Attitudes toward guns predict places in a divided electorate
By By Susan Baer
Sun National Staff|
Oct 04, 2004 at 3:00 AM
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Second in a series
MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- Sunday mornings, there is God. Sunday afternoons, guns.
After sitting in the pews of their Lutheran church, the Montest family will load up their white Chevy Suburban with guns, ammo and safety gear, and head out from their home in Whispering Woods, a Pittsburgh-area subdivision, to one of the two gun clubs they belong to.
On a soggy-aired weekend in June, Margeaux Montest, just days out of sixth grade, loads her mother's Ruger .22-caliber pistol as easily as she dresses her American Girl doll. The younger of the Montests' two children, she is a 12-year-old Girl Scout with braces on her bottom teeth, a passion for horses and "natural ability," her parents say, with firearms.
Today, at the Greater Pittsburgh Gun Club, she is aiming the silver handgun at the paper bull's-eye about 15 feet ahead, where wild daisies thrive in defiance of the frequent shower of bullets.
"Load and make ready," says her father, Richard, 43, whose deer hunting has taken a back seat to competitive shooting these days.
"Watch your muzzle," says her mother, Catherine, her cherry red manicured nails vying for attention with the gleaming metal arrayed on the table beside her.
"Don't lock your elbows."
Ten shots, nine on the paper, one inside the 10-ring. Applause from Mom. High-fives.
"Can I do another one?" the floppy-haired Margeaux asks, jumping up and down amid the litter of spent shells.
Her mother helps her load the magazine of another gun, this one the Glock 9 mm pistol that Cath- erine Montest, 41, bought six years ago to carry with her for protection.
Since that time, the working mother, a sales manager for Nextel and a Girl Scout troop leader, has become a pro -- able to fire off 10 shots and reload in 10 seconds flat. Along with her pistols, trophies and confidence, she has amassed a collection of strong opinions about the rights of responsible, law-abiding people to own guns, to carry guns, to use guns.
Her idea of gun control?
"Using two hands."
On the other side of the state -- and the other side of the gun debate -- is another typical American two-career family with teenagers on the phone, a sport utility vehicle in the driveway, an addition on the house and schedules tacked on the fridge.
But guns have never been allowed in the half-century-old stone-and-wood home in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, where Susan Tachau, 50, and Mark Anderson, 49, have raised their three children. Not even toy guns. Not even water guns. When a friend gave the children Super Soakers, the large neon-colored plastic water guns were kept in the shed so the children would understand that nothing even resembling a weapon had a place in their home.
The family would be surprised if any of Mark's six sisters and brothers or Susan's sister and brother owned a gun. They have no idea about their neighbors. It is not a topic of conversation at PTA meetings, Susan's book club meetings, Mark's tennis matches and certainly not at the Unitarian church the family attends, where there are sermons, hymns, meditation and much talk of peace, if not God.
They respect the rights of hunters to own shotguns and even those who want to keep a weapon in their homes for self-defense. But they believe more gun controls, restrictions and regulations would help reduce the gun violence they read about almost every day.
"I think a major problem we have is the number of guns that are available and the ease with which you can acquire new guns," says Mark Anderson, a law professor at Temple University.
The two Pennsylvania families -- the Montests of Moon Township, the Tachau-Andersons of Bala Cynwyd -- are not only representative of the two ideologically opposed corners of the state, but they are also typical of the two Americas going to the polls this November and possibly dividing the vote as precisely in half as they did four years ago.
Among the many predictors of one's place in this split-screen nation -- commonly referred to as "red America" and "blue America" after the color-coded map of the 2000 presidential race -- is one's attitude toward guns.
In this election year, the fierce passions of the gun debate have mingled with political pragmatism to cast the issue in a new light. Faced with the reality that nearly 50 percent of voting households have guns in the home, Democrats have shifted their fight from more aggressive goals to incremental safety measures that even many gun enthusiasts support.
While Al Gore pressed for federal licensing of gun owners as the Democratic presidential nominee four years ago, John Kerry has shot pheasant on the campaign trail to promote his credentials as a hunter and gun owner, and trumpeted his support for Second Amendment rights.
In this political climate, the 10-year-old federal ban on assault weapons, although favored by a majority of gun owners and law enforcement organizations, was allowed to expire last month. While President Bush had expressed support for the ban as a candidate in 2000, he did not exert any pressure on Congress to extend it, fearing the loss of support from the powerful National Rifle Association, the ban's chief opponent.
For his part, Kerry, not wanting to be painted with the anti-gun brush that many believe hurt Gore four years ago, rarely spoke in favor of the ban until it was about to lapse.
Even the Tachau-Anderson household is resigned to the fact that guns are a large part of society and are here to stay. Sure, they would like to see handguns banned "in an ideal world," Mark says. But he knows it's as naive as a Miss America contestant's wish for world peace.
