In Arizona, even a TV station is called KGUN

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 14, 2011 

TUCSON, Ariz. — At the Frontier Gun Shop toward the east side of this city, Jim Sharrah figures he can outfit you with a quality handgun or rifle, ammunition and pretty much whatever else you need in 15 to 20 minutes.

As long as you're a resident of Arizona and at least 21 without an adjudicated history of violence or mental issues, that's about how long the entire process takes, including the background check. You can walk out with the weapon loaded and tucked inside a coat, if necessary, no permit needed.

"I grew up here," the affable 68-year-old John Wayne fan said this week as he listened to radio replays of President Barack Obama's Wednesday memorial speech. "Back then, you could get out of school, and just go out hunting and shooting."

Since the mass shooting a week ago that killed six people and gravely injured Tucson's popular Democratic congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, a new national debate has erupted about gun control. One focus is whether laws such as Arizona's, which allowed 22-year-old Jared Loughner to purchase the 9 mm Glock allegedly used in the attack, are too lax.

But missing from the discussion is an understanding of the culture of this southern Arizona community of nearly 1 million people. People here own guns, lots of people, including Giffords, who owned the same model weapon she was shot with.

At least two of the people who helped tend to the wounded and subdue the gunman at the massacre last Saturday were carrying concealed handguns, and people wearing pistols on their belts or carrying rifles in gun racks always has been a common sight here.

"I'm one of those guys you're going to have to pry it out of my cold dead fingers," said Mike Harris, a 64-year-old broker who performed CPR on two of the shooting victims while carrying a small concealed pistol.

Guns have been part of the fabric of Tucson society since the days of the Old West, and little has changed. Even the local ABC affiliate is known as KGUN-TV.

But Tucson is also known as a more moderate — some would even say liberal — enclave than the rest of this reliably red state is, and in the wake of the attack last Saturday morning some Tucsonans, including the sheriff, say there needs to be a new look at how Arizona handles gun laws.

"You can carry a gun in a restaurant and bars," Cheryl Clark, a 40-year-old financial adviser, said this week as she waited in line to attend the memorial service at McKale Center for victims of the tragedy. "They're talking about allowing guns in schools, in the universities, allowing professors and students to carry guns.

"I think it's a sad state of affairs that we've come to the point where we think everybody should be armed and dangerous. I mean, we are the Wild West; that's our history and our legacy."

To find that imagery, you need go no farther than Sharrah's Frontier Gun Shop, on busy Grant Road directly across the street from a Boys and Girls Club and Doolen Middle School.

Frontier Gun Shop is one of 224 licensed gun sellers in Pima County.

Outside, the store sign advertises "Great Guns and Good Junk." Inside, you can find used pistols and rifles Sharrah picks up from collectors, estate sales or people who walk in wanting to sell them. Looking for a 1700s-era Irish pistol? He has one.

He also has enough cattle skulls, bridles and stuffed moose heads to outfit any self-respecting Southwestern home.

But Sharrah isn't a caricature. He's serious about gun safety and advises people to take courses before they purchase weapons. He says he always carries a concealed weapon, but he went through the state training that used to be required for that.

Arizona law now says that anyone who can legally own a gun can carry it concealed without a permit or training, a change Sharrah calls "stupid."

"I don't approve of it," he said. "I took the course. I already knew a lot, but I learned a lot from it. Mostly about safety; what to do and what not to do."

Mike Harris has similar views. The former Marine Corps drill instructor said he always carried a concealed pistol, a habit he picked up after being robbed repeatedly while he was the owner of several Sizzler steakhouses and frequently carried cash from the day's receipts.

But he considers himself a trained and knowledgeable gun owner.

Harris was at the scene of the shooting rampage because he wanted to visit a friend who works for Giffords. He arrived at the Safeway parking lot just moments after the shooting had stopped and the gunman had been detained.

Harris walks with a cane and says he's had several heart attacks, but he immediately began performing CPR on one victim, then rested when someone relieved him. Later, he turned back to start CPR on another.

He never thought of drawing his weapon, he said, because others had detained the shooter.

