Field notes

'I feel uncomfortable when I can't carry a gun'

So says one American. In gun-loving US, there's a gun show somewhere every weekend and the right to bear arms - and buy and sell them - is a given

On a Saturday in Norfolk, Virginia, hundreds of people are gathered in a large hall for a fair.

Sellers spread their wares on folding tables and put up makeshift signs. Others walk around, peddling their items.

It looks like any other market - except that instead of pies or craft items, the things on sale include handguns, shotguns and rifles. And what you scoop out of plastic bags is not candy, but ammunition.

For this is a fair of guns and gun-related products.

The scary thing is, each weekend, there is at least one such gun show somewhere in the United States.

Welcome to Virginia, land of the freely toting gun lovers.


Sellers spread their wares on folding tables and put up makeshift signs. Others walk around, peddling their items. The Norfolk fair looks like any other market - except that instead of pies or craft items, the things on sale include handguns, shotguns and rifles. ST PHOTO: MELISSA SIM

It is home to the top gun lobby in the US, the National Rifle Association (NRA). It is one of 45 states in the US where it is legal to carry handguns in plain sight, though some states require a permit. Texas is the most recent to allow open-carry, starting this year.

The sight of so many guns and people openly carrying arms is alarming to someone such as me, who has never been in close contact with firearms.

Equally shocking are the gun statistics in the US. There were an estimated 356 million firearms in the US in 2013, outstripping the population of about 316 million at the time.

Last year, there was close to one mass shooting (where four or more are injured or killed) every day, according to Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organisation that provides data on gun violence.

PROTECTION

What happens if someone breaks into my home? I have three grandchildren. If something happens, I know I could have prevented it... Guns are not bad, just a tool.

MR ROB CHARLTON, 75, a former police officer, said he owns about a dozen firearms, including shotguns, handguns and rifles.

The number of deaths due to firearms was 32,888 in 2013, fast approaching the number of deaths by motor vehicles, which was 35,369, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Even in a place with strict gun laws like Washington, DC, shootings are a regular occurrence.

A fortnight ago in the capital, there were five shootings in a span of just three hours. One person died and five were injured.

The homicide was the first of the new year, but it will not be the last.

GUN LOVERS

But talk to gun owners and you get a very different world view.

One seller, Dan, circles the hall with a military-style rifle resting on his shoulder. On the gun's barrel he has taped a piece of paper with the words "for sale" scrawled on it.

The 27-year-old, who works in engineering, says this is one of four guns he owns and is selling it for US$1,600 (S$2,300). "I don't carry guns wherever I go. I just have it for sport. It's my hobby," he says.


Mr Charlton says he relies on gut feeling when selling a firearm and won't sell it to someone he doesn't think can handle the weapon. ST PHOTO: JEREMY AU YONG

For some, hunting is part of their culture, and guns a part of the family heritage. For others who live in far-flung towns, the gun is a part of self-defence.

There is also the argument that there is a constitutional right to "keep and bear arms", enshrined in the Second Amendment of the country's charter.

And while regulation, such as tighter background checks, could prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands, many are wary of any government intervention on the issue and will fight tooth and nail to protect their way of life.

In fact, guns are more common in the US household than one might expect. A Gallup survey in October last year showed that 41 per cent of respondents said they had a gun in their home.

The average gun owner is most likely to be white, male and identify with or lean towards the Republican Party, according to the Pew Research Centre.

Mr Rob Charlton, 75, a former police officer, says he owns about a dozen firearms, including shotguns, handguns and rifles. He mainly uses his firearms to hunt deer, bear or quail on his 2ha of land in North Carolina. But he has shot two individuals while off duty.

"There were two gentlemen trying to hold up a 7-Eleven (store). I was there. They both had hand guns. Bye guys," he says.

He carries a .45 automatic Colt pistol in his pouch wherever he goes, and says: "I feel uncomfortable when I can't carry a gun."

Even US President Barack Obama and his wife acknowledged that firearms can help people feel protected.

Frustrated by Congress' blocking of tough anti-gun Bills, Mr Obama two weeks ago exercised his authority as President to introduce executive actions that aim to expand background checks and tighten enforcement. The moves are subject to legal challenge.