"It's not even worth saying."
So they do what they can to be true to their beliefs, trying to limit the violence their children see in movies and on television, for example, while the Montests do what they can as well, urging their 15-year-old son, R.J., to write letters to his senators stating his opposition to further gun restrictions.
And in these two middle-class families, one can see how some of the views that are dividing the nation are formed, reinforced and passed on to the next generation -- how two thoughtful, typical American families whose lives revolve largely around children see their world through such profoundly different lenses.
The Montests are members of Gun Owners of America. The Tachau-Andersons, the American Civil Liberties Union.
When Margeaux Montest turned 12 last November, she went to get her hunting license and the next day went deer hunting with her father. (She froze, saw no deer and now wants to take up squirrel hunting.)
When 15-year-old Carrie Anderson was about the same age, she went to see Babe, a movie about a talking pig who wants to be a dog -- and the next day became a vegetarian, like her father.
Two families. Two points of view. Two sensibilities. Two worlds in America.
Susan and Mark have been married for 25 years and are typical of the kind of voters John Kerry can count on. They are lifelong Democrats and socially liberal -- supporting abortion rights and gay marriage, and opposing the death penalty. Skeptical of the war in Iraq, they had a Howard Dean sign on their front lawn last winter until the former Vermont governor fizzled, and now have a Kerry sign beside their dogwood tree.
They read The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times online, The New Yorker and Newsweek magazines, and listen to National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp. Mark read Against All Enemies, a book highly critical of Bush's handling of the threat of terrorism, before and after 9/11, by former White House anti-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke. They both read comedian Al Franken's last book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, and passed it around to many of their friends. Mark bought a recording of Bill Clinton's book for his mother this past summer. The 9/11 Commission report is now on his nightstand.
Although they feel what Mark calls a "profound sense of hopelessness" on the gun issue, noting that Kerry didn't mention it in a 45-minute speech they heard him give in Philadelphia, they realize it's a political calculation he had to make.
Beyond banning guns from their home, the couple has tried to make nonviolence a hallmark of their household and their life. They decided to send their youngest daughter to a Quaker school this year, partly because of the school's philosophy about peaceful conflict resolution and its zero-tolerance policy for weapons.
And they have been vigilant about what their children watch and listen to.
Michael, 22, a student at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania who has cerebral palsy, was not allowed to go see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie when he was young. At 7, he had to decline a classmate's party when the first-graders were invited to see a Batman movie. His father had gone to see the movie first and decided, "No way."
"There was too much depravity for little kids to deal with," Mark Anderson says at the family's Cape Cod-style home with butterfly wallpaper in the kitchen, lace curtains in the living room and wood paneling in the den.
Carrie knows not to expect to listen to rap music when she's in the car with her mother.
For her part, Susan -- who is head of the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation, which gives out low-interest loans for technology that assists the disabled -- doesn't want her children to view violence as a casual event. "There aren't many issues we don't compromise on," says the mother of Michael; 18-year-old Julia, who was adopted from Korea; and Carrie, adopted from Paraguay. "But this is one of them. I'm pretty black and white on these issues."
Although you can almost feel the mild rebellion of teenagers in this home, where Carrie has recently started spelling her name with a "K" and Julia responds to a request to clean her room by giving her mother the silent treatment, the Tachau-Anderson children seem to have adopted many of their parents' values.
Given $200 each to contribute to a charity or cause, they generally choose left-leaning organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Greenpeace or other environmental groups. Julia recently picked up Michael Moore's anti-gun documentary Bowling for Columbine at the DVD rental store and, looking forward to casting her first vote in November, has been asking her parents about the Democratic Party.
To Mark and Susan, and now to their children, the availability and accessibility of guns only adds to the violence that they read about in the papers every day and that leads the local news more nights than not. The senseless tragedies, such as the 10-year-old boy who was shot in the head and killed outside his elementary school in North Philadelphia in February, the random victim of a gang shoot-out in daylight. The children regularly found with guns in Philadelphia schools. The accidents.
"I think the presence of guns begets the desire for other people to have guns, thinking they need guns to protect themselves," Mark says. "I would like to have a nation where it's just much harder to get a gun in the first place."
He points to Britain -- where there are strict gun controls, and far fewer guns in the homes and on the streets -- as a model he wishes the United States would follow.
Mark, a Minnesota native whose mother was fiercely anti-gun, and Susan, whose Kentucky roots are still evident in her voice, grew up in homes where handguns were not allowed. Susan's father, a Marine who served in World War II and Korea, was a dove hunter and kept a shotgun in the house. But he made it clear to his children that "handguns kill."
Growing up in Louisville during the civil rights movement crystallized her feelings about guns, says Susan, who worked for the McGovern campaign at age 18. "There was so much violence, so much hatred, and guns would appear," she recalls of the struggles to integrate neighborhoods and schools. "And you saw that there was so much anger over these issues that people could get hurt and certainly threatened."
