Guns in the Crossfire: Firearms Have Always Been a Part of America's Frontier Mythology. but Now There Are Cracks in the Gun Cultureand in the Heartland the Balance of Support, Even in Unlikely Quarters, Is Shifting against Gunmakers

Article excerpt

David Koon started hunting when he was 8, following his grandfather through the hills of West Virginia. By middle age he had a modest collection of five guns, including a .22-caliber, 18-shot rifle. But his passion for shooting was transformed on a sunny November Saturday in 1993, when a stranger raped his 18-year-old daughter, Jenny, and shot her dead--with a .22-caliber rifle. After identifying Jenny's remains, Koon handed a cop all of his guns and told him he never wanted to see them again. Then Koon found a new passion: he won a seat in the New York state Assembly and began pressing for gun control.

Koon's stance hasn't always been popular in his Rochester district; a gun owner posted a bullet on his door with the message DIE KOON. But since the school shooting last April in Littleton, Colo., hundreds of supporters have called his office, and now Koon can sense that his moment is here. Poll after poll bears it out: thousands of ordinary Americans, many of whom own guns, now say the industry needs tougher controls. "Gun shows used to be fun, full of real good hunting rifles," says an executive at a major hunting organization. "Now you go in and they're selling pamphlets that tell you how to make pipe bombs and how to make your semiautomatic gun into an automatic. These people aren't concerned about hunting pheasants. They're concerned that the government is going to get them."

Guns have always been a part of America's frontier mythology. But now Little Big Horn and the O.K. Corral have given way in the public mind to places like Stockton, Jonesboro and Littleton. Those who make guns can feel the balance shifting against them, to the point where some no longer tell strangers what they do for a living. Although a strong lobby has beat back gun control in Congress, support for new restrictions is gaining at the state level; last week California began limiting buyers to one gun a month and passed the nation's toughest restrictions on assault weapons. Sensing a choice between compromise and bankruptcy, some gunmakers are re-examining their practices and trying to soften their hardened image. "Owning a gun is a responsibility as well as a right," says Richard Esposito, whose New York consulting firm, CM, is retooling Colt's message. "And we don't just think it's the customer's responsibility. We also think it's the industry's responsibility."

The Columbine shooting will be remembered as a pivotal moment. But in fact, attitudes toward guns, like those toward tobacco, changed gradually. For 20 years, a small band of anti-gun crusaders has been waging a holy war against the industry, using carefully crafted lawsuits, journal articles and even oversize billboards. They were inadvertently helped by pro-gun activists themselves, who turned off a wary public with increasingly extremist rhetoric. An evangelical gun lobby won virtually every gun-control battle in the last 30 years--but in doing so may have lost the war for the soul of Middle America.

In some ways, not much has changed in the American gun market. After all, Al Capone had plenty of illegal machine guns, and Lee Harvey Oswald bought his rifle through the Sears catalog, no background check required. But the American handgun market only recently spiraled out of control. In his new book, "Making a Killing," Tom Diaz, a self-described "gun nut" turned anti-gun activist, notes that before the 1960s, most buyers wanted rifles and shotguns used for hunting and shooting sports. As more people left rural areas for the suburbs, the number of hunters fell off, and long-gun sales declined. But a new market was opening up--based on selling powerful new handguns as "protection" for a public fearful of rising crime. In 1962 there were just 540,000 handguns for sale in the United States; 30 years later, the figure had reached 2.7 million.

The rise of the handgun split the 100-year-old-National Rifle Association into two groups: sportsmen who still wanted to focus on hunting and a "new guard" who saw any attempt to regulate handguns as an assault on the Second Amendment. …