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."