When the Colt Single Action Army revolver officially became Arizona's state gun on April 28, it was more than just a symbolic nod to the past.
State lawmakers who promoted and passed the measure made it clear that firearms are a part of the contemporary Arizona lifestyle, not to mention the state's politics and economy, as well as its legends and lore.
Arizona gun culture
Arizona has long been known as one of the most gun-friendly states in the union, with a reputation as a place where the right to keep and bear arms is not only respected but celebrated.
Where guns are concerned, the state has been getting even friendlier over the past few years as conservative legislators pursue a policy that pushes new boundaries for gun-owner rights.
To embattled gun enthusiasts around the country who feel that firearms are essential to their personal security and freedom, Arizona looks like the closest thing to nirvana.
But to those who worry that more firearms, particularly handguns and semiautomatic assault weapons, and fewer restrictions are a recipe for crime and violence, Arizona might as well be on another planet.
Many struggle to understand the lenient attitudes toward guns in the Grand Canyon State, particularly after the Jan. 8 mass shooting near Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old man accused of committing the crimes with a Glock 9mm handgun with an extended magazine, has been deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.
"There's a different view of guns out here than there is back East," said Bob Corbin, a former Arizona attorney general and Maricopa County attorney who served as National Rifle Association president in the early 1990s. "People who are here or come from the East are a different breed. Many are coming out to start a new life. It takes courage to do that, and a lot of people don't have it. They'd rather stay home and live with Mother. Arizonans, I think, are different. We're more for freedom."
Arizona's gun laws are the product of decades of the state's pro-gun politics, culture, economy and history. Those powerful factors over time have helped shape a long-standing attitude among many in Arizona that a person's ability to own a gun is a right that should be respected, defended and even expanded.
The conservative ideological bent of many of the state's leading politicians partially explains why Arizona has become a leading stronghold for gun rights, but the state's long-entrenched gun culture transcends current partisan politics.
While the rise of the "tea party" has strengthened pro-gun conservative numbers at the state Capitol, the political tradition of defending gun rights in Arizona dates back at least 100 years, when the state's founders fought back an attempt to exclude a provision protecting the right of an Arizonan "to bear arms in defense of himself" from the new state Constitution.
And in Arizona politics, you don't have to be a Republican to embrace gun rights. For years, Arizona's top political leaders, whether a Republican such as former U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater or a Democrat such as former Gov. Janet Napolitano, have been photographed holding guns.
Even Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who continues to recover from a gunshot wound to the head, has been a longtime Second Amendment supporter and owned her own Glock handgun before Jan. 8. Her staff says no one has asked her about gun rights since the shooting.
It also helps that the gun lobby is among the best organized and most influential special interests in the United States, greatly outspending gun-control advocates on campaigns in Arizona and elsewhere.
The NRA, the largest and best-known group with 4 million members nationwide, won't say how many members it has in Arizona, but its influence is felt. And it's no coincidence that three Arizonans have served as NRA presidents since the 1980s.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a decade ago stirred the anger of gun-rights enthusiasts when he unsuccessfully tried to increase federal regulation of gun shows, which do not require background checks to buy a firearm from a private seller.
McCain linked the state's gun culture to an instinctual distrust of the federal government and an appreciation of constitutional liberties, a spirit that Goldwater reflected in his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1964.
"Arizona, by nature of our history and by nature of a lot of our leadership, has been a state that really emphasizes the rights of the individual," said McCain, who carried a .45 as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War but doesn't own a gun now. "I think there has been a certain independence in Arizona. Goldwater kind of epitomized it: a dislike of governments, both big and small. The bigger the government, the greater the dislike. That, of course, leads to what some view as 'the Wild West' but the rest of us describe as an emphasis on the rights of the individual."
A culture of guns
Beyond politics, guns have helped shape the perception of Arizona's identity both inside and outside the state.
