The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives Americans the right to bear arms, and roughly one third of all Americans are exercising that right. The FBI estimates there are more than 200 million privately owned guns in the United States, and that number is rising.
Gun sales have been booming ever since Barack Obama's appearance on the presidential campaign trail. Government officials charged with reviewing civilian applications for the purchase of firearms report there was a 50 percent increase in requests for reviews between November 2007 and November 2008.
Obama's record of supporting gun-control measures gave gun sales another boost after his election November 4th, and sales have continued to rise in the early days of his presidency.
Gun shows do booming business
Each year across the United States, there are 5,000 gun shows like the one held the weekend after Christmas in Kansas City.
Although there are no official statistics to tell us how many firearms are actually sold at these gun-trade expositions, a typical gun show will draw anywhere from two to 10 thousand people.
So for small-town gun retailers like Barry and Madonna Walker, these events are a gold mine of potential customers. With the current surge in sales, the Walkers are attending three gun shows a week, and lately they can't seem to bring enough merchandise with them.
"We have two cases of handguns. The cases are kind of empty right now," Madonna says.
"We sold out of small handguns yesterday," Barry adds. "Since the election, several models of guns are six months to a year back-ordered."
Speculation about assault weapon ban may be driving purchases, some say
The models Walker is referring to - the ones that gun makers can't make enough of - are military-style weapons. During the Clinton administration, Congress passed a ban on these so-called assault weapons, making it illegal for civilians to own them. The Bush administration allowed this ban to expire in 2004. For the past five years, assault weapons have been flooding the market.
One table over from the Walkers at the Kansas City gun show, Bill Choate straightens his handgun display. He says gun advocates worry that President Obama will reinstate the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons. He explains that a renewed ban would add confusion and uncertainty to his business.
"Under the Clinton plan, any semiautomatic handgun with more than a 10-round capacity was banned. This gun, outlawed - 18 shots. This gun, OK - 10 shots," Choate explains. "Now that's under the Clinton plan. Under the Obama plan, nobody knows. Everyone's kind of in turmoil right now. No one knows where it's gonna go. But it's good for business."
However, Choate says he believes that many of his first-time customers are buying guns for reasons that have nothing to do with the future of the assault weapon ban.
"The economy's bad. People are losing their jobs. Most first-time gun buyers are scared. People are scared of armed robbery. That's why they're buying guns. That reaches deeper than the Clinton or Obama plan. That's a social issue."
Ban targets guns with distinct features
Brian Siebel is senior attorney for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The group was founded by the wife of James Brady, press secretary to former President Ronald Reagan, who was shot and critically injured in the attempted assassination of the president. Siebel doesn't think the current social or political situation is driving non-gun-owners to suddenly go out and purchase guns.
"It's people adding weapons to the weapons they already have," Siebel says. "That's the direction I believe this is going. But it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will be able to reinstate the assault weapons ban."
The ban identifies 14 features that qualify a gun as an assault weapon. Some simply make it easier to use. For example, a barrel shroud makes a gun cool down faster after firing; a pistol grip makes it easier to hold; and a threaded barrel helps make it quieter. Like most gun control advocates, Siebel argues that assault features are neither necessary, nor purely cosmetic.
"Those features aren't just bells and whistles. Each of those features - a pistol grip, a threaded barrel, a barrel shroud - has a purpose for actually helping shoot a human being," Siebel says.
Ban supporters, critics debate necessity of assault weapons
The Brady Campaign is dedicated to keeping dangerous guns out the hands of dangerous people. Despite laws put in place to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, Siebel says if the guns are out there, criminals will find them.
"We have no problem with law-abiding citizens selling and buying guns for hunting or self-defense. But law-abiding citizens don't need assault features. No one needs a weapon with assault features to hunt or to protect one's home."
That argument rankles gun advocates such as John Hartman, of Denny's Guns in Kansas City.
"I don't understand why someone else gets to determine what I do or do not need," Hartman says. "I don't need a car that goes 150 miles an hour, but I've got one. You don't need high heels, but if you like them, you can have them. Where did 'need' become part of the equation?"
Siebel says need has always been part of the equation.
"You know, law-abiding citizens aren't always allowed to have everything they want. You may be able to have a Lamborghini [a very fast aned expensive Italian sports car], but you certainly can't drive it 100 miles per hour on a city street," he says. "We should learn from that and realize that gun laws work and save lives and can be totally reconciled with gun ownership and legitimate use of firearms."
Gun control a divisive issue
Gun control advocates see the assault weapon ban as a reasonable compromise, a gray area in a pretty black-and-white issue. But speaking for pro-gun Americans, Hartman disagrees.
"People on either side don't have any gray areas. You're either for or against, and it's pretty strongly held opinions. And I don't think either side is going to change the other's mind very readily."
While the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees Americans the right to bear arms, the fundamental disagreement remains what kind of arms Americans may bear and what the government's role should be in maintaining public safety in a country that's very fond of its guns.