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On Gun Ownership And Policy, 'A Country Of Chasms'

Gun enthusiast Paul Gwaltney at Blue Ridge Arsenal, in Chantilly, Va. Gwaltney, an NPR listener, agreed to host a discussion about guns with friends and colleagues.
Becky Lettenberger
Gun enthusiast Paul Gwaltney at Blue Ridge Arsenal, in Chantilly, Va. Gwaltney, an NPR listener, agreed to host a discussion about guns with friends and colleagues.

On Gun Ownership And Policy, 'A Country Of Chasms'

On Gun Ownership And Policy, 'A Country Of Chasms'

The ideological gulf between gun owners and non-gun owners is a wide one -- made all the more obvious by the ongoing debate over what, if any, gun control measures should be adopted in the U.S.


Sometimes, the debate feels like people are coming from different worlds, even for people within the same family. And while Americans are often willing to discuss their own views, it's rarer to hear conversations between people who own and love guns and those who do not.

Paul Gwaltney is one of the former. An NPR listener and self-described "avid gun enthusiast," he contacted All Things Considered after hearing an interview the program aired with David Keene, president of the NRA.

Gwaltney challenged NPR reporters to try to better understand guns and the people who enjoy them. At NPR's request, he agreed to host a group of friends and colleagues -- all with diverse views on guns -- for a discussion in his home.

Gwaltney lives with his wife and three children in Centreville, Va., a suburb of Washington. He collects some guns for target shooting, some for fun and others for their historic value. In the basement, the family keeps shelves of ammunition and a 36-gun vault, and Gwaltney keeps one more handgun upstairs for protection.

Gwaltney's friend George Hartogensis has very different views on guns. Hartogensis, 54, served with Paul in the Air Force nearly 25 years ago. "I'm a moderate, a political moderate," he says, "which means to my leftist friends I'm a conservative, and to my conservative friends I'm a flaming liberal."


Hartogensis does not own a gun. And among the group assembled in Gwaltney's home, he's the most ardent supporter of gun control. "We just have so damn many of them out there," he says. "We'd be better off if we banned them."

Athena Norman, 37, doesn't own a gun, either, but she grew up with them. Her 14-year-old daughter shoots handguns with her father. "But when it comes to the assault weapons, I am against a private person owning that," Norman says.

Also among the group are the Riddles: Chuck and Renee, along with their son Jeremy and daughter-in-law Casey, visiting from Texas. Jeremy and Casey, who are having a child soon, recently bought two handguns. They want to be prepared, they say, to protect their home and family.

Jeremy's mother, Renee Riddle, is at the other end of the spectrum. She hates guns. Her husband, Chuck, on the other hand, owns three. "All my guns are 25-plus years old," he says. He owns "a Walther 9 mm, a refurbished gun from the German police, ... a Smith & Wesson .357 and a snub-nose .38 -- it's a small pistol."

"I don't even look at 'em," says his wife Renee. "They're somewhere in the closet. I try not to even look that direction."

Formative Experiences

Renee Riddle grew up with handguns and learned to shoot with her father. But as an adult, she had a searing experience: an accident that killed a neighbor. The man was cleaning his gun when it went off, killing the woman who had been sleeping in the next-door apartment.

"She just sat up, just at the right time and it hit her and killed her," Renee says. "It was just strange, or a fluke. And the fact that he was cleaning his gun and not knowing what he was doing -- it's messed up both of their lives [and] their families. Because now he's killed somebody, just cleaning his gun."

Athena Norman, as a teenager, also had a traumatic experience with a gun accident that almost took her life. She was "in the wrong place at the wrong time," she says. Two men were arguing at a party when one pulled out a gun. She was shot accidentally.

"It hit my heart first. It hit every major organ. I lost my spleen, half my stomach, half my bladder," Norman says. "It hit my liver, my intestines -- it finally came out my back. It punctured both of my lungs. It was a pretty bad injury."

Even so, Norman says the experience didn't change her view on guns. "The problem I see with what happened was the person, not the gun that he was holding," she says. "And if guns were outlawed, that person still would have found a gun illegally."

