Most gun own­ers sup­port checks and other lim­its. Where are their voices?

Amid the cross­fire from ad­vo­cates of gun rights and those in fa­vor of gun con­trol, a num­ber of firearms own­ers strug­gle to be heard

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MICHAEL S. ROSEN­WALD

Once again, their voices are miss­ing from the de­bate.

Gun own­ers who fa­vor tighter re­stric­tions on firearms say they are in the same po­si­tion af­ter the mass shoot­ing in Ore­gon as they have been fol­low­ing other ram­pages— shut out of the ar­gu­ment.

The pat­tern, they say, is frus­trat­ing and fa­mil­iar: The what -should-be-done dis­cus­sion pits anti-gun groups against the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion and its al­lies, who are adamantly op­posed to any new re­stric­tions on weapons.

Gun own­ers who oc­cupy the mid­dle ground com­plain that they are rarely sought out or heard, yet polls show that the ma­jor­ity of gun own­ers sup­port uni­ver­sal back­ground checks and other con­tro­ver­sial lim­its. Pres­i­dent Obama is re­port­edly con­sid­er­ing us­ing his ex­ec­u­tive au­thor­ity to im­pose new back­ground-check re­quire­ments for high-vol­ume deal­ers in pri­vate sales — and many gun own­ers may sup­port that.

“There’s this per­cep­tion that peo­ple are neatly di­vided into folks who want an M1A1 Abrams bat­tle tank to drive to work and those who want to melt ev­ery last gun and bullet into doorstops,” said Pa­trick Tom­lin­son, a science-fic­tion writer and gun owner in Mil­wau­kee who fa­vors uni­ver­sal back­ground checks and longer wait­ing pe­ri­ods for gun pur­chases. “There seems to be no mid­dle there, but I know there is. I’m in it.”

Gun own­ers and deal­ers who pub­licly break with the NRA and other pow­er­ful gun rights groups some­times find them­selves be­ing la­beled as anti-gun­ners, traitors or worse.

The online vit­riol can be in­tense, par­tic­u­larly af­ter high-pro­file shoot­ings such as the Ore­gon com­mu­nity col­lege this month that left 10 dead in­clud­ing the gun­man, or on Fri­day at North­ern Ari­zona Univer­sity, where four peo­ple were shot, one fa­tally.

A. J. Som­er­set, a gun owner who crit­i­cized the coun­try’s don’t take-my-guns cul­ture in a new book, has been ac­cused by the NRA of hat­ing the Sec­ond Amend­ment.

And last year, when a Mary­land gun dealer an­nounced plans to sell the na­tion’s first smart gun — it con­nects wire­lessly to a watch that must be worn to fire it — protesters threat­ened to burn the store down, forc­ing him to back down. A caller told the owner, “You’re go­ing to get what’s com­ing to you, [ex­ple­tive].”

“We’re con­sid­ered weirdos,” said Ge­orge Legeros, a long­time Vir­ginia gun owner who also sup­ports uni­ver­sal back­ground checks and lim­its on how many guns peo­ple may buy. “Any­body who tries to take guns away is a bad man. That’s why the NRA doesn’t rep­re­sent me. For lack of a bet­ter word, they are too whacked-out. It’s one thing to be pro-gun. It’s another thing to have no com­mon sense.”

Nearly 1 in 3 Amer­i­cans own a

gun. But only 5 mil­lion be­long to the NRA, which is of­ten por­trayed as the voice of hun­ters, skeet shoot­ers and other gun own­ers. The squelched ma­jor­ity could emerge as a pow­er­ful force in the gun con­trol de­bate, gun con­trol ad­vo­cates say, if they ever gain trac­tion— em­pha­sis on if.

Daniel Web­ster, a firearms ex­pert at the Johns Hop­kins Bloomberg School of Public Health (it re­ceives fund­ing from Michael R. Bloomberg, a gun con­trol ad­vo­cate), said the coun­try isn’t des­tined to al­ways have the world’s high­est gun vi­o­lence rates “be­cause many of the mea­sures we need are sup­ported by very large ma­jori­ties of gun own­ers.”

Although public opin­ion polls show that gun own­ers strongly fa­vor pro­tect­ing gun rights over cur­tail­ing them, when they are asked about spe­cific ideas for re­stric­tions, most are in fa­vor.

Sur­veys by Johns Hop­kins and the Pew Re­search Cen­ter show that about 85 per­cent of gun own­ers fa­vor uni­ver­sal back­ground checks, an idea fiercely op­posed by the gun lobby. Gun own­ers also strongly sup­port a fed­eral data­base of gun sales, pro­hibit­ing own­er­ship for those con­victed of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and bar­ring peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness from buy­ing guns.

