BRYAN, Texas — Adam Lanza’s mother was among the tens of millions of U.S. gun owners. She legally had a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle and a pair of handguns, which her 20-year-old son used to kill 20 children and six adults in 10 minutes inside a Connecticut school.
In the raw aftermath of the second-worst school shooting in U.S. history, countless gun enthusiasts much like Lanza’s mother complicate a gun-owning narrative that critics, sometimes simplistically, put at the feet of a powerful lobby and caricatured zealots. More civilians are armed in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, with Yemen coming in a distant second, according to the independent Small Arms Survey in Geneva.
Take Blake Smith, a mechanical engineer who lives near Houston and uses an AR-15 style rifle in shooting competitions.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who famously claimed to have shot a coyote while jogging with a pistol holstered to his running shorts, has signed a half-dozen certificates applauding Smith as one of the state’s top marksmen. “But I won’t call myself a fanatic,” said Smith, 54, whose father first let him handle a gun around age 6.
“I sit at a desk all day. And when I get out to the range, I don’t hear any gunfire going on,” said Smith, who likens his emotional detachment to his guns to the way he would feel about a car or any other machine. “I’m so intent on my sight alignment, my trigger pull, my position. I don’t worry about anything. I don’t think about anything. It’s relieving. It’s therapeutic. Everybody has to have their Zen.”
Since the school shooting, President Barack Obama has asked for proposals on reducing gun violence that he can take to Congress in January, and he called on the National Rifle Association, the country’s most powerful gun-rights organization, to join the effort.
Gun laws in the U.S. vary from state to state — for instance, as of last month it is now legal to carry a gun in public view in Oklahoma — and are defended by the firearms industry and the NRA. On Friday, the NRA broke a weeklong silence since the Connecticut massacre by calling for armed volunteers at public schools, prompting criticism from many quarters.
But in the U.S., gun-control advocates are up against a sizeable bloc of mainstream Americans for whom guns are central to their lives, whether for patriotism or personal sense of safety, or simply to occupy their spare time.
Dave Burdett, who owns an outdoors and adventure shop across the street from the sprawling Texas A&M University campus in College Station, says his affinity for guns is rooted in history, not sport.
“It isn’t about hunting. Everyone says, `Well, I can understand having a sporting rifle, but not an AR-15,” Burdett said. “But wait a second — the idea of the Second Amendment was to preserve and protect the rights of individuals to have those guns.”
“Remember that the (American) revolution was fought by citizen soldiers,” he added. “To this day, that’s one of the cornerstones of our military defense. We have an all-volunteer military.”
An NRA poster picturing a bald eagle is taped to the glass door of his office. He started as a lawyer, dabbling in everything from commercial land to trying to block the deportation of an illegal immigrant, before seguing into selling guns.
When his daughter graduated with a business degree from Texas A&M, Burdett figured she would move somewhere cosmopolitan like Dallas and work in a downtown high-rise. She instead went to work in the store, built her own AR-15 out of spare parts and used it to join what her father described as the “let’s-go-pig-hunting-tonight circuit.” Those feral hog hunts often include high-powered rifles as well as night-vision goggles.
“The other thing is, shooting is fun. It really is,” Burdett said.
Many think so. Smith, the mechanical engineer, said that includes teenage girls. At national shooting competitions, Smith has run into a group of girls around 13 or 14 years old who call themselves “The Pink Ladies,” firing high-powered rifles at targets. He also recalls meeting Australians, whose country bans guns, who told him, “I love to shoot, so I’m going to the U.S.”
Others add safety to the list of reasons for allowing people easy access to guns.
“To me it’s obvious — the more people that have guns, or at least in their homes, it’s more of a criminal deterrent,” said Bill Moos, a local taxidermist in the small town of Bryan, near College Station. Moos, who owns more than 30 guns, can be spotted any given morning, prowling his roughly 40-acre (16-hectare) ranch with his dogs and a shotgun slung over his shoulder.
He tells a story of standing in the post office one day and hearing about a suspect driving around, wanted by the police. He thought of the woman behind the counter near him.
“My first thought was, `How are you going to protect yourself?’ Does she have a gun, in case someone tries to rob her?” he said. “It’s the first thing you think of: How are you going to defend yourself?”
On the television in the corner of his workshop, above a stuffed gray fox and a clutch of animal jawbones dangling on a ring like a set of keys, Obama is holding his first press conference since the Connecticut tragedy. He’s promising to send Congress legislation tightening gun laws and urging them to reinstate a ban on military-style assault weapons, like the one used by Lanza.
Moos turns down the volume.
“I guess it’s something you get used to,” he said of guns. “That you grow up around, and you enjoy them, and you accept the fact that you can own. It’s a privilege. It’s a whole different way of life. I guess I don’t need three pick-ups and a Corvette. But I have them.”