, so it’s protection from wild animals,” Turner said. “It’s a whole lot easier to carry in a backpack than a different type of gun.”
But Turner was unfazed when Colorado passed new gun control legislation. She said she doubted hunting groups would follow through on threats to boycott the state.
“I think they’ll come here under the radar because if you are a hunter, you are a hunter,” she said. “I don’t have a huge problem with controlling large high-capacity or even high-caliber firearms because they were made for a reason, and we don’t have that reason in our lives. I’m not walking around Afghanistan.”
Giffords, the former congresswoman who was left partially blind and struggling to talk in a January 2011 shooting that killed six other people in Arizona, tried to reach people like Turner in a recent ad campaign promoting extended background checks.
“There are solutions we can agree on, even gun owners like us,” Giffords said in the commercial.
Biden tried to strike a similar tone in a recent online video as part of a Facebook town hall. Reminiscing about learning firearm safety from his father, a hunter, the vice president said he has told his wife, Jill, to take one of their shotguns and “fire two blasts outside the house” if she ever felt threatened by an intruder. His point was that nobody needs a semi-automatic weapon to protect their home. “Buy a shotgun, buy a shotgun,” Biden urged listeners.
For some gun defenders, Biden only proved that the gap remains wide between his side of the debate and theirs.
Keane, the vice president of the gun association, which is based in the Connecticut town where the school shooting occurred, said many people prefer semi-automatic guns for protection because it gives them a better chance to hit their target.
Turner said she wants to add a semi-automatic to her collection for that very reason.
“Well, good luck, Joe,” she said, referring to the vice president. “When someone walks in the house and you’re freaked out, you’re only going to give her two chances? Good luck.”
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