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Trying to explain America’s love of guns

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The U.S. Senate voted Thursday morning to allow the gun debate to go forward. Looks as if this pistol-packin’ nation may end up with a background check requirement after all — though there’s no guarantee even that modest measure will ultimately become law, as my colleague Mike Memoli explains.

I find myself occasionally in the position of trying to explain this country’s attachment to guns, and it’s not always easy. A few weeks ago, one of my doctors — who happens to be French — shook his head in the examining room and said, "I just don’t understand this country and guns."

I was caught up short. I have lived around guns and gun collectors, people who are passionate about American history and love nothing more than to find a rare Second World War rifle or pistol to add to an already comprehensive collection. But they can’t stand the NRA, having torn up their lifetime memberships years ago when the NRA opposed legislation to ban so-called "cop killer" bullets.

It all seemed very complicated to explain to a man standing over me with a large needle in his hand.

But last week, in a chat with U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, an advocate of stringent gun safety measures, I found a straightforward take.

The Glendale, Calif., Democrat grew up in Massachusetts and was taught to hunt by his father. "My wife and I choose not to have guns at home because more often than not a gun is used to kill a member of the family or accidentally kills a member of the family," said Schiff, who has two children. "But I respect people who feel otherwise."

Schiff, who hosted a gun-violence forum in West Hollywood last week, has proposed reversing a 2005 law that gave the gun industry immunity from liability lawsuits. He is also pushing to allow prosecution of gun dealers who enable straw purchasers, people, as Schiff put it, "who don’t have a criminal record and buy guns for people who do." (That, in a nutshell, is the loophole in the background check law.)

In 2000, Schiff’s first election, he beat an NRA-supported Republican candidate. To this day, he said, plenty of people think vice-president Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee that year — and the presidential election — over the perception that Gore was weak on gun rights.

Soon after that election, Schiff said, during a panel discussion, he was asked to describe the nature of the "gun issue" in his suburban Los Angeles district.

"I said, ‘When people think about guns, it’s not so much about hunting or self protection, it’s more about gang violence and drive-by shootings, about someone going into a day-care center in Granada Hills and shooting a bunch of kids, or going into a school in Stockton and shooting kids," Schiff said.

He was unprepared for the answer given by Rep. Brad Carson of Oklahoma, another freshman Democrat. "He said, ‘In my home district, when people think about guns, it’s also not that much about hunting or self-protection. It’s about Lexington and Concord.’"

"I had to think for a minute, then I realized what he was saying," said Schiff. "For a lot of Americans, the right to own a gun is part of our heritage. It’s part of what the American Revolution was about, part of the idea of standing up to a tyrannical government even if it ends up being your own government. It’s part and parcel of being an American."

So too is the debate over guns. It’s as American as mom, apple pie and an M-1 carbine.

Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

— McClatchy Tribune Services

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