Though there is less sup­port for ban­ning high-pow­ered as­sault ri­fles — about 49 per­cent of gun own­ers would, vs. 64 per­cent of non-gun own­ers, ac­cord­ing to Pew — gun con­trol ad­vo­cates are em­bold­ened that a near ma­jor­ity is out of lock­step with the gun lobby.

“I can’t think of a sin­gle is­sue that has gen­er­ated more noise and more hype in the gun com­mu­nity than the is­sue of as­sault ri­fles over the last sev­eral years,” Michael Weisser, a Ver­mont gun dealer and NRA op­po­nent, wrote on his blog in June. “That nearly 50% of gun own­ers don’t buy this non­sense should give pause to those who still re­gard the NRA as a be­he­moth when it comes to in­flu­enc­ing public opin­ion about guns. To me, it’s more like a case of the em­peror with­out clothes.”

The NRA did not re­turn a re­quest for com­ment, but its offi- cials regularly ar­gue that many gun con­trol pro­pos­als would not stop mass shoot­ings.

Af­ter a man killed two broad­cast jour­nal­ists in Vir­ginia in Au­gust, Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lob­by­ist, wrote in a Washington Times opin­ion piece that “no piece of leg­is­la­tion pushed by gun con­trol ad­vo­cates would have stopped him from com­mit­ting this bru­tal crime.”

Public health of­fi­cials and gun own­ers who want more re­stric­tions ac­knowl­edge that in many cases, that’s true. But they ar­gue that tighter con­trol could still save a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of lives. The prob­lem, they ar­gue, is that the NRA won’t give an inch, turn­ing up the fear dial, which al­most al­ways in­creases gun sales.

“The NRA be­lieves that ev­ery at­tempt to reg­u­late is one step to­ward the promised land of pro­hi­bi­tion,” said Michael Chan­dler, a 60-year-old New York physi­cian and gun owner. “But it’s not. We can do sen­si­ble things.”

Though he’s an NRA life mem­ber be­cause he sup­ports their safety train­ing cour­ses, he knows the or­ga­ni­za­tion won’t lis­ten to his views on gun con­trol. And he’s stopped lis­ten­ing to their views.

“I hang up when they call me,” he said.

If gun own­ers such as Chan­dler want their voices heard, they need to or­ga­nize them­selves. There have been sev­eral ef­forts in the past decade to launch or­ga­ni­za­tions of mod­er­ate gun own­ers, but with lit­tle suc­cess. New ef­forts are un­der­way.

Re­becca Bond, a for­mer mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive, co-founded a non­profit group called Evolve, which bills it­self as “the third voice in the gun de­bate.” The idea is to bring to­gether mod­er­ate gun own­ers and en­trenched gun voices — pro and con — to pro­mote a cul­tural shift in the gun de­bate, fa­vor­ing con­ver­sa­tion about safe- ty over po­lit­i­cal ac­ri­mony.

Bond’s strat­egy: Use hu­mor and a con­ver­sa­tional tone. Its videos on gun safety have gone vi­ral — one posits that the Bill of Rights shouldn’t be in­fringed “as long as peo­ple aren’t be­ing dumba--es.” The ques­tion-and-an­swer sec­tion on its Web site is both en­ter­tain­ing and wel­com­ing.

“Are you op­posed to me own­ing a gun?” it asks. “Nope. There are over 300 mil­lion guns out there in Amer­ica with another 6 mil­lion sold ev­ery year. We’re not try­ing to be in­volved in who’s al­lowed to own what. We’re just op­posed to ac­ci­den­tal holes in stuff. Whether they’re in fur­ni­ture or peo­ple or a pizza, we hate ac­ci­den­tal holes. We’re staunchly op­posed to them.”

Another ques­tion: “If you’re ‘neu­tral,’ why do you in­ter­act with known anti-gun and pro-gun groups?” The an­swer: “Safety is not a side; it’s ev­ery­one’s per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity. Also, we’d go on a date with a blood­suck­ing swamp troll if we thought it would save a life.”

But when it comes to chang­ing the gun de­bate, dat­ing a swamp troll might be less chal­leng­ing. The or­ga­ni­za­tion raised just $20,042 in 2014, though Bond said it has picked up this year, reach­ing nearly $100,000. By com­par­i­son, the NRA raised nearly $350 mil­lion in 2013.

“I feel like I’m driv­ing a truck through a ce­ment wall ev­ery day,” Bond said. “Old habits die hard.”

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

Visi­tors at the Na­tion’s Gun Show this month at the Dulles Expo Cen­ter in Chan­tilly, Va., look at hand­guns.

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

The Na­tion’s Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Cen­ter in Chan­tilly, Va., this month drew thou­sands of visi­tors, many of whom might be in fa­vor of some types of gun re­stric­tions.

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