There are serious arguments on both sides of the gun control debate. But the simple, childlike thrill of shooting rarely enters into the conversation.
Buffy the cowboy glares at the closed door, his feet set apart, the bandolier round his belly loaded with red shot-shells. His 10-gallon is pulled down over his forehead, and his neckerchief is snugged up tight under a steel slide, which depicts a lewd act between two hogs.
It is morning, and the sun has not yet pierced the fog draped on the outskirts of Richmond, California. The ground is dew-darkened, with lighter patches of dry dust from boot scuffs.
"Come on out or I'll shoot you out!" Buffy yells, but he doesn't wait, just lifts his shotgun and shoots. The door swings open in a cloud of debris and he rushes through. He drops the shotgun, draws the iron on his left hip -- pop pop pop pop pop! -- and slams it back in its holster, then pulls the piece on his right -- pop pop pop pop pop! He grabs his rifle and squeezes off 10 more shots, swinging the lever and flinging out spent brass.
More cowboys follow him -- Vesperado with the black hat, Ready-and-Able Annie with the baby-blue bandana, Leapin' Otis with the purple silk vest -- their guns puffing smoke, littering the ground with empty shells.
Bang pop-pop-pop zip zing.
Cowboy shooters -- or members of the Single Action Shooting Society, as their group is officially known -- are part of one of the fastest-growing shooting sports in a country of gun lovers. The men (and few women) who partake in it are not slick, like the crew-cut, law-enforcement guys who meticulously measure the distance between bullet holes they shoot in human-silhouette targets. The hats, the nicknames, the old guns -- the whole thing is a little dorky. But cowboy shooting, with no solid connection to either self-defense or hunting, is also unique among the shooting sports in its purity of purpose.
"I do it because it's fun," says Gunslinger Grandma. The outfits were a little hard to get used to at first, she says, but she enjoys firing the weapons.
Less than two miles away from the Richmond Rod and Gun Club, in notoriously violent North Richmond, weapons are being wielded in earnest. According to the Small Arms Survey, a monitoring center in Geneva, Switzerland, Americans own roughly 300 million guns, or just under one gun for every child, woman and man -- the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. Advocates of gun control point to the roughly 10,000 Americans murdered with firearms every year. Gun rights advocates retort that Americans have a founder-given right to bear arms. Guns aren't the problem, goes the refrain -- it's the people who use them.
But the cowboys at the Richmond Rod and Gun Club -- whooping at good shots, ribbing each other over their costumes -- hint at a more basic reason for the popularity of guns in America: They're fun. Like an old car and a Roman candle rolled into one, guns are a hobbyist's dream. They're collectable and endlessly customizable, fit for tinkerers, pyros, and sporting types alike. The objections to guns are learned, based on moral and intellectual arguments, but the physical appeal is natural, childlike in its simplicity -- pull a trigger over here, and something happens over there. Pop pop pop pop pop!
Understanding the fun of guns is part of understanding why people own guns, says Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA, and author of Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. "Gun control advocates ask, 'Why does anyone need this particular kind of gun, like an AR-15 (an assault rifle similar to the one used by the U.S. military)?" Winkler says. "The reason people like an AR-15 is because it's fun to shoot."
Firing a weapon, he says, triggers the same chemicals in the brain as riding a roller coaster: endorphins and adrenaline. "I was out at the range two weeks ago, shooting an AR-15," he says. "It was a lot of fun."
There are a lot of things that are fun, though, that are also illegal. "We don't let people drive 150 miles per hour just because it's fun," he says. For that reason, hobbyists don't have a real role to play in the debate over gun control. "When you see 12 people die in a movie theater, it's not a very satisfying answer to say, 'Oh, guns are really fun to shoot.'" Still, he says, "By leaving hobbyists out of the debate, we miss a large reason why people enjoy firearms."
As hunting declines -- the Fish and Wildlife Service sold just 12.5 million hunting licenses in 2006, down from 44 million in 1977 (the first and last years for which data is available) -- recreational shooting could, in fact, be one of the main reasons Americans still love guns.
"My guess is that more than 90 percent of all the ammunition actually discharged is discharged through a recreational form," says Dr. Franklin Zimring, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, and an expert on violent crime. "The overwhelming majority."
Seventy-two year-old Tom Frenkel -- aka "Buffy" -- leans against the back wall in his San Francisco bar, Bloom's Saloon. It's the bar's 30th anniversary, and the place is packed. The crowd is mostly older, 50s on up, lots of Hawaiian shirts, with a sprinkling of younger, trendy types.
Owning a bar isn't a bad gig, Frenkel says, looking around. And he has enough time for his hobbies. "Shooting and sports, that's all I care about," he says. "And eating." He used to play basketball, racquetball, used to run before multiple knee surgeries slowed him down. But he still shoots regularly, as he has for more than 60 years.
