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In Trump's America, guns are okay again

At a recent gun show in Warsaw, Virginia, gun enthusiasts expressed a sense of relief that the government is no longer trying to ‘take away our guns’
Pupils who were evacuated after a school shooting in San Bernardino, California, walking past well-wishers to be reunited with their waiting parents on Monday. A teacher and a pupil died when the teacher's estranged husband walked into their class an
Pupils who were evacuated after a school shooting in San Bernardino, California, walking past well-wishers to be reunited with their waiting parents on Monday. A teacher and a pupil died when the teacher's estranged husband walked into their class and opened fire with a handgun.PHOTO: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Above: At a gun show in Warsaw, Virginia, retiree Robert Benson (below) says gun ownership is a constitutional right. Right: A police officer standing guard at North Park Elementary School on Monday after the shooting.
At a gun show in Warsaw, Virginia, retiree Robert Benson says gun ownership is a constitutional right.PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Above: At a gun show in Warsaw, Virginia, retiree Robert Benson (below) says gun ownership is a constitutional right. Right: A police officer standing guard at North Park Elementary School on Monday after the shooting.
At a gun show in Warsaw, Virginia, retiree Robert Benson (above) says gun ownership is a constitutional right.PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Above: At a gun show in Warsaw, Virginia, retiree Robert Benson (below) says gun ownership is a constitutional right. Right: A police officer standing guard at North Park Elementary School on Monday after the shooting.
A police officer standing guard at North Park Elementary School on Monday after the shooting.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Gun owners elated that pressure for tighter controls is off under new govt

Under the casual but watchful eyes of local police and organisers, in a hall no bigger than two tennis courts in the small town of Warsaw, Virginia (population 1,498), guns of every description were laid out neatly on a hundred tables.

 There were collectible old shotguns, long-range hunting rifles, all types of handguns, and of course gleaming black assault rifles.

 Among them were several .375 Magnum handguns - the same weapon used by 53-year-old Cedric Anderson at an elementary school in San Bernardino, California, on Monday.

Saying he needed to give something to his estranged wife, Ms Karen Smith, also 53, Anderson walked into her class for special needs children at the North Park Elementary School and opened fire, killing her and an eight-year- old pupil before turning the gun on himself.

 The recent Warsaw gun show was just one of hundreds big and small across the country every year. But this year in particular, one sensed a palpable sense of relief among the visitors trickling in at the event in the tiny town surrounded by wooded mountains and sprawling farms.

 The siege had lifted. In Mr Donald Trump's America, guns are okay again.

  • 300m NUMBER OF GUNS IN AMERICA 

    33k GUN DEATHS PER YEAR

  • ARMED AND DANGEROUS

  • NUMBER OF MASS SHOOTINGS: At least 85 in the last three-plus decades

    MOST-USED WEAPON IN MASS SHOOTINGS: Semi-automatic handguns (71 per cent)

    STATE MOST AFFECTED BY GUN DEATHS: Alaska (19.8 deaths per 100,000 population)

    STATE LEAST AFFECTED BY GUN DEATHS: Hawaii (2.6 deaths per 100,000 population)

    SUICIDES WITH GUNS: 21,334 out of 42,773

    GUN INDUSTRY: Worth US$8 billion (S$11.2 billion) and employs close to 300,000 people nationwide, according to the latest estimates.   

    Nirmal Ghosh

 "The vast majority of people who voted for President Donald Trump, I know a lot of us did, felt that the Obama administration and special interest groups, very rich people, were doing anything and every- thing to stop us from doing what we like to do," said 72-year-old Robert Benson, wheeling a walker packed with guns and knives for sale.

 "That is, be involved in gun shows and target shooting and collecting and hunting and so on. But those are rights granted to us by the Constitution," added the retired real estate agent. He described himself as a gun "hobbyist".

'WILD WEST' RELIC

The gun issue remains one of America's deepest paradoxes.

Owning a gun, as Mr Benson and other gun enthusiasts never fail to proclaim, is a constitutional right under the Second Amendment.

It is part of the culture of hunting - still very much a way of life in rural America - but also a relic of the "Wild West" days and historic wariness of federal governments.

 For decades, gun shows such as the one in Warsaw offered a loophole amid ostensibly strict laws by allowing people to buy guns without background checks. Former president Barack  Obama tried to restrict it with an executive order early last year, but with little real effect - and online sales of guns continued unfettered.

 The US has the highest gun ownership per capita in the world, though most of the weapons are concentrated in a third of American households, most of them rural and likely to be Republican.

Millions of gun owners swear by responsible ownership - keeping guns under lock and key and away from children, for instance - and it is hard to find anyone who does not favour strict gun ownership laws.

Where the divide widens is on the question of just how strict, and what guns.

In August last year, the Pew Research Centre said that for several years, large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans favoured making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks. Stricter checks found favour with 90 per cent of registered voters who backed Mrs Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump's Democratic opponent in last year's election. Among those who backed Mr Trump, slightly fewer - or 75 per cent - held a similar view.

 But the similarities end there.

Seventy-four per cent of Clinton supporters favoured a ban on assault-style weapons, against only 34 per cent of Trump supporters. Seventy-nine per cent of Clinton supporters prioritised controlling gun ownership over protecting gun rights. But by about nine to one, Trump supporters thought it was more important to protect gun rights.  

 Pew noted that the gap in how the two sides viewed overall priorities for the nation's gun policy was much wider than in any presidential campaign dating to 2000.

POST-TRUMP SLUMP  

In the wake of Mr Trump's election, though, gun sales dipped.

Background checks conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for most gun purchases - seen as the closest proxy figure for gun sales - dropped by 16 per cent in December and 20 per cent in January from the same months a year earlier. Share prices of the two publicly traded gun manufacturers - Sturm Ruger and American Outdoor Brand (the former Smith & Wesson) - also dipped. But the post-election sales slump was only a correction following years of a pre-Trump boom as gun owners and dealers built up their stocks. 

Gun production more than doubled during Mr Obama's eight years in office. The FBI conducted more than 27 million background checks last year, breaking the previous year's record.

The surge was driven largely by fears fanned by the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) that the Obama administration was bent on seizing the weapons from individuals.

 At the Gun and Knife Show in Warsaw, Mr Chris Berberich of dealer Pamunkey River Guns told The Straits Times: "There were some very rich and powerful people behind the Democratic Party who were determined to take our guns away. Now that Donald Trump is President, I think the tension has gone."

 It is clear that the NRA's five million active members, and millions more gun owners nationwide helped elect Mr Trump. In a triumphant speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre pledged that his organisation would cover Mr Trump's back for the next eight years.

 And, in a shift, he spoke not of a government bent on taking away guns but of violent leftists, activist judges and an oppositional media.

 "That's the new messaging, the new fear," said Washington-based Andrew Patrick of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, one of many groups advocating tighter controls on guns.  "This is scary when you are talking to armed people about most likely non-violent protesters. We are already trigger-happy enough," he added.

In California, eight-year-old Jonathan Martinez, born with a rare genetic condition called Williams Syndrome, had survived heart surgery - only to meet sudden and violent death in his classroom in San Bernardino. 

He and another pupil who was wounded in the shooting were apparently unintended victims of Anderson's attack on his wife.

On Tuesday evening, there was a candlelight prayer meeting for the dead. One person tweeted: "It's crazy to think that one day you can go to school & not come back."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'In Trump's America, guns are okay again'. Print Edition | Subscribe