History is irrefutable: From the early Spanish explorers to Kit Carson to Geronimo to Wyatt Earp to Pancho Villa to shooting suspect Loughner, guns have played a central role in the state's conquest, settlement and image.
Worldwide, Arizona is known as the place where John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and other stars portrayed gunslingers in movies and where cowboys and Indians remain an essential ingredient in tourism promotion. The classic Hollywood cowboy has yet to hang up his six-shooter and saunter out of American pop culture, as the recent remakes of the Western classics "3:10 to Yuma" and "True Grit" attest.
If the Western films oftentimes were fictional, the role of the firearm in the real West was not.
"You can track civilization by following the weapons and the development of the gun," said Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of Cave Creek-based True West Magazine. "Certainly, out West, it was a huge factor in terms of firepower and dominance."
Besides the gun dramas that played out near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone and other dusty locales, a part of Arizona's heritage involves pioneers - trappers, miners, explorers, cattle ranchers - using firearms to defend themselves, protect their livestock and feed their families as they overtook and settled the land.
Modern-day Arizona gun owners extend across the political spectrum and include hunters and firearms collectors, those who buy guns for protection, and people who own them as a safeguard against an out-of-control government.
Bruce Merrill, a veteran Arizona pollster and political scientist, said his decades of opinion research suggest that the state's electorate "is pretty moderate, contrary to perceptions outside of Arizona." But it consistently has tilted against gun control, he said.
Merrill suggested that there may be some truth to the theory that some Arizonans have tended to view themselves as the rugged individualists described by Corbin.
"I really felt that there was a bit of a frontier mentality that related to issues like gun control, private liberties and that kind of thing," said Merrill, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University. "From a research point of view, I found that the electorate was a little less moderate on gun control. Not much, but a little bit. We certainly have the extremists on both ends, but I do think the electorate is slightly more for not controlling guns than the electorate is on most social issues like that."
That may be changing. A poll conducted in February for the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns found significant support in Arizona for certain specific gun reforms. For example, 83 percent of 600 Arizona voters surveyed by the GOP polling company American Viewpoint - including 75 percent of those who own guns - would back a law requiring all gun purchasers to pass a background check. (The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.)
State's laws continue to evolve
Arizona has been gradually expanding gun rights at the state level for the past two decades. Even after the shooting of Giffords, a former state senator, the Legislature moved forward with a controversial gun-rights platform in 2011.
"Arizona's gun laws have become more supportive of civil rights," said Alan Korwin, who operates the website http://www.gunlaws.com and whose book "The Arizona Gun Owner's Guide" is now in its 24th edition. "In fact, we lead the nation - or are damned close to it - in defending the right to bear arms."
Besides picking an official state gun, Arizona lawmakers recently have relaxed restrictions to allow firearms in bars under certain circumstances and scrapped a requirement for a state permit in order to carry concealed weapons.
They also passed bills that would have forced universities to allow concealed weapons on campus rights of way and local cities and towns to allow guns in public buildings.
But Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed both in April. She slammed the guns-on-campus legislation as "poorly written" and complained that the public-buildings bill had "too many loopholes and flaws for me to sign."
"Bills impacting our Second Amendment rights have to be crystal clear so that gun owners don't become lawbreakers by accident," Brewer wrote in her veto letter for the campus bill.
Record sales likely
Guns are big business in Arizona.
The state has more than 1,200 federally licensed gun sellers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They are on track to sell a record number of firearms this year.
Arizona ranks 30th in licensed gun dealers and pawn shops per capita, according to June ATF figures. Its rate of 19.3 licensees per 100,000 residents is only slightly higher than the national rate of 17.7, the data shows. The bureau also licenses more than 100 Arizona-based makers of guns and gun parts that employ more than 1,000 people.
Gun shows and exhibitions are a mainstay in modern-day Arizona, as in Texas and other Western states. At least eight gun shows are planned for Phoenix, Tucson, Mesa and Glendale during the second half of 2011, according to a listing on the website http://www.gunshows-usa.com.
