Kevin Anderson smiled broadly when Kellie White Weeks handed over the big cardboard box.
Inside was a brand-new AR-15 rifle that the 34-year-old Anderson had just bought at the Georgia Gun Store in Gainesville. This November’s presidential election spurred Anderson, who said he’s likely to vote for Republican Donald Trump, to make a purchase he had previously only thought about.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the election and with gun laws,” said Anderson, an operations manager at a local transportation business. “I’d rather have one before they put a ban in place.”
From mass shootings across the country, the Black Lives Matter movement, the targeting of police officers and Trump’s supposedly sarcastic call for “Second Amendment people” to take care of business should Hillary Clinton be elected, guns and gun laws are again a key topic of an American presidential race.
It was always going to be so, no matter the candidates. But the seemingly regular heartbreaking acts of violence, be it police shootings of unarmed men, killings of officers in the line of duty or mass murders in nightclubs and office buildings, guaranteed the topic a higher level of interest.
Gun policy is an important issue for voters in this election, a June poll by the Pew Research Center found. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed said gun policy is “very important” to their vote in 2016. That’s more than those who said immigration, education or Social Security were top issues. Only the economy, terrorism, foreign policy and health care scored higher among voters’ concerns.
Trump himself has stoked those flames, claiming with regularity — if not evidence — that Clinton “wants to abolish the Second Amendment,” as he said at a May 7 rally in Washington. “Hillary Clinton wants to take your guns away, and she wants to abolish the Second Amendment.”
It’s a statement that Politifact rated as “false.” Clinton has criticized Trump’s claims. “We can protect our Second Amendment rights AND take commonsense steps to prevent gun violence. It’s just a question of whether we choose to,” Clinton said in an April tweet.
The debate goes on as the number of U.S. households with guns continues to fall. A study by the University of Chicago found that 31 percent of households contained guns in 2014, tied for the lowest share in 40 years. More than half of all homes had a gun from 1976 to 1982, researchers found.
At the same time, however, the number of guns owned and the number of concealed weapons permits continue to increase, meaning existing gun owners are buying additional firearms. A recent study by the Crime Prevention Research Center, too, found that 2015 saw the largest increase ever in the number of concealed weapons permits. More than 14.5 million Americans are now permitted to carry firearms, a 215 percent increase since 2007.
At the Georgia Gun Store, co-owner Kellie White Weeks said they can hardly keep enough inventory to meet demand. She and her husband, Mike, sold 8,000 weapons in 2015, she said. They’re on track to sell more than 9,000 this year.
Andisheh Nouraee, 43, of Decatur said those statistics are proof that the right’s warnings about Clinton’s intentions are “silly.”
“I laugh at that because it’s such an absurd notion,” said Nouraee, who owns more than a dozen guns, including shotguns, rifles and pistols. “What, is she gonna get a Sharpie and just cross out the Second Amendment? It’s absurd on its face.”
Scott Hill of Decatur said he’s never bought in to the right’s warnings that Democrats are “coming to get our guns.”
“That just seems silly to me,” said Hill, 58.
An accountant, Hill said he carries a pistol often, especially after working late during tax season. He grew up in rural Middle Georgia, where guns and hunting were as common as lightning bugs in summer.
Hill said he’s voting for Clinton in November and supports a modicum of gun control.
“I’m all for what I think is responsible regulation because it’s a dangerous thing,” he said. “It needs to be regulated. I’ve never had any concern that our Second Amendment rights are going to be infringed.”
Gun rights activists, however, said Clinton may not directly attack gun rights, but she’s more likely to nominate Supreme Court justices that would.
“Just from a gun standpoint that’s probably the most significant aspect of the election,” said John Monroe, a spokesman for Georgia Carry, one of the state’s most influential gun rights organizations.
Monroe said his group’s members are decidedly anti-Clinton more than pro-Trump.
“Our membership is pretty largely opposed to a Clinton presidency,” he said. “I don’t hear a lot of pro-gun concepts about Trump as much as better-than-Clinton kind of thing.”
Jamie Brantley, an engineer from Alto, has similar feelings about this election. Brantley is a volunteer at Project Appleseed, a national group that teaches American history as well as marksmanship.
“As far as Trump goes, I don’t have a lot of history on him,” Brantley said, adding that that is both a positive and a negative. He’s not a Washington insider, which is good, but a lack of a public record on many issues is concerning.
