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."