In heated gun debate, two sides are speaking different languages

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Inside the Big Buck Sport Shop in Wexford, Pa., where mounted moose and deer heads loom over rifles, handguns, targets and ammunition, the customers have no doubt: More gun laws will not save lives.

Fifteen miles south, in the city of Pittsburgh, many confronted by a steady stream of gun violence are just as certain: To reduce the carnage, stricter gun control is needed.

This divide has existed for decades, separating America into hostile camps of conservative vs. liberal, rural vs. urban. As the nation responds to the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., the gulf has rarely felt wider than now.

After the gunman invaded an elementary school with a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and magazines of 30 bullets each, there was a brief moment of unity amid the nation’s grief. Across partisan divides, politicians said something must be done about weapons based upon military designs. Many wondered if even the National Rifle Association would adjust its staunch opposition to gun control.

Then both sides regrouped. With President Barack Obama pushing for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and memory lingering of Obama’s divisive 2008 comment that some Americans “cling to guns and religion,” positions hardened.

Listening to the public discourse, and to citizens in places like Pittsburgh and the Big Buck Sport Shop, people seem to be speaking different languages entirely. Communication has broken down amid a flurry of accusations, denials, political maneuvering and catch phrases.

“You have to place some people in the category of ‘you cannot communicate with them,”‘ Big Buck salesman Dave Riddle said Friday, standing between a rack of rifles and a glass case full of used handguns. “Their minds are set; they cannot change.”

A short drive away, at the New Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, editor and publisher Rod Doss pondered how to tell gun enthusiasts about his belief that assault weapons should be banned.

“I don’t know that they would hear me,” Doss finally said. “Their culture is totally different. They’ve grown up around guns. It’s part of their life and their lifestyle. It’s second nature. Hunting, shooting, it’s the love of guns.”

Doss does not own a firearm: “I don’t feel a need for any. I personally don’t live in fear.” His newspaper, which covers the African-American community, publishes detailed information on every Pittsburgh homicide because most are black-on-black crimes.

“I’m awestruck with their fascination with guns,” Doss said of his suburban and rural neighbors. “When you look at it from that perspective, it’s hard to relate to anything.”

Locally, nationally, even globally, this is the issue that places people at odds — a fact seen by the passionate, often angry conversations that are ringing out across the world in the days since the Newtown shootings. Harry Wilson, author of “Guns, Gun Control and Elections: The Politics and Policy of Firearms,” sees common misperceptions on both sides.

Wilson, a Roanoke College political science professor, would like gun control advocates to know: “Gun owners are not idiots. Gun owners are not in favor of gun violence. Gun owners are in many ways like them, and would genuinely like to see gun violence reduced. Obviously they have a different solution. But they’re people too, just with different perspectives.”

“And what I would want gun owners to know is, the large majority of people in favor of gun control don’t really want to take all of your guns.”

Guns were inseparable from America even before their enshrinement in the Second Amendment. With guns we secured the nation’s independence, seized vast territory from indigenous peoples wielding arrows and tomahawks, and forged an ethos of personal freedom. Today, according to most estimates, there are about 250 million guns in our nation of 310 million people.

America has a higher rate of gun deaths than most similarly developed nations: 3.2 firearm homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That compared with a rate of 0.5 per 100,000 in Canada; 0.2 in Spain; 0.2 in Germany; and 0.1 in the United Kingdom and Australia. No data was available for Russia.

To many gun enthusiasts, though, these numbers have nothing to do with guns themselves.

With so many guns in circulation, they say, people intent on killing will always find a way to do it. Nor do they fault high-capacity magazines, because it can take only seconds to reload a standard 10-bullet version.

Some even say the solution to gun violence is more guns — to deter, and to fight back against the bad guys.

“The easy, lazy conclusion is that (gun violence) has to do with firearms,” said Sam Liberto, a business consultant shopping in Big Buck with his two young sons. “We should look at the root cause: parenting or lack thereof, mental illness, video games. The underlying forces are probably far more important.”

Liberto does think gun laws could be tightened, to track and collect more sale information. He’s against an assault weapons ban but expects one to happen soon, as a first step to outlawing even more guns.

So after Newtown, Liberto hustled to buy the same type of semiautomatic rifle used by the school gunman. On his iPhone was a photo of his weapon’s handiwork: an Osama bin Laden target that featured a face full of bullet holes.

“It’s a target item,” Liberto said of his purchase. “Unlike a hunting rifle or a sport shotgun it has less kick, a lighter weight. It’s designed to be carried. It’s just nice, a nice gun to shoot.”

Liberto and Riddle, the Big Buck salesman, are officers of the Millvale Sportsmen’s Club, where target shooters and hunters enjoy their pursuits. Riddle knows many people who enter competitions with the type of AR-15 used in Newtown.

The gray-bearded Riddle has been around firearms since he was born in rural Pennsylvania. To him, guns are no more dangerous than an axe or a bat.

What would he tell people who want more gun control?

“Let’s go out and shoot a little bit,” Riddle offers. “I’d take ’em out, introduce them to firearms, show them the safety aspects of it. I’d just go out and start shooting, have some fun. Shoot some paper targets, some cans. Shooting guns is a lot of fun, it really is.”

That’s incomprehensible to Pittsburgh resident Valerie Dixon, whose law-abiding 22-year-old son was killed in Pittsburgh a decade ago by a neighborhood thug with an illegal .357 Magnum.

“The original purpose of the Second Amendment was not a sport,” she said. “I do think the laws need to be looked at. Look at lifestyles as they are today, as opposed to when they created the Second Amendment.”

Dixon doesn’t only blame guns for her tragedy. She said better parenting and education are among many other factors that need to change. But still: She says her son’s killer was able to obtain the fateful gun within two hours.”I believe in the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms, but I believe there’s a responsibility with our rights,” said Dixon, who does not own a gun.

How to draw the line? That would require consultation and cooperation. Those who don’t own guns might have to learn things from those who do. People who like to shoot military-style weapons might have to sacrifice some of their recreation.

Or sacrifice some of their way of life.

Over the Christmas holiday, James and Jennifer Shafer shot guns with their parents and young kids at their ranch an hour north of Pittsburgh. The Shafers feel the pain of parents who have lost children. The Newtown killings left them shaken. But the response scares them, too.

“You can’t take away our right to protect ourselves,” said James Shafer, a former Marine who has called his congressional representatives to voice his opposition to laws that limit guns.

“We’re not going to give them up, that’s plain and simple,” he said.

“I don’t know how to get on the subway in a big city,” said his wife, Jennifer. “I’ve heard bad things about it, and I’m scared of it. But the subway is normal for other people . guns are the thread of our culture.”

James’ cousin, Erik Shafer, started buying guns a few years ago after he returned to his rural home and found it ransacked by burglars. Police took 20 minutes to arrive.

After listening to conversations about Newtown, “I honestly don’t think there is a middle to meet in,” said Erik Shafer, a small business owner with a wife and two young daughters.

Then what does the future hold? He sees no end to gun violence, no matter what laws are passed.

“How do you prepare yourself for an infinite way that people can be shot and killed?” Erik Shafer responded. “It’s tough. I really don’t know what the answer is.”

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