The same can’t be said for Clinton, he said.
“I have a voting record with her,” Brantley said. “Her husband enacted the quote-unquote assault weapons ban.”
Then-President Bill Clinton signed the assault weapons ban into law in 1994. It lasted 10 years and banned the manufacture and sale of a limited number of weapons, including some variations of the AR-15, as well as magazines that held more than 10 rounds. But it’s many loopholes, together with adjustments made by gun manufacturers to avoid the ban, limited its scope and effectiveness.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in August found Georgia voters split on banning “assault” weapons, with 48 percent in support and 47 percent opposed. But the poll found a strong majority — 57 percent — support more people carrying guns legally for self-defense.
“I think she (Hillary Clinton) would try and reinstate the assault weapons ban,” Brantley said. “My personal opinion is people of her like believe that banning guns is the end step. You hear statements from them in the past where they seem to indicate that.”
Brantley lays out the scenario: “We go after the so-called assault weapons first. Then we’ve got to go after the sniper rifle because we put a name on it. And then we go after pump shotguns because they’re too dangerous.”
If that’s actually Clinton’s goal, it’s contrary to her public statements. Clinton has made no secret of her desire “to end the epidemic of gun violence.” On the stump and on her website she has laid out a series of policy proposals. Those include:
- Bar individuals on FBI watch lists from buying guns.
- Close the so-called “Charleston loophole,” which allows licensed firearms dealers to sell a gun to a customer if an FBI background check is not completed within three days. A clerical error in this particular system allowed Dylan Roof to buy the gun that he allegedly used to kill nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
- Lift the protections gun manufacturers enjoy that shield them from lawsuits.
- Bar domestic abusers, other violent criminals and the mentally ill from buying firearms.
- Make it a federal crime to intentionally purchase a gun for another person who is legally prohibited from buying one.
Trump, meanwhile, has a few plans of his own to address gun violence. For one, he wants to replicate an expired program from Richmond, Va., called Project Exile. A joint state-federal project, the program, initiated in 1997, said any previously convicted felon caught with a gun or anyone who used a gun to commit a crime would be prosecuted in federal court and face stiffer federal prison sentences.
A federal government report found that within the first year, “the total number of homicides committed in Richmond was down 36 percent and the number of firearm homicides was down 41 percent.”
Trump, who says he has a concealed weapons permit, also wants to expand treatment programs for the mentally ill because “most people with mental health problems aren’t violent, they just need help,” according to a statement on his website. “But, for those who are violent, a danger to themselves or others, we need to get them off the street before they can terrorize our communities.”
The Republican opposes specific bans on types of weapons or large magazines, including any renewal of the assault weapons ban. He does favor making the existing background check system more effective but said the current system, if properly maintained, is sufficient.
Those positions largely mirror the stance of the National Rifle Association, which recently began running television ads to support Trump.
Nouraee, the Decatur homeowner and gun enthusiast, said Trump taking his cues from the NRA is not a good thing.
“The NRA is not a rights organization,” said Nouraee, who works for a local nonprofit. “It’s a gun sales organization. We don’t get our public health information from the ‘National Pizza Association.’ We shouldn’t get our gun safety information from the National Rifle Association.”
For Nouraee and many other Clinton supporters, Second Amendment issues are not the driving reason they’re voting for the Democrat in November.
Jennifer Blackburn, a senior account manager at an Atlanta public relations firm, first started shooting as a 7-year-old growing up in Cartersville. Now 28, Blackburn said that as a single woman living in Midtown, the right to carry a weapon for self-protection is important to her.
But, she said, she has other reasons for picking Clinton.
“Really I’m just not a fan of Trump’s policies at all, especially as regards to immigration,” she said. “But Hillary, I feel like, is more a voice of the people.”
Immigration, too, is driving Daniel Co’s vote. Co, 18, a student at the University of North Georgia, was browsing the rifles and shotguns at the Georgia Gun Store recently. He’s voting for Trump, who he believes will better protect his gun rights.
“Hillary has always said she wants more gun control,” he said. “She’s not shy about it.”
Still, Co said, it’s not his primary reason for his vote.
“I’m going to vote somewhat more on immigration policy,” he said, “specifically people coming from the Middle East and our southern border.”
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