WASHINGTON - From Gerald Stoudemire’s vantage point, as a hunter, gunsmith and gun dealer in small-town Little Mountain, South Carolina, firearms are a source of recreation, security and income. Their access by law-abiding citizens requires constant vigilance.
"The only good defense is a strong offense, is my opinion," said the longtime president of the Gun Owners of South Carolina, who has testified against many gun restrictions and last year challenged a new measure allowing police in the capital city of Columbia to arrest people suspected of carrying concealed weapons near the statehouse.
"They had to repeal the ordinance immediately because they would have been in violation of state law," he said.
From Andrew Goddard’s perspective, as a gun-violence prevention advocate heading the Brady Campaign’s chapter in Richmond, Virginia, firearms need constraints – such as strong background checks to prevent their falling into the wrong hands.
The argument against that "doesn't have a logical frame to it," said Goddard, who contends lax gun rules and poor mental health provisions enabled a gunman to open fire on fellow university students at Virginia Tech in 2007. He killed 32 people and wounded 17 before turning a weapon on himself. Goddard’s son Colin, then 21, survived four bullets and today also crusades against gun violence.
Guns on political agenda
Angered at congressional inaction on what he calls "our epidemic of gun violence," President Barack Obama put guns on the political agenda in January by announcing executive actions that would mildly reform gun access and how it’s enforced and tracked. But there’s plenty of action in the states, where voices such as Stoudemire’s and Goddard’s are part of the spirited debate over how to balance public safety with personal security and sport. (See related story on guns and health.)
Last year, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence tracked 1,323 state-level bills nationwide that had gun provisions. In the past three years, 41 states have placed 125 new limits on guns, the California-based center found.
Oregon now requires background checks for all gun sales; it and Delaware blocked domestic abusers from possessing firearms. Voters in Washington state approved a ballot initiative expanding background checks to private firearms sales. An Associated Press review of legislation also found dozens of laws – in states such as Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin – that have made it easier to get guns, carry concealed weapons, and curb local governments’ ability to impose their own restrictions.
The legislative flurry follows a series of deadly mass shootings – most notably the December 2012 massacre of 20 young children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
"There's this whole line that there are these mass shootings and no policy responses," said Kristin Goss, a Duke University political scientist and co-author of "The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know."
In the 20 years she has studied the gun control movement, "I think it’s fair to say there’s never been as much organizational capacity or as many resources ... or as many different groups addressing as many facets of gun violence prevention," Goss said. There are "a lot more players, a lot more money."
The decades-old Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has been joined by newer groups such as Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded in 2013 by Gabby Gifford and husband Mark Kelly two years after the then-congresswoman from Arizona was shot in the head at a constituent meet-and-greet. Another is Everytown for Gun Safety, backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his pledge of $50 million.
Gun control activists say they’re borrowing from the gun lobby’s playbook, trying to advance their own agendas state by state, measure by measure, elective office by elective office.
Gun rights backers are "very good at incrementalism, which is why they’re very afraid of it from our side," said Goddard, the Virginia violence-prevention advocate.
"Our opposition has been trying to find new strategies," acknowledged David Keene, the NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013.
Goddard's side mustered enough signatures in Nevada and Maine to get 2016 ballot initiatives that would require background checks for private gun sales. But it's not clear whether gun rights or gun control activists have the upper hand there or in other states.
There's "not a single template, not a single piece of legislation, no Gun Prevention 101" that would apply to every state or region, added Ron Pinciaro, a board member of States United to Prevent Gun Violence. He also heads Connecticut Against Gun Violence and noted that, except for California and Hawaii, the states with the strictest laws are, like his, in the country’s northeast.
WATCH: Related video report from VOA's Carolyn Presutti
Fewer gun households, rising partisanship
Polls show broad public support for background checks for firearms purchases, though diminished backing for gun control overall in recent years. That comes even as the number of American households with guns has fallen to roughly a third, down from about half four decades ago, the University of Chicago’s NORC opinion research center found in a report last year. It cited declining interest in hunting as a big factor.
Republicans generally favor broader access and fewer restrictions than Democrats. Those lines can blur, depending on geography – urban versus rural – and culture.
The incidence of gun households tends to be higher among Republicans. "Whether you own a gun is a very good predictor of what your political party is," Goss said. "That wasn’t always true."
The NRA’s Keene said partisan politics weren’t a factor in his organization for most of its history. It was founded in 1871 by Civil War veterans convinced that the conflict had dragged on because the more urban Union troops were poorer marksmen than the rural Southerners they’d faced.
"They were outshot," Keene said.
For a century, the organization promoted marksmanship – and regulation. Its leaders helped craft the nation's first federal gun-control laws beginning in the 1920s, the liberal Alternet website reported, citing constitutional law scholar Adam Winkler’s 2011 book, "Gunfight." Gun rights hard-liners took over NRA leadership in 1977.
Keene, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union and now commentary editor for the Washington Times, blames the gun debate’s politicization on American culture wars.
"The Democratic Party sort of solidified around the anti-gun position" in the 1970s, much as it did on abortion rights, Keene said. But among voters at the state level, he added, "it’s not as partisan as the president or others might have us believe.... It’s in [the NRA’s] interest not to let it become a partisan issue.
