At issue: Guns
It was unanimous. The fire chief, the mayor - the entire Riverside City Council, in fact - wanted guns and ammunition in every home.
Not that the city ordinance changed things much. “Everybody already had them in their home,” says council member Zyavonnie Knapp.
Knapp, 22, is a target shooter, hunter and homemaker. She helped approve the ordinance a few months after the Brady Law forced a slew of new federal rules on gun owners, including a five-day wait to buy a handgun.
The gun-control law stung people in the northcentral Washington town of 300, where preschool kids take shooting classes, the mayor owns a gun shop, and the only clothing shop sells Western wear.
“We wanted to make a statement,” Knapp says. “Basically, the government’s not going to tell us what to do. It’s ridiculous around here to put those types of restrictions on.”
When talk turns to gun control in the West, people boil over. Higher licensing fees for gun dealers. Bans on certain semiautomatics. Hunter-orange dress codes. No guns on school property. More and more “no shooting” zones.
Each new law, each new rule, gun owners believe, chips away at a cornerstone of America.
In a country with an estimated 220 million guns, westerners, especially, have a love affair with firearms. Guns connect them to their history.
“If you were going West, your essential tools were a horse and wagon, a bedroll and a firearm,” says Paul Quinnett, a Spokane psychologist who bagged six mallards one Sunday in November.
“There’s nothing more dear to a hunter than his firearm. It becomes a family heirloom. It becomes ‘The Shotgun Grandpa Used.”’
About 275,000 people in Washington state alone have concealed-weapons permits. Just over 4,500 were issued last year in Spokane County.
Gun owners are a powerful political force, too. The National Rifle Association spent $5.4 million on last year’s elections, including $1.9 million in campaign contributions, the Center for Responsive Politics says. That makes the NRA the single biggest political spender on record, the center says.
Gun rights is such a popular issue in the West, it’s being used to draw people into the anti-government movement.
Dick Carver, who won national attention by bulldozing federal forest land in Nevada, advised Idaho patriots to use gun control as a rallying cry.
“Carver said the best thing to start with is the guns issue,” recalls St. Maries resident Don Griesel. “Everyone here is for guns. It’s easy to win.”
Not only rural Westerners cherish their Smith & Wessons. A firearms instructor in Post Falls caters to doctors, attorneys and other professionals worried about walking through dark parking lots and protecting their families.
“They’re the people we see every day in the courtroom and hospitals,” says Robert Smith. Most of his customers want guns only for protection. “It’s like they bought a fire extinguisher; they don’t want to go out and play with it.”
But Bill Schumaker, a retired legislator who runs a cluttered gun shop behind his log house near Colville, says rural residents are hit especially hard by gun control. A sign in his shop reads: “The West Wasn’t Won With A Registered Gun.”
“Farmers carry guns in their pickups when they’re out with their cattle,” says Schumaker, 80. “These are the kinds of things people who live in town just don’t know anything about. They just don’t know.”
Last summer, new laws forced Schumaker to have fingerprints made for his state and federal dealer’s licenses. For the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, it meant easier background checks. For Schumaker, it meant $10 and a lost half-day of work.
“That burned me,” says Schumaker, whose shop wall boasts the head of a deer shot the day his first daughter was born. “After 46 years, I have to go get fingerprints taken?”
That wasn’t the only recent change. After paying $125 for a state dealer’s license, Schumaker also forked over $90 to renew his federal license - up from $30.
“It’s stupid stuff like that that just drives you up a tree.”
The laws also drive some dealers out of business, statistics suggest.
From December 1993 to October 1995, federal dealer licenses issued nationwide dropped from 246,984 to 158,250. In Washington state, the numbers went from 5,814 to 3,704, according to an ATF spokesman.
Lifelong hunters also are smarting from a recent federal law that makes it a crime to carry weapons on school property, including parking lots.
It’s fine for suburban schools, critics say. But the law makes it tough for dads to pick up their kids for an after-school hunting trip. Driving home to get the guns can mean losing a half-hour or more of precious daylight.
Even older laws, such as handgun registration, etch away at the trust that gun owners have in the government. Some people are convinced they’re being targeted for a future government roundup of firearms.
“I’ve heard that a lot,” says Homer Ferguson, a newly retired Orofino, Idaho, police sergeant. “If they register guns and owners, they’re going to end up picking them up one of these days.”
Ferguson, 59, was embarrassed when he bought a Colt semiautomatic pistol for target shooting last year. The dealer had to run a background check - an Idaho alternative to the Brady Law’s five-day wait.
“I have to have a fairly decent background to be a police officer,” says Ferguson. “I carry one every day, and here I have to have a background check to own one?”
Among some hunters, even safety laws requiring hunters to wear bright orange draws ire.
“They’d prefer to make that decision on their own,” says Cathy McMorris, a state representative from Stevens County.
“The hunters feel it’s almost a slap in the face against them. Once again, it’s government shoving something down their throat.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: EARTH FIRST! WEAPONS NEXT? Otis hisses at the mention of Forest Service law enforcers. “They pack guns just like a policeman does. They’ve got sirens on top of their cars.” He concentrates on rolling his cigarette. “We’re one of the diseases they’re trying to get rid of.” Otis, who won’t give his real name, is 37 and an Earth First! environmentalist. He spent the summer on a hilltop outside Dixy, Idaho, at the group’s well-hidden camp of tents, firepits and outhouses. This was his first Earth First! summer and it suited him. But he’d really like to even the battlefield. “We have no clout. We just have our bodies to put in front of the bulldozers.” Otis admits radical proposals - like using dynamite - get kicked around the campfire. “Every night we talk about stuff like that. We talk about Burmese Tiger Traps, sugar in the gas tank. Every night.” He supports the militia movement. “I hear how the New World Order is training the gangs in California to take away guns from people,” he says. “The way I see it, if the public is disarmed and we just have our shabby Army to protect us we’re in for a lot of trouble.”