In 2009, when I was trying to figure out why gun sales were so brisk, I visited a couple of gun shops in Riverside and Corona.
Back then, part of the reason people were arming themselves, they told me, was that President Obama had recently taken office, and they feared that he would crack down on gun ownership. A Riverside gun shop owner said he wasn't sure whether or not Obama was a Muslim, and if by chance someone took a shot at him, there could be rioting. People wanted to make sure they were armed and ready for war.
In Corona, another gun shop owner told me that "once private gun ownership is eliminated, there's nothing to stop the government from doing what it wants to do."
He seemed pretty sure we were headed in that direction, but gun ownership is never going to be eliminated in this country. We love guns. We have more than 300 million of them, which is nearly one for every man, woman and child. In 2010, nearly 5.5 million firearms were manufactured in this country, 95% of them for the U.S. market.
And our support for guns just keeps growing. In 1969, Gallup reported that 60% of Americans supported a ban on handguns. In 2011, a Gallup poll found that only 26% wanted a ban.
It doesn't matter how many thousands of lives are lost (between 2001 and 2010, about 270,000 U.S. residents died in shootings, including homicide, suicide and accidents). And it doesn't seem to matter how many mass killings there are, like the one Friday at the elementary school in Connecticut.
This year, there were mass killings at a mall in Oregon, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and a movie theater in Colorado.
We shudder at the horror, we call for prayer, we say something's got to be done, and then we move on.
In 2010, a week after U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was severely wounded and six people were killed by a shooter who fired 31 rounds into a Tucson crowd, thousands of people attended a Tucson gun show. Some of them purchased semiautomatic handguns like the one Jared Loughner used on Giffords and the others.
In this country, you can legally buy assault weapons. What does that say about us?
Think about it. We have a national legislative body that fears the clout of the National Rifle Assn. more than it worries about the consequences of allowing people to buy weapons designed for war.
There used to be a federal ban on assault weapons, but it died in 2004. And Congress has not found the will to reinstate it. On Friday, referring to Connecticut, President Obama said it was time for "meaningful action," but he didn't explain what he meant by that.
State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) used the Connecticut shooting to remind Californians on Friday that a gun control bill of his died this year in Sacramento. California has a ban on automatic weapons, and SB 249 would have closed a loophole that makes it possible for gun owners to use devices that allow weapons to be quickly and easily reloaded. But a legislative committee suggested the matter should be reviewed administratively, by the attorney general, rather than legislatively.
The gun lobby had pulled out all the heavy artillery against SB 249, which was supported by the California Medical Assn. and the California Nurses Assn. Yee said he was flooded with racist, vulgar and derisive comments and caricatures, and that some of his critics told him to go back to China.
Yee told me he thinks most gun owners are responsible people who respect the power of their weapons and don't abuse that deadly potential. But in its zeal, he said, the gun lobby lets deadly weapons fall into the hands of less-responsible citizens.
"For God's sake," Yee pleaded, "how many people have to die before you come to your senses?"
I checked Friday with Annie Get Your Gun, the Corona shop I visited in 2009. Owner Jerry Fried told me sales are up about 35% this year over last, with customers buying firearms for home protection or recreational shooting. His wife, Annie, said it's been particularly brisk during the holiday season.
"People are buying Christmas gifts," said Annie, who noted a run on rifles.
I also dropped in to Turner's Outdoorsman in Pasadena. Several customers had taken numbers, like you do at a deli, and were waiting for their turn at the gun counter. A sign warned that it was the last day to buy a gun and have the paperwork completed before Christmas. I flipped through the store's holiday flier and counted 114 discounted guns, rifles and shotguns.
A shopper who declined to give his name said he was getting his wife a gun for Christmas, and that she'd be using it for recreational shooting. He hadn't heard about the massacre in Connecticut, but I told him a few details and asked if he thought the latest tragedy might bring new calls for more gun control.
"Whether a gun is legal or not, if bad guys want to get it, they'll get it," said the shopper. "You can legislate all you want, and it's not going to stop the bad guys."
I suspect he's right, but that doesn't mean we're helpless to do the things that might make us a little safer.
The vast majority of gun violence does not involve people with mental health issues. But when mental health services are in short supply for many people, guns are nearly as easy to buy as garden tools, and violence is used to sell music, movies and video games, the shocking thing is that we don't have more tragedies like Connecticut.
When I left the gun shop in Pasadena, I noticed that right next door is a place called My Gym, a children's fitness center.