From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 9, Number 9 - May 19, 2009
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Guns, Wyoming, Washington, D.C.

by Derek Farr

Business has been brisk since the election.

Sublette County Sheriff Deputy Gene Bryson’s night job as a licensed gun dealer keeps him busy but since last November’s election, sales have picked up. He gets calls almost every night from people looking for guns and ammunition.

And their searches are getting harder.

“You can’t hardly find .22 shells,” Bryson said.

Even though he stocked up anticipating the increase in sales, Bryson said, “When it’s gone, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Bryson has 40,000 rounds of .223 on backorder.

Political winds

On Jan. 6, two weeks before the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, a Chicago-area U.S. Representative – Democrat Bobby Rush who represents Obama’s home district – introduced House Resolution 45 (H.R. 45) to Congress.

H.R. 45, also known as the Blair Holt Act, contains gun control measures requiring gun owners to purchase federal firearm licenses.

Only qualified applicants could purchase the licenses (e.g. felons, the mentally disturbed and parents delinquent on child support are ineligible). Those who qualify would be required to submit personal information and a thumbprint to the government before being issued a license.

Among other stipulations, the bill mandates federal reporting and recordkeeping for all firearm transactions and it would “direct the Attorney General to establish and maintain a federal record of sale system.”

“It’s the gun-control crowd’s dream bill,” said Anthony Bouschard, executive director of the Wyoming Gun Owners Association (WGOA). “We should take a serious look at the bill because there will be pieces of (it) that will go into other bills.”

The WGOA has been around since November. Although the organization has been in the works for two years, Bouschard says the election sparked its final inception.

He believes H.R. 45 is just a start, and he predicts a wave of legislation by gun-control advocates.

“This is their version of shock and awe,” Bouschard said. “It’s one of many that is going to be coming across the table.”

Bouschard is right. While H.R. 45 is a rather lonely bill – it has no cosponsors – H.R. 2324, introduced this month by Rep. Michael Castle (D-Del.), has five cosponsors and the support of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

H.R. 2324 would require criminal background checks on all firearm transactions occurring at gun shows. Currently, only licensed gun dealers are required to perform criminal background checks.

The push for gun regulation comes on the heels of a national election that many feel has swayed the nation’s political winds to the left.

Unfurling their sails in those winds, the anti-gun lobby believes now is the time for new gun-control legislation. But those winds are in direct contradiction to many of Wyoming’s traditions and values.

Regardless, strong forces are pushing for more gun control. In addition to HR 45 and HR 2324, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in February that the Obama Administration is seeking to reinstatement the federal assault weapon ban – a ban that would prohibit the sale of combat style semi-automatic rifle and pistol derivatives.

Urban vs. rural

To many Wyomingites, gun-control bills belie basic rural sensibilities. But urban representatives believe that those sensibilities have guided the nation’s firearm policy for too long.

In Rep. Rush’s home district of Chicago, 36 school-aged children have been shot to death this year alone. In 2008, Philadelphia had 333 homicides with 78 percent of those victims killed with guns. In Washington, D.C., between 2000 and 2006, gun violence tallied 1,092 victims – and that was during the city’s handgun ban.

Those statistics have ominous underpinnings. Among the dead, the overwhelming per capita majority are black males. Nationally, black males are more than twice as likely to die from gun violence than white males and seven times more likely than Asian males.

And the majority of those deaths are connected with urban drug gangs. In some places the problem has reached epidemic proportions with shootings happening every night. As the street battles take more lives, the rampant gun violence devastates communities. And that devastation turns into a political will that cares very little about rural sensibilities.

For a representative from downtown Philadelphia or Chicago, the role of guns in society is dramatically different than it is for a representative from the windswept hills of western Wyoming where drivers tote rifles in the back windows of their pickup trucks.

Cowboy state violence

Violent crime in Wyoming is miniscule compared to the rest of the nation. But that does not shield it from firearm related deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Cowboy State has the 11th highest rate of gun deaths in the nation.

The reason is suicide. Wyoming has the inauspicious designation of having the nation’s highest suicide rate.