Speaking at a forum after those executive orders were made, he recalled the time when he was campaigning with his wife in Iowa state and visiting farms and counties.

"Michelle turned to me and she said, 'You know, if I was living in a farmhouse, where the sheriff's department is pretty far away, and somebody can just turn off the highway and come up to the farm, I'd want to have a shotgun or a rifle to make sure that I was protected and my family was protected.' And she was absolutely right," said Mr Obama.

It is a sentiment that Mr Charlton shares: "What happens if someone breaks into my home? I have three grandchildren. If something happens, I know I could have prevented it." He adds: "Guns are not bad, just a tool."

Ms Erin Hughes, 37, who works as a 911, or public safety, dispatch officer, says she knows exactly how long police take to get to a scene.

"If you are lucky, it could take five to seven minutes. But being able to defend myself is important if I have just a minute to react," says the resident of Suffolk, Virginia, who has an eight-year-old daughter.

Over the years, the reasons for owning a gun have changed.

In 1999, 49 per cent of gun owners here said the main reason they had a gun was for hunting, while 26 per cent said it was for protection, according to a Pew survey. By 2013, 48 per cent cited protection and 32 per cent cited hunting.

MORE GUNS, MORE HOMICIDES

The gun lobby's argument is that if everyone had a gun, the US would be a safer place.

But a study by the Violence Policy Centre (VPC), an anti-gun lobby group, which analysed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) data, showed that in 2012, for every instance where a gun is used in a justifiable homicide (for example, self-defence) in the US, there were 32 criminal homicides.

The NRA's response is that guns are employed for defensive uses much more frequently than implied in the data. It added in an article that the VPC study "ignores the fact that widespread gun ownership deters some crimes from occurring in the first place".

Such arguments are interminable, with each side poking holes in the other's data.

THE RIGHT TO BUY AND SELL GUNS

While disagreement runs deep over the right to own guns, surely Americans realise it is just common sense to make it more difficult to acquire firearms? Many people outside gun lobby circles would probably think that.

At the moment, it is easy to buy a gun from an unlicensed private seller at a gun show or even online and it is legal for these individuals to sell guns from their private collections on an occasional basis.

Federal law prevents convicted felons, domestic abusers with restraining orders and those who are mentally ill, among others, from obtaining a gun. However, only licensed sellers must conduct the FBI checks that would flag these individuals.

So, what has been termed the "gun show loophole" basically allows people to get a gun from private sellers without going through background checks.

In principle, close to 85 per cent of Americans - including both Republicans and Democrats - favoured making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks, according to a Pew survey last July.

The same sentiments were expressed in 2013 with at least four different polls showing more than 80 per cent in favour of expanded checks.

Yet, in May 2013, the Senate rejected the Manchin-Toomey Bill to extend background checks to Internet and gun show sales, which led many to conclude that the US public was supportive of the move in principle, but feared the reach of the law in practice.

Experts believe more can be done to prevent gun violence in this country with more background checks.

"Gun violence in the United States could be improved by requiring everyone who buys a gun to go through a background check," says Professor of Law Adam Winkler from the University of California in Los Angeles, an expert on the Second Amendment. "We could also do more to crack down on the rogue gun dealers who illegally allow guns to get in the hands of criminals."

There is also a Bill in Congress which expands the categories of those prevented from getting a gun, and another to eliminate the rule which allows licensed sellers to go ahead with a sale if a background check cannot be completed in 72 hours - the time frame stipulated in federal law - due to any delays.

One private seller at the Norfolk gun show, who declined to be named, says he often sold guns from his collection of about 100 rifles, some dating back to the 1970s.

He simply required the buyer to fill in a form with his name, address, date of birth and contact number. No background check is done.

Others like Mr Charlton say they relie on their gut feeling when selling a firearm and won't sell it to a person they don't think can handle the weapon. "I get the names and addresses and IDs because I want to know who I'm dealing with," says Mr Charlton.

But he is not in favour of the government telling him whether he can or cannot make the sale, or that he must conduct a background check.

His stance encapsulates what many Americans believe. "It's working fine the way it is... It's none of the government's business."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline ''I feel uncomfortable when I can't carry a gun''. Print Edition | Subscribe