By Chuck Raasch @craasch
FAIRMONT, W.VA. - "Pull!"
The orange clay circle whooshes through a blue February sky, then disintegrates at the blast of a 12-gauge shotgun. Christine Fox has hit her target, and her six male skeet-shooting partners join in an "attaway" chorus.
The road to the West Virginia Sportsman's & Firearms Association, one of scores of private shooting clubs in this state, is flanked by signs advertising church pancake breakfasts and deer crossings. Just over the hill is a tiny hamlet called Quiet Dell.
Fox, a pediatrician, comes often to this shooting sanctuary for the camaraderie and competition.
"Very much helps the self-discipline and concentration," says Fox from tiny, nearby Fairview. She grew up in Maryland suburbs of Washington and began sport shooting two years ago, at age 49.
Scenes like this, of friends gathering to shoot the breeze along with their guns, are so commonplace across rural America that it misses the mark to call them a way of life. Shooting and hunting are life in these mountains, sure as coal mines and pickups.
It is also foreign ground for millions of Americans who have never seen a gun, much less shot one, and who might wonder why anyone needs one.
The gun debate rages in two Americas. One of the biggest factors in where you stand on gun ownership and gun violence depends, literally, on where you lay your head at night.
A compilation of December Gallup polls showed that rural Americans - roughly one-sixth of the population - are more than twice as likely to have a gun in the home than those living in large cities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are six times more likely to hunt. Rural residents are also most likely to say the best way to reduce gun violence is to better enforce current gun laws rather than pass new ones, an argument echoed by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups.
The National Skeet Shooting Association (NSSA) estimates that up to 4 million Americans shoot skeet and the same number shoots sporting clays, a rapidly growing sport where competitors walk over an outdoor course as targets pop up. Michael Hampton Jr., executive director of the NSSA, says the number of high school and college students shooting competitively is growing by 10% to 15% a year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says 13.7 million Americans hunted in 2011; hunting license sales were up 9% from 2006, reversing a 25-year downward trend.
'This is who we are'
Hunters and sport shooters say shooting is a good outdoor family activity, a way to get kids who may not be able to compete in other sports out of sedentary lifestyles, while teaching responsibility, safety and respect for guns - the opposite of what they learn from violent movies and video games.
"I don't think that people like us are the problem," says Louise Terry, a board member of the National Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation, who began shooting with her dad as a child outside of Ithaca, N.Y. "People that have social maladjustment are the problem."
In these mountains, history and tradition drive gun ownership, but so does an enduring belief in what one of Fox's shooting partners, Frank Jezioro, calls "freedom of choice." Some hunt for food. Threaded throughout is a self-defense ethos that says an individual -with rights guaranteed by the Constitution, not the government - should decide what is necessary for protection or recreation.
"I live 15 miles from the nearest town or police station," says Jezioro, his state's director of the Division of Natural Resources. "My family, my wife, my grandkids are there all the time. A home invasion - what good does it do me to call 911 and wait for someone to come and help me? So people are self-sufficient and self-reliant. It comes back to your heritage, of, 'This is who we are.'"
Fox and another shooting partner, Jim Bowers, 67, a retired Air Force veteran, teach gun safety classes to kids as a way to pass on tradition and teach respect and responsibility. "Guns are very safe," Bowers says. "It's the people that make them unsafe."
"You go back in to the settling of this country, and the gun played a very important part in taming the wilderness," says Jezioro, 69, who twice won national rifle shooting awards as a young man."When you look back in the history of this state and how it was formed, guns were a part of it. You had to have a gun to live in the wilderness, and that has been ingrained in a lot of people. That just stays with us. It stays with the families."
The recent history of guns in urban America has been about people shooting people. After the shooting deaths in December of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn., former Seattle City Council member Tina Podlodowski quit her public relations job to work on a statewide effort to strengthen background checks, require more safety training for gun owners and push technological innovations to make guns safer. She says a ban on "military-grade weapons" is reasonable.
Podlodowski says she has hunter friends, has fired guns herself and does not want to "stigmatize" all gun owners. But "you sort of wonder why, if you say you are using your guns for hunting, why do you need this wide range of military-grade weaponry?" she says.
Steve Sanetti, president and CEO of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents more than 8,300 gun and ammunition makers, wholesalers, retailers and hunting and outdoor sports associations, says rural and urban Americans have vastly different experiences around guns.
"If you are in a city environment, where all you see are the anti-personnel uses of firearms, you think guns are anti-personnel," he says. "If you grow up in rural areas where guns are accepted, are part of life, used for recreation, sports, family gatherings ... you see that there is nothing wrong" with owning one.
The foundation is located in Newtown. A short drive away is a factory that once manufactured Winchester rifles, mythologized as "the guns that won the West."
Personal history, not mythology, motivates many gun owners.
Greg Pacholczyk, 40, of Marriottsvile, Md., says that among his earliest memories is the sense of responsibility he learned shooting with his father.
