01.12.11

Gun City, USA

As Obama mourns those killed in Arizona’s shooting spree, Terry Greene Sterling visits the state’s gun capital: Tombstone, where most everyone carries—and gun sales will only go up.

Enter James Thomas’ firearms shop in Tombstone, Arizona, and you’ll find a gun enthusiast’s paradise. The place is crammed with weaponry, old and new—antique revolvers, semi-automatic rifles, pistols, shotguns—along with cavalry saddles, Old West tchotchkes, Osama bin Laden zombie targets, and a bazooka used to blast gun lovers’ cremains toward the heavens. Given his encyclopedic knowledge of gun history, he says he’s advised Antonio Banderas on “older-model Rugers” and Tom Selleck on “Randall 1911s.” Lest anyone think of pilfering his precious merchandise, he’s got the shop rigged with surveillance cameras, sirens, and tear gas.

Amiable and bespectacled, Thomas says he’s heartsick about the shooting rampage that killed six and wounded 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is fighting for her life. He says he understands the “angst” voiced by liberals—whom he often classifies as “Californians”—over the state’s lenient gun laws. But has the massacre changed his views on gun control? Not in the least. He blames the shootings on the shooter rather than the weapon, figures the killer was “evil,” and believes that nothing—not even the most restrictive firearms laws—could have prevented Jared Loughner, the alleged assailant, from getting his Glock.

So the prevailing sentiment goes in Tombstone, a small town in southeastern Arizona that resembles a Wild West movie set and is considered ground zero for the state’s libertarian and increasingly controversial gun culture. The town, which is part of Giffords’ district, was immediately plunged into the fiery debate following the Tucson killings as a result of comments by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. Calling Arizona the “Tombstone of the United States of America,” Dupnik said, "I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in the state carry weapons wherever they are.” Yet as calls for tightening gun regulations increase, Tombstone residents remain as resolute as ever in their support of more-permissive laws. Gun ownership “is part of the culture,” says Billy Cloud, the town marshal.

Thomas predicts gun sales will skyrocket, as customers, fearing a looming crackdown, will “panic and buy everything in sight.”

Thomas is bracing for a wave of anti-gun sentiment nationally. Already, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has vowed to fight for tougher federal firearms laws. And no doubt gun lovers will suffer “bad PR” for a while, Thomas says, after “making leaps and strides in the past few years.” But none of this really worries him. He’s seen anti-gun talk swell many times before in the wake of mass shootings, only to peter out not long thereafter.

Meanwhile, the controversy will likely be good for business. Thomas predicts gun sales will skyrocket, as customers, fearing a looming crackdown, will “panic and buy everything in sight.” Sure enough, sales of Glock pistols—the type of weapon used in the Tucson slayings—have already soared in Arizona cities. Thomas expects the gun-buying frenzy to migrate from big cities to small towns in about a week. And President Barack Obama—widely regarded by National Rifle Association types as an anti-gun left-winger—may well fuel the trend by attending Wednesday’s memorial service for the victims in Tucson. After Obama’s election, says Thomas, gun aficionados were so worried that the new administration would unleash a raft of new restrictions that they flocked to his store and sent sales through the roof—a phenomenon witnessed nationally.

The killings don’t appear to have tempered the Arizona legislature’s zeal for even looser gun laws. State Sen. Jack Harper, a conservative Republican, is promoting a bill that would allow most adults to carry guns on college campuses. His reasoning: "When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim." That rationale underpins a slew of gun laws on the state’s books, including one permitting the concealment of guns in places like suitcases, purses, and backpacks without permits or gun-use classes, and another that forbids private property owners from outlawing guns on their land.

Politicians Who Love Their Guns

Video screenshot

It’s maddening for lawmakers like state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat who voted against both of those measures. She says it’s too early to tell whether the Tucson shootings will affect the legislature’s appetite for ever more lenient laws. If the Harper-backed bill passes, Arizona will join Utah as the nation’s most permissive state for gun ownership.

That distinction sits well with the folks in Tombstone. Nestled amid ashen hills dotted by thorny mesquites some 50 miles north of the Mexican border, the tourist town of fewer than 2,000 is famed for historic outlaws and gunfights. Residents enjoy promenading fully armed down the Allen Street boardwalk in 19th-century Western costumes. The legendary Earp-Clanton bloodbath at the O.K. Corral is reenacted frequently.

Yet Tombstone doesn’t only draw Wild West mythologists and gun collectors. It has also become a magnet for military and law-enforcement retirees, Tea Party-leaning libertarians, and, some say, well-armed vigilantes primed to fight race wars. Thomas estimates that 97 percent of Tombstone residents own guns—a figure Cloud, the town marshal, seconds (though it couldn’t be independently verified). Yet Cloud points out that in the past year, there have been only four firearms-related incidents, none of them lethal. (Two involved drunks shooting at the ground, one involved a guy shooting himself in the foot, and one involved a man pulling a gun on an adversary, who responded by clocking him in the head with a hammer.)

Despite such an entrenched gun culture, however, not all Tombstone residents are completely laissez-faire in their attitudes. Take Ken Vivian, a 69-year-old retired gun-company employee and self-described “conservative independent” who enjoys breakfasting at the OK Café. He says he’s “100 percent opposed” to Harper’s measure allowing guns on campus. “We certainly have our share of crazy people” in Arizona, says Vivian, and although he’s not for big government, he thinks a better job should have been done screening Loughner before he bought his gun.

Tim Fattig, another Tombstone resident who considers himself a social libertarian, expresses some misgivings, too. A Wyatt Earp biographer, tour guide, and Giffords supporter, he says firearms are an inextricable part of the town’s history. “Guns and gun violence are a big part of why Tombstone exists today,” he says. Yet while taking history professors on guided tours, he has on occasion inadvertently led them past paramilitary groups practicing “operations” on the banks of the San Pedro River. “I’ll be honest,” says Fattig, “when I heard about the shootings, I thought it was someone from the paramilitary culture we have in this part of the state.”

Whatever their politics on gun control, Tombstone residents are mourning the Tucson victims just as deeply as other Arizonans. Thomas recounts that during the recent congressional race, he held a campaign event in his store for Jesse Kelly, Giffords’ Tea Party-backed opponent, whom he supported. A few days later, Thomas says, Giffords called him, asking for his vote. When he said he supported her rival, Giffords, a gun owner, joked that Thomas ought to hold an event for her in his store. It was a polite and civil exchange, he says—exactly how politics ought to be. If people want to “get rid of Giffords,” he says, they should “vote her out of office, not try to kill her.”

Terry Greene Sterling is an award-winning Arizona-based journalist and author of ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone. Visit her on Facebook, or her website.