Organizers of Crossroads of the West Gun Shows, which are held several times a year in Arizona and other states, say their shows attracted a total of 407,000 customers in the past year. General-admission tickets for two upcoming Arizona shows are on sale for about $15.
At a show in Glendale this spring, the median price for handguns appeared to be about $450, plus a holster for about $75. Semiautomatic AR-15 rifles were selling for around $1,000,
Firearms were on display by the thousands, from handguns to rifles to shotguns and BB guns. There was also a plethora of accessories: exploding targets, earplugs, holsters, laser sites, scopes, ammunition, cleaning kits and more.
Damian Du'Chaunt Paige, founder and owner of Xenolith Tactical Arms & Gunsmithing, was selling an AR-15 and a .50-caliber rifle, both assembled at his house in Mesa.
Paige says he was laid off by Intel Corporation four years ago and started thinking of a way to get into his own business.
"I just thought: What's something that would sell itself without me saying a word? Firearms!" he said.
Sense of self-reliance
Public-opinion surveys suggesting a public acceptance of some proposed gun curbs are not likely to sway gun-rights advocates who are quick to say that they have constitutional protections whether their critics like it or not.
Advocates for local gun control, meanwhile, have run into setbacks nationally at the U.S. Supreme Court. In considering handgun bans in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, the high court in 2008 and 2010 affirmed that individuals have a right to own guns for self-defense purposes and not just as part of the well-regulated militia mentioned in the U.S. Bill of Rights.
When it comes to constitutional guarantees, Second Amendment champions see firearm ownership as "the first right" because it empowers citizens to defend all other rights.
And, in Arizona, that sense of self-reliance is particularly strong.
One example was an August 2009 incident in which Christopher Broughton startled national observers by peacefully carrying a loaded AR-15 assault rifle and pistol as he protested a President Barack Obama speech at the Phoenix Convention Center. At the time, Broughton said he displayed the guns because he could.
"In Arizona, I still have some freedoms left," he told The Arizona Republic.
The use and display of guns is not always so peaceful, though.
Arizona has ranked among the deadliest states for gun-related deaths. Between 1981 and 2007, Arizona was No. 15 for gun-related homicides, No. 7 for gun-related suicides and the No. 7 state for all gun deaths, according to a Republic analysis of statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the past five years, Arizona's overall violent-crime rates, including non-gun violence, have been about average in comparison with the rest of the country.
The massacre near Tucson, allegedly carried out by a mentally unstable man, wasn't the first time a troubled Arizonan got his hands on a gun.
On the Saturday morning of Nov. 12, 1966, Robert Benjamin Smith, 18, targeted women at the Rose-Mar College of Beauty in Mesa. He killed four women and a 3-year-old girl. Another woman and a baby were wounded but survived the attack. Smith later said he did it for kicks and to make a name for himself.
The Rose-Mar slayings shocked the nation, and Smith, who is serving a life sentence, took his place in the 1960s villains gallery alongside Charles Whitman, the Texas tower sniper who killed 16 people, and Richard Speck, who killed eight student nurses in Chicago.
The April 1967 issue of Good Housekeeping cited Smith and his fellow mass murderers in a call for the "immediate enactment of strict federal gun-control laws, no matter how much angry talk of tyranny comes from the gun clubs and the rifle associations."
Second Amendment champions counter that more gun-control laws will do little to stop such outrages as unfolded near Tucson six months ago or in Mesa 45 years ago. Criminals and deranged people don't feel obligated to follow the law anyway, they say, and citizens stripped of their firearms cannot defend themselves against terrorists or others determined to commit violence.
Corbin, who prosecuted Smith as Maricopa County attorney, stressed that the people who misuse guns should be punished, not good gun owners.
"I'm tired of blaming inanimate objects, and I'm tired of blaming law-abiding people for the acts of the criminals and the nuts out here," Corbin said.
In: Regional News
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Location: Arizona, United States (load item map)
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