FILE -  a woman wears a gun in a holster next to two copies of the U.S. Constitution during a gun rights rally at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
FILE - a woman wears a gun in a holster next to two copies of the U.S. Constitution during a gun rights rally at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.

“Kill the NRA,” a billboard in Louisville, Kentucky, read last week, after anti-gun advocates vandalized it, obscuring the original message.

The NRA, or National Rifle Association, posted an image of the billboard on its Facebook site with the message: “To all American gun owners, this is a wake-up call. They’re coming after us. ‘Like’ and share to spread the word.”

The voices heard most often in the public gun debate are the extremes. But public opinion polls show that U.S. gun owners fall across a broad spectrum of political beliefs. Many associate guns not with crime but with family, friends and recreation. That’s part of what makes the gun question in the United States such a complicated one.

FILE - A couple looks over 58 wooden crosses, with
FILE - A couple looks over the 58 wooden crosses, with the names and photos of the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting victims, in the median of Las Vegas Boulevard South near the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign in Las Vegas, Nevada, Oct. 9, 2017.

?Not part of our society

In fact, the Pew Research Center found last year — before mass shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada — that about 3 in 10 Americans said they owned guns, but only about 1 in 5 gun owners (19 percent) reported being an NRA member.

In a random sample of nearly 4,000 people, Pew found that about 70 percent have fired a gun at some point in their lives. And nearly half — 48 percent — said they grew up in a household with guns.

Yet, public opinion polls released in the past week showed that support for gun control laws was at its highest point in decades.

“Today, I went to the school of my second- and fifth-grade boys, which was on lockdown because of a threat at a nearby high school, and EVERY teacher there is either shocked by or dismissive of the idea that they should be armed,” wrote Jason Wilcoxon, a pastor in Cincinnati, Ohio, in an email last week. “Arming teachers or creating the militia that would be required to adequately secure school grounds assumes that this is just the way it is. It assumes that this is just part of our society. But it’s not.”

Wilcoxon wrote, “I think there’s an obvious problem with gun laws,” noting that guns in the United States are both plentiful and easy to acquire. Yet, he enjoys sport shooting, an activity he has done on a limited basis with his own kids.

“I’ve had some great experiences with friends and family where target shooting and marksmanship were central parts to that,” he said.

FILE - Faculty and staff at the University of Texa
FILE - Faculty and staff at the University of Texas protest against a state law that allows for guns in classrooms at college campuses, in Austin, Texas, Aug. 24, 2016.

?Arming teachers 'insanity'

Courtney Hall Gagnon of Cleveland, Ohio, opposed the idea of teachers carrying guns but said, “I hope my son will learn to hunt.” She, too, learned shooting as a family sport. But she added that getting a gun “is just way too easy in this country. It should be a privilege, not a right.”

Gagnon is a former teacher. Despite her family’s ease with sport shooting, she said arming teachers “is the epitome of insanity. You have to be so careful with guns, and they need so much concentration. You can’t do that when you are the responsible adult in a classroom.”

In addition to the focus needed to operate a weapon, she said, the idea does not take into account students with behavioral problems.

“I have been threatened by students, had them go through my things, and had a chair thrown in a classroom. And I know my experiences were not unusual at all,” she said.

FILE - Hank Johnson displays his handgun, in Sprin
FILE - Hank Johnson displays his handgun, in Springboro, Ohio, Feb. 27, 2013.

?Most own guns for protection

Pew found in last year’s survey that about 67 percent of Americans who owned guns said they did so for protection. Gun ownership rates were far higher in rural areas than in urban ones.

Marilyn Lusk Ault of Frankewing, Tennessee, renewed her permit to carry a gun last week, and it will last for eight years. She said she saw her gun as a means of protection and wished she had had it with her when the bank where she worked was robbed several years ago.

“We were robbed by two convicted felons out of jail,” she said. “One had already killed someone in a robbery. That person put a gun in my face and said, ‘Get up from your desk, and get out here and lie down on the floor.’ I never thought I would get on the floor, but that day, I did as I was told. I would have loved to have had my gun that day.”

Ault said people ought to be able to defend themselves. 

“Think about this situation long and hard before you say guns do not have a place in our society. The majority of gun owners are not killing people,” she said.

Jason Rankin, a real estate agent in Knoxville, Tennessee, said he carries a gun for personal protection while showing properties in high-crime areas. 

“I live in a rural area that suffers from opioid and meth addiction,” he said, noting that some of his co-workers had been victimized on the job.

Johnnie Smith Curl of Easley, South Carolina, said she travels several hundred miles a night for her job. 

“I refuse to be seen or stereotyped as a defenseless female. If the need arises, I would much rather be able to protect myself than wish I had,” she said.

FILE - John Doll, of Renton, Wash., holds a sign t
FILE - John Doll, of Renton, Wash., holds a sign that reads "The people have the right to keep and bear arms" during a gun rights rally at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.

?Guns mean freedom

About three-quarters of Americans said owning a gun was essential to their freedom.

Al Adler is a retired Marine living in Dumfries, Virginia, who works as a docent at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. He said he sometimes carries a gun for protection and worries that new gun control legislation would force him to give up some of his weapons.

Chris Abraham of Arlington, Virginia, said he was fascinated with guns for a time before he developed an interest in his current hobby — motorcycles. He has sold much of his gun collection, but keeps a small piece for sentimental value. And he thinks the legal age for buying an AR-15, the weapon used by the 19-year-old in the Parkland, Florida, shooting, should stay at 18.

“It’s just a dressed-up rifle like any other rifle and should definitely be available to 18-year-olds, who are old enough to do porn, join the military, and loads of other things that are akin to just owning a damned rifle,” he said.

Sherry Lowe of Morristown, Tennessee, grew up with the belief that guns are a non-negotiable part of American culture. 

“I was raised in a part of the country where God, family and guns are a way of life,” she said. I am absolutely for the right to bear arms. The day that the American citizen loses the right to own a gun is when America dies.”

Lowe said she does not own an assault weapon, but “it should remain my right to do so, if I choose. Guns don’t kill people,” she added. “Sick people kill people.”

Florida opinions changing

Yet in Florida, a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed that the Parkland shooting might be changing minds in the state, traditionally seen as accommodating to gun owners.

In that poll of just more than 1,000 people, Floridians supported a nationwide ban on assault weapons nearly 2 to 1 (62 to 33 percent). Seventy-eight percent wanted a law specifying that all gun buyers be 21 or older, and 89 percent said they supported allowing family members to petition a judge to remove guns from a person who may be at risk of violent behavior.