Stoudemire, the South Carolina gun dealer, emphasized that his state’s legislature has gun enthusiasts from both major political parties.
"Lots of the members of the House of Representatives – Republicans and Democrats – have been to my class" on carrying concealed weapons, he added.
"An appreciation for firearms and firearms freedom is part of the American DNA," said Keene, alluding to the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.
Goss, the political scientist, said she doesn’t think the gun debate is about public policy.
"This is primarily a debate about identity, what good citizenship requires, perceptions of what role firearms and individual self-reliance should play in contemporary society," she said. "When you start getting into questions of people’s identity, it’s going to be fairly easily politicized."
David Price, a 58-year-old hunting guide on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, embodies some of the conflicting concerns.
A longtime sportsman, he’s nonetheless uneasy about how quickly a firearm can be obtained. His wife recently went to buy a pistol in the neighboring state of Delaware, where her personal information was entered into a federal database for a criminal background check.
In "15 to 20 minutes, we was paid and gone," Price said. More discomfiting, he noted, "the other day on Craigslist, there was a guy [who] was selling a World War II bazooka." (The online classified advertising site showed that posting was deleted by its author.)
But Price also is leery of too much regulation: "I’m for the NRA, because if we didn’t have them, then all the do-gooders would take guns away from us."
The NRA, headquartered in a Washington suburb of Virginia, spends about 8 percent of its annual budget on lobbying and politics, Keene said, noting the rest goes to traditional activities such as gun safety training and target range operations.
"Candidates don’t come to the NRA looking for money. They come to the NRA looking for votes," he said. (See related story.)
The organization’s influence far exceeds its 5 million members, Keene said.
"Our polls and other polls show that we’ve got about 50 million people ... [who] when they sense that our firearms rights are being threatened will, in fact, vote," he said.
Sandy Hook’s neighbors respond
Passions over guns surge after mass shootings, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation describes as a single incident involving four victims, excluding the attacker. Gun permit requests and firearms sales typically soar, too. Purchasers buy into the notion that "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun," as NRA leader Wayne LaPierre remarked after the Sandy Hook shooting December 14, 2012.
The massacre occurred at the neighborhood school Po Murray’s four children had attended. On that wrenching day, "I made a promise to do something about gun violence," she said.
Murray and other residents soon formed the Newtown Action Alliance, which she serves as vice chair. The group collaborates with other gun-safety groups to push for regulatory and legislative change at local, state and federal levels.
"Our goal is to keep guns away from those who want to hurt us or themselves," not to impede hunting or self-protection, said Murray, who speaks with "numerous" gun owners who "support the sensible gun regulations that we are trying to pass."
Within months of the shooting, Connecticut – already tough on guns – tightened its rules to become the second most restrictive state after California. Its Democratic-controlled legislature and governor required universal background checks for all gun and ammunition purchases, and also outlawed large-capacity ammunition magazines and more than 100 models of assault weapons.
With allied groups, Murray said, "we’ve passed background checks in six states since Sandy Hook. That’s the game plan at the moment: going state to state, following the marriage equity plan."
Coincidentally, Newtown is home to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry’s trade group. Its lobbying has spiked in the three years since the shooting, with spending of $2.6 million in 2015 alone, found Open Secrets, a project of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The Newtown alliance recently joined others in the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in petitioning the U.S. Department of Justice to cancel a $2.4 million grant to the foundation, intended for distributing child safety kits with gun locks.
An NSSF official expressed dismay at the petition.
"We’re disappointed that these organizations that profess" concern for child safety "would oppose grant funding for a successful and proven safety education program," said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel.
The competitive federal grant supports his organization's long-running child safety program, which he said has distributed more than 37 million kits and drawn widespread support from law enforcement groups, among others.
More activity expected in states
In South Carolina, where a gunman killed nine people last June at a black church, a state senator plans to introduce legislation that, among other things, would prevent prospective gun buyers from obtaining the weapon before a complete background check. That current loophole was a factor in the shooting, The State newspaper explained.
The measure would face stiff opposition in the Republican-dominated legislature, The State added.
Stoudemire, legislative liaison for his gun rights group, said he’d argue against it, too. The gun dealer said in his own business, if potential buyers aren’t approved, "we do not make the sale – that’s just my choice."
An instructor on carrying concealed weapons, Stoudemire said one of his next classes is filled with representatives of churches.
"If the people in charge [in each congregation] agree with it," an individual with a permit can lawfully have a gun in a South Carolina church, he said, insisting that truly would make it a safe place.
In Virginia, where the Democratic attorney general recently antagonized gun rights activists by no longer recognizing concealed-carry permits from 25 other states, gun control advocate Goddard expects backlash. He's also ready to weigh in on at least some of the 100-plus gun-related bills facing lawmakers in the state's General Assembly this session.
"We’ve come up with a list of legislative proposals, which doesn’t get updated much every year because we never get any of them," Goddard, who works with the nonprofit Virginia Center for Public Safety as well as the Brady Center, said with a weary chuckle. "What’s not listed is the immense amount of work we do" to hold "the other side to a complete draw."