As for Mark, whose father was a doctor and also served in World War II, not being around guns meant not being comfortable with them. "If you're not around guns a lot, they're very scary," he says.
As a law professor, he has looked at the legal debate over the Second Amendment and decided it was written to guarantee the state the right to protect itself through militias or groups of citizen soldiers. But he knows many Americans disagree, convinced that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to keep and bear arms.
While the legal fights rage on, the Tachau-Andersons believe any number of restrictions and regulations would cut down on the availability of guns, and thus gun violence: tort liability for gun manufacturers so they would better police how their products are distributed, shutting down gun shows because private vendors are allowed to sell guns at such shows without performing background checks on the buyers and limiting the number of guns a person can buy at a time.
They called the defeat of the assault weapons ban "a sad moment," even on a symbolic level. "If you can't get that kind of bill passed, what hope is there for anything else?" Mark asks.
They would like to see waiting periods, which they think might have prevented the suicide 10 years ago of their friend Peggy, who, upon release from a hospital where she was being treated for depression, bought a gun and killed herself.
In their eyes, Pennsylvania's law allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns makes the world a more dangerous place. "I think the numbers of situations where they can be used to prevent crimes are very limited," Mark says. "And I just don't like the idea that if I'm driving a car and I get involved in a car accident or if I cut somebody off, I don't like the idea that somebody's got a gun."
"In this area, there's so much road rage," Susan adds. "People drive like maniacs anyway, and you do get worried about how somebody's going to respond and how quickly it escalates."
The family spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh in the past year -- Michael had a series of surgeries for complications from an infection at Children's Hospital there -- and was astounded at the number of people they met who owned guns.
"And not just one -- enormous numbers," Susan says. "One woman went on about how her husband had six or seven guns and [said], 'You come in our house, man, we'll blow you away!'"
"Do they feel safer?" Susan asked. "I don't know. I would not feel safer having a loaded gun in my house."
In fact, for Susan and Mark, the decision to have nothing to do with guns is an easy one. Mark thinks it's unlikely a gun would help him protect his home and family from an intruder, and worries that, if he had one, he'd be more likely to use it in a situation where he shouldn't.
For them, it is a simple calculation.
"I just think guns create a lot more risk in my life than they do protection," he says. "When you look at the statistics of the people who kill themselves and the accidents that happen and things like that, plus the homicides with guns, I think there's just a lot more bad that happens than good from gun ownership."
The Montests, conservative Republicans with a flag waving outside their 12-year-old brick colonial home and an NRA bumper sticker on an old van, couldn't disagree more.
In a refrigerator-size gun safe in their basement, they store their 20 to 30 guns -- they've lost count -- long arms and pistols, including one of Catherine's that she describes as a "cute, itty-bitty, little derringer thing." Upstairs in their bedroom, they keep other guns in a smaller safe they can access quickly with a press of fingers in a sequence only they know.
Mounted above Richard's desk in his home office -- where he works as a sales manager for an industrial packaging supply company he and his wife started 10 years ago and recently sold -- is the head of a nine-point buck he shot. In son R.J.'s room is the hide of a deer the 15-year-old shot two years ago. The Montests had the hide tanned and processed, and turned much of the meat into jerky.
Many of their neighbors own guns, including the avid deer hunter next-door, whose elaborately landscaped back yard includes waterfalls and two life-size foam deer he uses for bow-and-arrow practice. Occasionally, there are neighborhood barbecues with venison steaks slapped on the grill.
Indeed, in this Western Pennsylvania town, like many across America, hunting is such a part of life and tradition that schools are closed for the opening day of deer-hunting season -- the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday here -- and many high schools offer rifle clubs.
Catherine does not hunt but enjoys competitive shooting. Mostly, though, her interest in guns relates to protection. She lives in a neighborhood of well-kept lawns and relatively little crime. But occasionally, especially if she is venturing into unfamiliar territory, she locks her Glock 9 mm in her holster purse with its steel-reinforced straps and takes it with her when she leaves home.
"My No. 1 goal is to come home the way I left," she says.
"But with more clothes," the dry-witted Margeaux chimes in.
Although Richard comes from a Democratic, pro-union steel mill family, and Catherine a family where politics was never discussed, the Montests have evolved into committed conservatives, Bush voters through and through. They are against abortion rights and gay marriage, in favor of the death penalty and the war in Iraq. They believe Bush will protect their gun rights "more than Kerry would ever dream of doing," Catherine says.
Catherine says she was drawn to the Republican party because of its emphasis on "personal responsibility" over government handouts, and happily cast her first vote for Ronald Reagan.
