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Gun Rights Divide US Swing State Voters


In this intense election season, gun rights and regulations stand out out as an emotional flash point for voters who see the gun debate between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic Hillary Clinton as a key point of contention.

Enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and celebrated as a part of America's heritage, gun rights inspire passionate debate like few other issues and can play an important role at the ballot box.

At an outdoor gun range in rural Pennsylvania, gun enthusiast Doc says everybody in this area, almost an hour outside of Pittsburgh, grew up with guns and goes hunting and fishing.

In his experience, Doc says, "most gun ownership people do not appreciate Hillary Clinton. A lot of them don't care for her at all, and there's always that fear that she's going to take our guns."

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is joined by mothers of black men who died from gun violence, as she speaks during Sunday service at Union Baptist church, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, in Durham, N.C.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is joined by mothers of black men who died from gun violence, as she speaks during Sunday service at Union Baptist church, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, in Durham, N.C.

Pro-Trump

Doc, who asked to be identified only by his first name, won't say if he is voting for Donald Trump this November, but he does voice a concern about the country getting "softer and softer." He says Islamic State attacks around the world in the last year have left him concerned about a lone wolf attack in his own area. He recently started legally carrying a concealed weapon for protection.

Doc says he's not worried "one bit" about a President Trump because of the Republican nominee's clear pro-gun stance. On the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly accused his opponent of aiming to abolish the Second Amendment that many view as sanctioning gun ownership. But a U.S. president cannot single-handedly change a Constitutional amendment.

"I understand and respect the tradition of gun ownership," Clinton said, responding to Trump's accusations in the third presidential debate last month. "It goes back to the founding of our country. But I also believe that there can be and must be reasonable regulation."

FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, June 13, 2016. Trump attacked Hilary Clinton by name in his speech in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting.

FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, June 13, 2016. Trump attacked Hilary Clinton by name in his speech in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting.

The prospect of regulation bothers life-long Democrat John Larkin who says he's realized over the course of this election season that his views match up more with Donald Trump.

"I vote on guns — and I don't even have a gun — because if I want a gun, I should be allowed to have it," says the resident of nearby Monroeville, Pennsylvania. "They'll chip away at your rights. Clinton says she doesn't want to take away your rights, but her legislation says something different."

Trump was always the clear choice for Sondra Dull, a barber for over three decades in the small town of Herminie, Pennsylvania. She says changes in her hometown have not been encouraging from losing businesses and jobs, to an influx of heroin and robberies and have left her afraid. She carries a small gun in her purse for personal protection.

"We all kind of carry," she says matter-of-factly. "That's just the norm, and I think it's a sad situation when we're afraid of our communities."

She expresses a hope that Donald Trump can be elected and change all of that.

Gun rights gap

The gap between voters who support gun rights and voters who favor stricter gun control laws has grown over past election cycles, according to a national survey by the Pew Research Center this August. Almost 90% of registered voters who support Trump said gun ownership protects people more than puts them at risk, a very different view than the two-thirds of Clinton supporters who say guns endanger personal safety.

But that doesn't mean Hillary Clinton will strip away Second Amendment rights, says gun owner and Clinton supporter Lauren Huber. She started a chapter of Moms Demand Action Against Gun Violence in Harrisonburg, Virginia after the nearby shooting death of a local reporter and her cameraman.

"She's just trying to reduce the 33,000 gun deaths that happen a year," Huber says of Clinton.

But that can be a difficult argument to win here in rural Virginia, where voters are expected to re-elect their Congressman Bob Goodlatte, one of the top recipients of funding from the National Rifle Association.

FILE - House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., speaks with reporters.

FILE - House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., speaks with reporters.

Status quo

Just days before the election, Huber stands in the town square, handing out pamphlets encouraging voters to support candidates with pro-gun control platforms. She says conversations with opponents are easier once they find she comes from a family of hunters and like many rural residents keeps a gun in her home for protection.

But she says Trump's warnings about terrorism and immigration this election season are exaggerated.

"He really is selling the story of fear. It's an irrational fear when we're really seeing our own citizens are killing each other," she says, noting there's a stronger possibility in the United States of being shot by a toddler than a terrorist.

Huber who has tried to engage Virginia Congressman Goodlatte on the gun issue says the debate over Second Amendment rights is emotional because guns often form an important part of people's identities.

"There are two different ways of life there that I think are getting in the way of this conversation," she says, "There are things we can do -- you will be able to keep your guns, still have the Second Amendment but we can do something to reduce these gun deaths."

Back in Pennsylvania, Doc doesn't see this election changing the gun culture where he lives.

"We love our guns, and it's just going to stay that way no matter what," he says. "I don't know anybody who is going to be in office who can change that."

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp

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