Gun advocates made gains under Obama, but still factor into electionBy Gregory Nickerson
Nothing has done more to boost activity among gun-rights advocates — and the business of gun builders and retailers — than the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Following his 2008 campaign comments that people in rural areas “cling to their guns and religion,” gun advocates have used the comment as a foil in promoting their cause.
Yet, compared to the Clinton administration’s passage of the Brady Bill, the Obama presidency has done little in the way of advancing gun control legislation. Bans on certain types of weaponry that expired under President Bush in 2004 have not been resurrected. The attempted assassination of Gabriel Giffords and the Aurora, Colorado, shooting this summer prompted calls for greater gun control and keeping records of bulk ammo sales, but the proposals have gained little traction in Congress. After the Aurora shooting, Obama stated his intention to reduce gun violence using existing law.
“President Obama hasn’t limited any gun rights. In fact he’s expanded them by signing bills to allow licensed handguns on Amtrak and in national parks,” said Brodie Farquhar, communications director for the Wyoming Democratic Party.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has continued to portray Obama as anti-gun, citing his recent campaign statements that military-type weapons like AK-47s are appropriate only for the battlefield, not for use by private citizens. Fox News pointed to U.S. participation in drafting a United Nations arms trade treaty as a covert move to get Congress to consider registering all guns. In 2011, a proposed rule by the Interior Department to keep target shooters from using public lands met intense opposition from hunting groups.
“[The NRA has] been in full blown panic mode for four years, and aside from being a rather amazing boom to gun shops and gun manufacturers, for all of the warnings, nothing’s happened [to reduce gun rights],” Farquhar said. “NRA coffers have had a torrent of money come into them by pushing this fear message. And the leadership of the NRA has done very well,” he added.
In Wyoming, gun rights advocates had successes with legislators in 2008, convincing them to pass a castle doctrine law and a law preventing seizure of guns when emergency powers are enacted. The latter law responded to the ban on guns in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Both laws used similar language to model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Wyoming also passed an open carry law in 2011 eliminating the need for concealed weapons permits for law-abiding citizens. Meanwhile, the gun-control lobby has a minimal presence in Wyoming. There is no local chapter for the Brady Campaign.
The popularity of gun rights in Wyoming exists in tandem with a particularly high rate of gun-related deaths in the state. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2009 Wyoming had a firearms death rate of 18.1 per 100,000, tying with Louisiana for the highest rank among the 50 states and Washington D.C. This rate includes all gun deaths from violent crimes, accidents, and suicides. Past studies have shown that the availability and lethal nature of guns makes Wyoming’s rate of suicide by firearm higher than the national average.
In Wyoming politics, lobbyists are on the lookout for legislators that express anything shy of total support for gun rights. The Wyoming Gun Owners Association has called out Republican legislator Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) for perceived anti-gun stances. The group’s website has also singled out Rep. Tom Lubnau (R-Gillete) for opposing a bill that would have kept local governments from placing restrictions on where guns can be carried.
Being pro-gun can help a candidate’s chances in a state election. This August, Anthony Bouchard, director of the Wyoming Gun Owners Association, narrowly lost a primary against Sen. Wayne Johnson (R-Cheyenne). Bouchard made waves in November 2011 by showing up armed with a holstered pistol at a Casper City Council meeting to speak against a prohibition of carrying weapons in government meetings. The ban passed.
In February, 2012, the Wyoming House fell two votes short of approving House Bill 60. The measure would have kept local governments like the Casper City Council from enacting any gun control laws.
“In Wyoming, no Democrat is inclined to touch anything about the Second Amendment,” said Farquhar. “It’s a non-starter, mainly because most Democrats hunt and have guns themselves.”
While gun ownership and gun rights remain very popular in Wyoming, a national survey showed that the national rate of gun ownership has fallen from 54 percent in 1977 to 32 percent in 2010. In part, this is due to a decades-long decline in hunting, though 2011 saw a modest uptick in hunting license sales.
Even with the rate of gun ownership falling, the number of gun purchases nationwide has steadily increased. Over the past five years background checks for gun purchases have surged 33.5 percent. Background checks in 2011 reached nearly 11 million, their highest number ever. December 2011 also set a monthly record for the highest number of background checks at over 1.4 million.
The increased number of firearms sales combined with the decreased ownership rate means that existing gun owners are buying more guns. And many of those buyers are in Wyoming.
Art Manning, owner of The Armorer in Cheyenne, says he has noticed a trend of customers buying numerous guns at one time. “The fear of Obama has scared them into it… I asked what they are going to do with [the guns] and they said they’ll take it out with the ammunition and bury them,” he said. Burying guns and ammo has long been a preemptive strategy for evading enforcement of anticipated nationwide gun bans.
Manning says gun owners have several reasons to fear Obama enacting more gun control laws. “They’ve looked at what happened in Louisiana during the hurricane, and what happened under the Clinton ban, and Obama’s sneaky tactics of trying to get things put in under a U.N. treaty, and as far as the gun owners, they don’t want any more of him. They’re scared of him,” Manning said. “Obama scared the hell out of everybody, and they have gone into a buying frenzy.”
On the state level, Manning says he doesn’t think Wyoming’s new open carry law has greatly affected sales of handguns. “Most of the concealed carry [buyers] that I see are people who already had concealed carry permits,” he said.
— For more on this subject, read “Wyoming to become fourth state allowing concealed guns without permit,” originally published by WyoFile on March 8, 2011.
— WyoFile reporter Gregory Nickerson is a University of Wyoming-trained historian and writer from Big Horn. He has worked on documentary films in Nicaragua, Yellowstone, and Philadelphia, and held jobs as a museum curator and hunting guide.
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