That same sense of personal responsibility undergirds her opposition to abortion rights, she says, and prompted her, at age 16, to join a group of youths from her Catholic church who went to Washington, walked into Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's office and loudly railed against the Republican's pro-abortion rights votes.
Richard says he, too, fell under the spell of Reagan after the Nixon years instilled in him distrust of government.
These days, although the couple occasionally read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, they prefer conservative-edged news. Catherine watches Fox News but goes online for much of her information, occasionally checking out "The Drudge Report" and a conservative chat site, "Free Republic."
Neither of them reads books on current affairs, but Catherine is a fan of Tom Clancy novels and has read the Left Behind series of apocalyptic thrillers, which is particularly popular among evangelical Christians.
Active in their church, Richard and Catherine, who wear gold chains with crosses around their necks, say they, too, try to monitor what their children watch -- but mostly for sexual content or offensiveness. They told R.J. he couldn't watch the adult cartoon South Park -- because of the bad language and raunchiness more than the violence -- although they knew he sneaked off to a neighbor's to watch.
"They live in the world," Richard says of the violence children see on TV. "Bad things happen in the world."
The Montest children grew up with toy guns of all sorts. Catherine says that when R.J. was 2, he was "cleaning the clock with Duck Hunt," a Nintendo game where a player shoots at the screen with a toy pistol. By kindergarten, the children were learning about gun safety and using the real thing.
Catherine recalls a road trip the family took years ago, when the children watched the movie Gettysburg on a portable TV with a VCR. Margeaux, then 6, called out, "Mom, they're doing it wrong; they're doing it wrong," saying that the soldiers were not wearing eye and ear protection.
"I was like, 'Cool, I think she gets what you're supposed to do,'" Catherine says. Now, however, R.J.'s interests have turned from guns to guitars and girls, a much more frightening prospect for his mother. "I'd rather him be out there in the woods with the guys and the guns."
Neither Richard nor Catherine grew up in a family with guns, but as their interest in guns developed -- Richard's out of sport, Catherine's out of fear -- they have become fierce defenders of the rights of gun owners and the Second Amendment.
"Those crazy guys with the powdered wigs those couple hundred-odd years ago really were the most incredibly remarkable men," Catherine says. She says she is certain the Founding Fathers intended the Second Amendment to refer to an individual's right to bear arms, rather than to state militias, as many legal scholars contend. "All of the other amendments, at least on the Bill of Rights, refer to the individual. Why would this one be any different?"
Richard is highly suspicious of the motives of gun control advocates, believing that even the slightest of regulations will start the nation down a "slippery slope" toward disarmament.
Because he and his wife believe that guns used in crimes are typically purchased illegally anyway, they see gun control as merely a way to "appease people complaining about gun crime."
"There are already lots of laws on the books for committing crimes with guns or for obtaining guns illegally," Richard says. "Why do we need a whole new batch of them?"
"We need to vigorously prosecute the ones that we have and not plea [bargain] them off the table," Catherine adds.
They see "no logic" in the argument that more guns lead to greater gun violence, believing that gun accidents would be reduced if guns were demystified and people -- including children -- were better acquainted with how they work.
Even the assault weapons ban, which they were glad to see go, was merely a matter of "cosmetics," the Montests say.
"There's a perception that this gun versus this gun is somehow more lethal, which really it isn't," Richard says. "It just looks more lethal."
"It still puts holes in things," Catherine says. "Pretty much the same thing."
Richard says he also opposed the assault weapons ban for "selfish reasons" because the larger-capacity ammunition magazines, which give him an edge in competitive shooting because he doesn't have to reload as frequently, were not available under the ban.
The Montests feel they are lucky to live in a state where any law-abiding citizen who applies for a permit can carry a gun in a purse or a pocket, believing criminals are deterred by the knowledge that a would-be victim could be wielding a weapon. "God bless the police -- they're wonderful, they do a lovely job, but they can't be everywhere at all times," Catherine says.
She points to her friend Wendy from the gun club as an example. She resisted a carjacking -- and held the perpetrator at bay until the police came and arrested him -- by producing her gun. "She was pretty terrified, but she was able to preserve her own safety and protect herself from harm -- and the gun did not need to be discharged," Catherine says.
For her part, she decided to become a gun owner after one night about six years ago when she feared she and her husband were being followed in their car by a group of hoodlums.
The only comfort she had that night, she says, was knowing that her husband was carrying a gun.
As it turned out, the car behind them kept going once the Montests turned into a parking lot. There was no trouble, no incident, no need for a gun.
Still, the Montests have made a different calculation than the Tachau-Andersons, although both families live in communities of relatively little crime.
For Richard and Catherine and their children, the gun is a tool, a pastime, a protector, a right.
"That's a cool gun," Margeaux exclaims at the shooting range after trying out her mother's small black semiautomatic pistol, the one she packs in her purse from time to time for peace of mind.