"Afterward, my wife said, 'What would you have done if you'd gotten there earlier?' " he said. "I would have killed him."

Harris still visualizes the carnage in the parking lot, and the physical residue of the attack.

"I was amazed at how many casings there were," he said. "I thought the guy had two guns because there were so many casings."

He notes that the suspect could have gotten a gun virtually anywhere he'd wanted to, and that gun ads run regularly in places such as the Dandy Dime, a local free shopper publication.

But Harris doesn't think the incident means tougher gun laws are needed.

Anyone who answers an ad placed by an individual offering a gun for sale can make the purchase with no scrutiny at all. Unlike at a gun shop, there's no background check; not even a check of identification is required.

"None at all," said Thomas Mangan, a spokesman for the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "If you're the owner and you sell it, you're not required to do anything. The same would apply to 100 guns.

"It's like you're selling a baseball card."

Because of that, there's no way to estimate reliably how many people in Pima County own guns or how many guns there are.

Gun rights advocates will tell you that's the way it should be, that government has no right to impose restrictions on gun ownership and that Arizona is at the forefront of protecting the Second Amendment.

"I think some of the (negative) views that exist of Arizona come from states on the East Coast and West Coast that have created gun laws that are contrary to the Constitution," said Tommy Rompel, the 29-year-old owner of Black Weapons Armory, a few miles from Sharrah's shop. "You do have a large gun culture here.

"Most of our gun customers believe in being able to protect your home yourself."

Rompel's shop sells high-end weapons, mostly custom-designed versions of the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle that can be fitted with various components for different appearances.

"Like Lego blocks for adults," he said, standing in his shop with a pistol holstered to his side.

He also sells suppressors, or silencers. He said many of his customers wanted them because they didn't care to wear ear protection when target shooting and because "they're fun."

Rompel, whose store sits in a strip mall across a street from Duffy Elementary and a block from Rincon High School, understands the perception many people may have of Arizona after the mass shooting. A crew from al Jazeera, the worldwide news organization based in Qatar, interviewed him a few days after the incident, and he knows what to expect.

"We're getting thrown under the bus as Arizonans because of what happened," he said.

But he and others said there were elements of life in Arizona that made gun ownership desirable and, in many cases, necessary.

Budget cutbacks have trimmed police services at the same time that illegal immigration has increased, they say, and ranchers in rural areas along the border feel the need to provide for their personal safety.

The very nature of the region makes gun ownership a must for some people, locals said. Once you leave the developed areas, the desert can be an isolated and dangerous place.

Some horseback riders and hikers carry weapons because of the omnipresent rattlesnakes and mountain lions. Other residents note that living far out can mean long response times from law enforcement.

Televised scenes of people packing pistols near the state Capitol just two days after the shooting have drawn national attention, though, as has Arizona's law that allows carriers of concealed weapons to enter bars or restaurants that serve alcohol as long as they don't imbibe.

Gun rights supporters say that simply allows a gun owner to enjoy a meal at a nice eatery. The Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association maintains a "CCW Cafe" page on its website to help members find restaurants that are friendly to carriers of concealed weapons, and avoid those that aren't.

But it isn't as if Tucson is some throwback town patrolled by a marshal. It's a modern city filled with public art, even on the freeway overpasses, and it boasts a major university that's home to a world-class medical school that saved Giffords' life.

Some of the state's most liberal politicians got their start here, including the late congressman and presidential candidate Morris K. Udall.

Even people who say they understand that gun ownership is part of life in Tucson wonder whether things have gone too far, though.

Mary Harris, a 70-year-old Presbyterian minister who stopped by Giffords' office this week to offer her support, said she understood that seeing guns out in public could be jarring to newcomers.

"If you haven't grown up around here, it can be quite intimidating," she said. "And there are a lot of newcomers around town. It's unnerving for them."

Harris said she understood people who felt the need to carry handguns for self-defense, especially in rural or undeveloped areas. But she'd draw the line at a six-round clip, not the 31-round style Loughner allegedly used.

"Carrying a handgun to protect yourself is one thing," she said. "Carrying an assault weapon is just unnecessary."

(Stanton reports for The Sacramento Bee.)

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