He's not a hunter -- "Hunting combined the worst aspects of camping and shooting to me, slogging through the muck and rarely shooting" -- and he's not particularly worried about getting attacked -- "I like having the skills if I need them, but I'm not a paranoid person."
The first time he shot was at a summer camp in northern Minnesota in 1951, when he was 11. "It was a Remington 511, single-shot bolt-action rifle," he says. "A .22." His dad wasn't into guns, and his mom disliked them, but young Frenkel, aficionado of TV Westerns, thought they were great. "I liked it from go," he says.
For Frenkel, it's always been about having fun. He likes firing fast, in sports like action pistol shooting (a pastime favored by the aforementioned crew-cut law enforcement dudes), and more recently, cowboy shooting, he says. "There's always the allure of trying to go faster."
A young woman with a bald baby in her arms walks into the bar. Frenkel smiles at the woman, then leans over and taps the baby on the shoulder. "Can I see your ID please?" he says.
Frenkel is typical of gun owners in America, says Ladd Everitt, director of communication at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, in Washington D.C. You wouldn't know it from the pro-gun voices in the current debate, though, he says.
"If you look at the cover of a gun magazine today, you're going to see one of two things: Compact guns for concealed carry, or assault rifles." These publications cater to what he calls "self-defense freaks, extremely paranoid people, emboldened by the stand-your-ground laws."
In particular, "hardcore insurrectionists" are the dominant voice in the pro-gun side of the debate, he says. "They believe they have an individual right to check government by force of arms." As vocal as they are, insurrectionists are a fringe group, not at all representative of most gun owners. "From everything I've seen working 12 years here, there's a very clear discrepancy with Average Joe Gun Owner," Everitt says. "He's not stockpiling guns and fantasizing about shooting a cop."
Jacqueline Otto, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, agrees that insurrectionists aren't representative of gun owners as a group. "That's not the average gun owner," she says, "the average person who shoots firearms." Most NRA members -- and gun owners in general -- are either hunters or sportsmen, she says, and they have a right to have assault rifles like AR-15s, regardless of whether or not they really need them. "It's the Bill of Rights, not the Bill of Needs," she says.
In fact, a recent poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that the majority of NRA members and gun owners are in favor of gun safety regulations such as requiring background checks for anyone purchasing a firearm, and stricter rules regarding who is allowed to have a concealed carry permit. It's the outspoken fringe groups that keep common-sense gun safety laws from being passed, says Everitt.
But whether for self-defense or hunting or sport, guns will always be controversial, says Adam Winkler, the UCLA law professor, because they are an inherently violent instrument. "They're not designed to be placed on a mantelpiece. They're designed to shoot a projectile at an incredibly high rate," he says. There's always a person behind the weapon, and Winkler doesn't believe the act of pulling a trigger causes every person to be violent. Nonetheless, he says, guns themselves are designed for one thing -- to kill.
The first thing to know about cowboy shooting is the rules. For a sport meant to emulate the Wild West, there are an awful lot of them. Cowboys can only use guns designed before the beginning of the 20th century. Modern replicas are fine, although the old guns are obviously cooler. While T-shirts are strictly outlawed, "long sleeved [sic] Henley type shirts with buttons are acceptable" (Single Action Shooting Society Handbook, page 24). Designer jeans are banned, as are "nylon, plastic, or Velcro accouterments."
At the Richmond Rod and Gun Club, the cowboys circle up around the first challenge: five metal plates arranged in a diamond, and four spring-loaded shotgun targets, all around 25 feet away. A cowboy with a cardboard reads off the shooting order, and the first shooters head to the loading table.
Then the fun starts. The first shooter stands in a metal square, rifle held vertical in front at arms' length. His pistols are holstered, and the shotgun is propped against a wooden stand.
"Ready?" says the timekeeper.
The shooter nods.
Firing a .38 into a metal plate 25 feet away is like dropping a watermelon from the third story balcony. It's a loud noise, a shove on the shoulder, a puff of tangy smoke -- a joyful destruction.
The lead splinters on the steel plates and rains down softly on hats and hands and faces. The cowboys go silent and watch.
When it's all over, they drift into the Richmond Rod and Gun clubhouse bar, a dim room stuffed with grimacing dead animals, where a stein-full of Miller is $1 and a hotdog is $2. Sitting down along two folding tables in the clubhouse's main hall, some of the cowboys set aside their hats and button-ups, revealing screen-printed T-shirts.
Outside, Buffy loads his guns and gear into the trunk of his Lexus sedan. He pulls off the neckerchief and the slide with the screwing pigs, and folds up his cowboy cart. There's a Niners game on, and he needs to get to Blooms, he says. "I have a moral obligation to go get drunk."
The cart goes in the back seat, and he climbs in the front. He starts the car, turns it around, and stops to talk out the window with another cowboy for a minute. Then Tom Frenkel takes off his hat and rides away from the Rod and Gun Club, wheels dragging a cloud of dust.
A longer version of this story is available at Richmond Confidential, a publication of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.