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Gun control? It's a tough sell in Virginia

People want something done after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., if visitors to one gun store are any indication. But they don't necessarily support new limits on weapons.

December 23, 2012|By Neela Banerjee, Washington Bureau
  • A candlelight vigil in 2008 marking the first anniversary of the mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
A candlelight vigil in 2008 marking the first anniversary of the mass shooting… (Steve Helber / Associated…)

WARRENTON, Va. — Late on a weekday morning, Clark Brothers Guns is busy, busier than normal.

The small parking lot is full, and the crack of gunfire from the outdoor shooting range behind the store cuts through the whoosh of traffic out front. A life-sized statue of a brown bear looms over the front doors, dressed in a red and white Santa suit. Inside, past a wall of gun safes, the store is stacked with guns and ammunition and its ceiling is papered with target silhouettes, including one that resembles Osama bin Laden.

Business, says manager Mitch May, 62, is booming, and has been since President Obama took office and fear spread among the country's gun owners that he would take away their weapons.

The Newtown, Conn., massacre has amped up those worries. Gun owners see shifts in public opinion toward greater gun control and the possibility of new federal rules, and nationwide people are snapping up assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that may end up banned.

As good as business is now, the political focus on guns, May said, is misguided.

"When something like this happens, people react from emotion and not logic," said May, who has worked at Clark Brothers since he was 12. "I don't think passing more gun laws will solve the mental illness problems we have in the country."

Like many Americans, the staff and customers at Clark Brothers say the killing of 27 people in Newtown demands action on multiple fronts, like improving mental health services and school security. They do not mention any need to address the prevalence of firearms in the United States.

Regardless of the momentum toward gun control and the public soul-searching of some prominent pro-gun politicians, including Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), people at Clark Brothers see little reason to rein in guns.

"That gun in Connecticut didn't just get up on its own legs and go shoot people," said Tamar Kafami, 40, after she and her family had finished target practice. "Everyone is like, 'Ban guns, ban guns, ban guns,' but people can always find a way to do damage if they really want to."

Lauren May, 59, Clark Brothers' office manager, has worked at this emporium 50 miles west of Washington for nearly as long as her husband, Mitch. Their oldest granddaughter is 6, with blue eyes and blond hair, and looks a lot like one of the girls killed in Newtown, Lauren May said.

A lifelong member of the National Rifle Assn., May said NRA members "want something to be done" in response to the Newtown massacre but it should not impinge on 2nd Amendment rights.

What kind of change would be considered too much for gun enthusiasts is hard to say, especially in Virginia. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech before committing suicide in the worst school shooting in American history.

After the killings, Virginia ensured that mental health records were included in an FBI database used for gun purchase background checks. But other gun control efforts failed, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence rates Virginia as having "weak gun laws that help feed the illegal gun market and [it] allows the sale of guns without background checks and [puts] children at risk."

Last week, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, like some other Republicans, suggested arming teachers and principals to improve school security. At Clark Brothers, gun owners criticized the idea as dangerously wrongheaded.

As far as other ideas being circulated by politicians, Dominic Paoli, 21, doesn't think they will go anywhere. A student at the Virginia Military Institute, Paoli and three friends came to Clark Brothers for the first time to shoot his 9-millimeter Beretta pistol and his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, the popular civilian version of the U.S. military's M-16, similar to the weapon that Adam Lanza used in Newtown.

The smell of cordite drifts through the air of the firing range. People shoot at small paper targets about seven yards away, behind which stand earthen berms carved away by thousands of bullets. Shell casings litter the wooden floor.

"I'm not really too worried; it's all talk," said Paoli, his ears covered with large headphones to protect against the weapon noise.

He and others described new gun control measures as an exercise in futility. Outlawing high-capacity magazines would just drive people to smaller clips that are easier to conceal, Paoli said. Banning assault weapons? There are millions in circulation.

"They should enforce the laws they have better," he said.

Those laws, however, have been steadily eroded. This year, for instance, Virginia's Legislature repealed a 19-year-old law that had limited legal gun purchases to one a month.

At the far end of the firing range, Sudeep Bose, 41, a lawyer and former police officer, was filling a clip for his Glock 26 pistol. He has no great love of guns, he says, but shoots to keep up his skills.

"I think that the position we've taken in the past needs to change," he said. "But there's a balance that needs to occur between the need of citizens to protect their constitutional rights versus the rights of adults and children not to be victims of shootings."

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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