Reporting from Tucson — It was a busy day at the Tucson Mountain Park shooting range Sunday, where the aroma of gunpowder filled the air one day after 20 people were shot, six fatally, at a shopping center.
Alex Anderson, 24, was armed with a 9-millimeter Taurus, the same caliber as the gun that authorities say Jared Lee Loughner used in the shootings. Anderson, who works at the Home Depot next to the Sportsman's Warehouse where the gunman's weapon was purchased, has a permit to carry his gun concealed but no longer needs that, thanks to a state law passed last year.
" Arizona's gun laws are what they should be everywhere," said Anderson, who was teaching his girlfriend to stand and shoot. "More people should be carrying to protect us."
Arizona has some of the weakest gun control laws in the nation. To gun owners, those laws — which allow them to carry guns in their cars, in restaurants and other public places — are their last defense against unexpected evil. Gun control activists say the state's laws put weapons into the hands of the mentally unstable, and demand that federal officials impose tougher background checks and reinstate a ban on assault weapons.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik said the state's gun laws contributed to the shooting. He singled out the law passed last year that allows those 21 and over to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
"We're the Tombstone of the United States of America," Dupnik said, referring to the Arizona town known for its gun-slinging past. "I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in the state carry weapons wherever they are. That's almost where we are."
He mentioned a proposed law that would allow college students to carry concealed guns on campus.
"That's the ridiculous state to where we have become," Dupnik said.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a Washington-based gun control group, last year ranked Arizona second to last in its ranking of state gun restrictions, just ahead of Utah. If state legislators allow college students to carry guns on campus, Arizona could edge out Utah next year, said Brady Campaign spokesman Brian Malte.
By law, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, includes criminal and some mental health records, but only for individuals who have been committed or found mentally defective in court.
Loughner was forced to leave Pima Community College last year after multiple run-ins with campus police, and was told he could not return until he received a mental health clearance, college officials said. Those records "likely" would not have shown up on a federal background check, Malte said.
He said Arizona needs to join more than a dozen other states and expand the records they supply NICS.
Malte said federal officials also needed to reinstate an assault-weapons ban that lapsed during the George W. Bush administration. The ban covered the type of high-capacity ammunition clips used in the shootings.
Authorities said the gunman might have fired even more rounds had bystanders not tackled him and grabbed a fresh magazine he was attempting to insert.
"I think Americans will be outraged the more they find out about the firepower that he had," Malte said.
Not Charles Heller. As secretary of the nearly 4,000-member Arizona Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group, Heller carries at least two handguns with him at all times. He carries a third gun in the door of his car, more in the gun safe and vault bolted into his trunk.
"More laws equal more restrictions on people's ability to defend themselves," Heller said.
Heller said he saw expanding the mental health records used for federal background checks and reinstating the assault-weapons ban as threats on the right to bear arms.
"What happened at the Safeway plaza shows why it's so important for people to be armed," he said, "because evil is out there."
Richard A. Serrano of the Washington bureau and Times staff writer Sam Quinones in Tucson contributed to this report.