And according to Doug Pennington of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Wyoming has one of the lowest submissions of the dangerously mentally ill to the Brady Background Check (BBC).

That number is four, he said.

“(Wyoming) is not even trying to recognize its own gun violence problem,” he said. “It’s a terrible shame.”

Pennington said Virginia has made over 100,000 submissions to the BBC while states with the highest firearm suicide rates – Wyoming, Montana and Alaska – have submitted a total of five (one from Montana and zero from Alaska.)

Pennington pointed to a Harvard School of Public Health study that showed 85 percent of suicide attempts with firearms are fatal compared to 5 percent with other common methods. The study also found that 90 percent of people who attempt suicide and survive don’t try again. That leads researches to conclude that reducing access to lethal means of suicide saves lives. In other words, people will always attempt suicide, but if they’re initial attempt is less “successful” they won’t try again and lives will be saved.

Pennington says the mandated gun-show background checks of HR 2324 would prevent mentally disturbed people from accessing lethal means of attempting suicide, thereby reducing the state’s inflated suicide rate.

But the same study shows that most suicides tend to be impulsive. One out of four suicide survivors say they deliberated the decision for less than five minutes and 87 percent took less than eight hours.

Further, an Australian study of survivors of self-inflicted gunshot wounds found 64 percent said their attempt was due to a conflict with a partner or family member. Most of those were men who did not suffer from major depression or psychosis.

Those figures question the effectiveness of gun-show background checks in preventing suicide; those checks can’t control interpersonal crises or reduce spontaneity.

Gun culture and the slippery slope

“We are people who respect guns as a tool and realize misuse has its consequences,” said Ron Reckner, treasurer of the Pinedale Rifle and Pistol club. “I’m going to say people here are more responsible because they are more knowledgeable.”

Reckner’s opinion is less isolated than the land in which he lives. In many areas of the country guns, shooting and hunting are part of local culture. Instead of being an issue of guns per se, the issue is often seen as a battle over culture.

“The gun community is pro law and order,” Reckner said.

And often that is translated into the mantra, “An armed society is a polite society.” For example, WGOA Director Bouschard says he has no qualms about carrying a sidearm on the streets of Cheyenne.

But those values are not part of every American subculture. For gun-control advocates, it’s less about preserving a rural heritage and more about public health.

“It gets beyond the rural-urban argument,” Pennington said. “(Gun control) shouldn’t have anything to do with the sacred part of owning a gun.”

He said the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the Washington, D.C., handgun ban is proof that the Second Amendment describes a fundamental personal right to possess firearms. And he says gun-control groups understand that.

“It’s never been about taking people’s guns away,” he said.

But he added that no rights are absolute; even the freedom of speech has its limits and Pennington said the Second Amendment is no exception.

“It’s not about any gun anywhere any time,” he said. “There is a balance.”

The ideological battle continues

On Wednesday, Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi helped attach an amendment that allows concealed weapons in national parks onto the “Truth in Lending Act” – ironically the act’s primary sponsor Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) proposed the wilderness bill HR. 980 (NREPA) that caused a major uproar in Sublette County two weeks ago.

The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) described its purpose as: “To protect innocent Americans from violent crime in national parks and refuges.”

In a press release, both Wyoming senators hailed it as proof of the new Congress’s affinity for upholding the Second Amendment.

But gun-control advocates are watching the political winds as well. Some suggest that the relatively radical HR 45 is a test bill designed to galvanize popular gun-control issues around ardent gun-control supporters.

As both sides reconnoiter the 111th Congress’s Second Amendment disposition, advocates on both sides are digging in their heels.

And it is unlikely either side will budge. Just as the rural gun culture vehemently opposes gun-control measures, communities in gun-violence-ridden inner cities are demanding government intervention. Those opposing forces assure more gun legislation, but there are no assurances what will happen to those bills in the cogs of the political process.

The uncertainty has kept Bryson busy.

“There’s a lot of talk right now,” he said. “But nobody knows what’s going on.”

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