On Gun Control Proposals, A Range Of Views

Given their very different views on firearms, Paul Gwaltney and friend George Hartogensis have been debating the purpose and efficacy of gun control measures for years.

"Certainly to protect children in schools, certainly we don't want to see mass shootings. But will those laws fundamentally ever change that equation?," Gwaltney asks. "Trying to restrict either magazine capacity or assault weapons because they look different than other firearms that might have the same destructive power -- those ultimately don't get you to that goal."

For his part, Hartogensis says it "would be a good thing" if all guns were confiscated. and it's not that he doesn't think hunters and handguns are cool, he says. "I went out with Paul one time and shot and had a great time," he says. "But I'm willing to give that up."

Not surprisingly, Hartogensis favors gun registration and restrictions on magazine capacity. "I mean, what do we really need handguns for? I mean, they're cool, but what do we really need 'em for?," he asks.

Talk of banning guns, and certain types of guns in particular, gets under Gwaltney's skin. He says there's no functional difference between AR-style assault weapons that some, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, wants banned, and some of the vintage semi-automatic rifles he owns.

"When you get into the semi-automatic realm, everywhere you put the line ... is arbitrary," Gwaltney says. "If you put it down at a single bullet coming out of a gun, and you have to reload every time, you've completely restricted my right to self defense."

Gun owner Chuck Riddle chimes in to say he would support background checks for gun buyers. He even says it would be reasonable for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to institute checks at gun shows. That, he says, would be no different from proving your of age to drink at a beer festival.

"You get your wristband that says you're legal to drink beer, and you can go buy beer in the beer fest," Chuck Riddle says. "There's nothing that would prevent the ATF from doing the same at every gun show."

Jeremy Riddle, who recently bought his first guns with wife Casey, says that when it comes to gun control, one thing he'd like to see is more training for gun owners. "It was a little concerning that you could go in and purchase a gun and not know anything about it," he says. "And now I've got this gun that I've never used ... never handled. Something didn't feel right about that."

So Jeremy decided to take courses in shooting and gun handling. He says he'd like others to have to do the same before purchasing a weapon.

For Gun Enthusiasts, Fear Of Stigma

Paul Gwaltney says gun owners sometimes have a difficult time talking openly about gun ownership, particularly since Newtown. "You know, we're vilified in the press. There's a lot of people that [say] anybody that owns an assault weapon is defacto or by proxy guilty for the Newtown shooting."

That has made him hesitant to speak out, Gwaltney says, "because I don't want everyone to know that I'm a gun owner and a collector. Because there's a stigma -- at least from on the left side -- out there ... I don't get that."

The events in Newtown have influenced others in the group, as well. Renee Riddle says it's made her more fearful, not just of mass shootings, but of more people arming themselves in response.

"I've seen people who are crazy outside of stores fighting. If they had a gun, I would think they were going to kill each other. And then you get in the crossfire," Renee says. "I've seen my son get very irate at drivers. I'm afraid if I get somebody really mad at me, they might shoot me if they have a gun sitting in the car with them legally."

'A Profound Sense Of Sadness'

For Athena Norman, who was once injured by a gun, Newtown didn't change her views on gun control. But, she says, "since Columbine, the events have progressively gotten worse. It's a wake-up call. I don't think there should be a total ban, but I think something needs to be done so it doesn't continue to escalate."

George Hartogensis, who favors strong gun restrictions, is, in a sense, resigned. "I have to be honest -- to me it's just more of the same," he says. "Until we change our culture and get guns off the street, we're gonna see that. That is the price we pay. I have a 10-year old son, and that is why I'm against guns. I don't want him to be shot."

Chuck Riddle is also saddened by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. But there's little that legislation can really do, he says. "You just have a profound sense of sadness that that's kinda where we are ... My biggest concern is that I can't think of legislation that would have prevented Adam Lanza from being able to do what he did. If that's their intent, I think it's very hard to legislate that out of our society."

And Hartogensis offers one final thought -- something made clear throughout the entire conversation: "We are a country of chasms."

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