"You learned a regimen, how to work the rifle, the safety concerns - to never, ever point a gun at anyone," he says. "All of the things that are ingrained in you at an early age. You gain a huge respect for it."
A tool, not a 'weapon'
Jezioro and the other shooters at the club say the term "gun culture" unfairly associates them with violent users of guns and with Die Hard movie imagery, where characters spray bullets and kill in clusters, often using automatic weapons, they point out, that most Americans have not been able to legally own for decades.
"How does he shoot 150 times and kill 18 guys and the other guys shoot 6,000 times and he doesn't get hit?" scoffs Mike Parrish, a retired coal company worker, referring to Die Hard's Bruce Willis. "That's the movies, and that is the video games, too."
Call a gun a "weapon," and watch hunters and sport shooters recoil.
To a soldier defending his or her country, it might be a weapon, they say, but in other circumstances, it's a tool, not unlike an ax used to kill a chicken for the Sunday dinner table. "A hammer is a weapon - hell, anything is a weapon," Jezioro says.
Proving his point: In 1931, serial killer Harry F. Powers killed three children and two women and buried them in Quiet Dell, just over the hill from the shooting range. The victims were strangled or bludgeoned with a hammer. He was convicted and hanged for his crimes.
Bruce Hering, who teaches management of shooting preserves and shooting ranges at Southeastern Illinois University, says, "The term weapon has been utilized so much by the cinema (industry), by the video game stuff, it's no longer a gun. It's in a different kind of sphere. It's not being used to shoot clay targets or paper targets. It is something more animated. Totally different."
He grew up in what is now heavily populated New Jersey in the 1960s, 30 minutes from the center of New York City. He says boys in his then-rural area grew up around guns. No more. "We are too many generations removed from the farm" for gun owners and those who don't own guns to see eye-to-eye, he says.
Banning assault weapons, however they are defined, would not do anything to stop violent criminals, the skeet shooters here say. But the Second Amendment was not their first line of defense. There are about 300 million guns in the country, they say, so banning any guns won't work.
"If they're a criminal, they're not going to obey the law to start with," says Victor Satterfield, 71. Limiting ammunition purchases? Steve Harris, a retired mine executive, says he and other members of his skeet group shoot thousands of shells a year; they buy in bulk to save money or reload their own shells at home.
What would work? Better enforcement of background checks; more comprehensive, coordinated mental health screening and a national database of people being treated with violence-prone mental health issues; and longer sentences for gun criminals, they say.
After a mass shooting, "it automatically comes out we need more gun control," Jezioro says. "You got a guy who is a nut case, and he is going to go out and kill somebody. You can't punish or make it more difficult for law-abiding people to own a gun or protect themselves or their families."
"This is (about) mental health," Parrish says. "We are talking about guys, they don't care; they are going to get them a gun. It doesn't have to be an assault rifle."
He says an unchallenged shooter with pistols might have done nearly as much damage as the Newtown killer did with a semiautomatic rifle. Limiting rounds in a magazine, he says, won't work because any gun owner knows it only takes seconds to reload.
Part of the problem in the debate is ignorance about guns and the definition of some semiautomatics as "assault weapons," the skeet shooters say. The "assault weapons" on politicians' ban lists are there only because of "cosmetics" such as pistol grips that are associated with soldiers or terrorists, several members of the group say.
Yet another divide
Jim Brooks, 71, a retired electrician and one of Fox's shooting companions, owns one of the semiautomatic weapons President Obama wants to ban. "A law-abiding citizen should have a right to buy and own any type of firearm," he says.
That's not how Richard Oswald, a fifth-generation farmer from Point Rock, Mo., sees it. He says his father taught him that "if you took more than one shot to kill a deer, either your gun wasn't sighted properly, or you weren't a good enough shot to hunt." He says some semiautomatics "aren't good for anything except to blow up a watermelon. No one seriously wants to hunt with that."
The Gallup polls showing that seven of 10 rural American households have guns also show that four in 10 say firearms sales laws should be tougher.
The rural-urban divide vividly played out when 28 of the 29 Utah sheriffs sent Obama a letter in January opposing further gun restrictions and declaring, "Firearms are nothing more than instruments, valuable and potentially dangerous, but instruments nonetheless."
The sheriff of the state's most populous county, Utah County's Jim Winder, did not sign, saying the letter fed unfounded "paranoia" that Obama was coming after law-abiding citizens' guns.
"My colleagues that live and work in the rural areas - there is a different sense of what firearms ownership means," he says. "And also, a different level of violence."
West Virginia has 28 public shooting ranges for citizens to sight in hunting rifles, target shoot, or teach novices how to shoot. Last year, a range near West Virginia University had to close after what Jezioro describes as problems with young people imitating what they saw in movies or video games by bringing hundreds of rounds of ammunition to the range to "blast away" at TVs and computer monitors and other targets not permitted on the range.
"They'd bring out 50 halfway rotten cantaloupes or 50 heads of cabbage just to see them explode because they have seen it on TV," he says.
"These guys," he says, pointing to his skeet-shooting partners, "suffer because we had to close the range."