Arizona shooting tests American West's love affair with guns

Posted at 01/11/2011 12:31 PM | Updated as of 01/11/2011 12:31 PM

TUCSON, Arizona - Months before she was shot in the head, US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords won a tight re-election battle vowing to be "moderate" -- including by staunchly backing the right to own guns.

As she lies in critical condition, some are publicly questioning the gun-slinging culture of the American West where weapons at restaurants do not cause a second glance and opposition to guns is considered political suicide.

Jared Loughner, 22, who shot Giffords and killed six others at a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, bought his semi-automatic Glock handgun two months after he was expelled by a community college for threatening online postings, officials said.

Arizona has some of the most relaxed US laws on guns. Inside Sportsman's Warehouse, the chainstore where prosecutors said Loughner bought the weapon, a sign reads simply that one must be 18 to buy rifles and 21 for handguns.

Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Pima County which includes Tucson, deplored the "ridiculous state" of Arizona, where lawmakers have been considering allowing students and teachers to carry guns at schools and universities.

"I think we're the tombstone of the United States of America," Dupnik, like Giffords a member of President Barack Obama's Democratic Party, told reporters.

"I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want. And that's almost where we are," he said.

Frank Lautenberg, a Democratic US senator from New Jersey, on Monday proposed banning the high-capacity ammunition clips used by Loughner as well as by the Virginia Tech student who killed 32 classmates and himself in 2007.

Such calls brought derision at Tucson's Black Weapons Armory store, where a sign reads, "For the safety of the general public, this is an Obama-free gun zone."

"Every time the government sticks its nose in, it overreacts and it's the good people who wind up getting hurt," said shop owner Tom Rompel, 62.

Rompel said his customers bought guns for hunting or to defend themselves from crime, which he said was rising due to the Mexican border an hour away.

"This guy was a nutjob. What he did was sick and evil," he said of Loughner. "But the congresswoman he shot owns the same gun."

Rompel said that Arizona, which has a large population of military veterans and retirees, had a "pioneering" spirit in which residents fiercely defended their right to bear arms.

"This is America. People love to shoot," he said.

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution protects the right to bear arms in the context of a "well regulated militia." In recent years, the US Supreme Court has cited the amendment to strike down restrictions on gun ownership in the cities of Chicago and Washington.

At least two lawmakers -- including Representative Heath Shuler of North Carolina, like Giffords a so-called "Blue Dog" moderate Democrat -- reacted to the shooting by saying they would carry guns themselves to public events.

Few expect any changes soon in gun laws in Arizona, which rose to the forefront of conservative politics in the United States with its effort to crack down on illegal immigration.

But some residents voiced hope for a fresh approach. Susan Shobe, 38, took her two young children to a makeshift shrine for Giffords outside her hospital to show support for a more peaceful way of politics.

Shobe said she grew up in a hunting family where guns were common.

"I'm not afraid of guns. But guns don't have a place in a highly urbanized environment," she said.

"To think that someone with a history of known violent thoughts was able just to buy a gun with no reason given, I was absolutely mortified."