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In Gun Debate, Pro-Gun Camp In Favor Of Reform Too


The mass shooting in Orlando has revived questions about the nation's gun laws, but Congress can't seem to settle on an answer. In a moment, we'll hear from Republican Senator Jeff Flake about the latest proposal on Capitol Hill. But first, NPR's Aarti Shahani went in search of common ground on this divisive issue, and she found it among lifetime members of the NRA at a gun range in Orlando.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: To many, a mass shooting is proof we should take guns away. To many others, the lesson is the opposite.


SHAHANI: That's the faint sound of gunfire.

JUSTIN HILTON: Gunshots. We do have two shooting ranges that are indoor on site.

SHAHANI: Justin Hilton is the owner of Rieg's Gun Shop and Range in Orlando.

And this morning, a church group came by, some guys from church.

HILTON: That's right. We offered a big Groupon special.

SHAHANI: NPR visited seven other gun shops in the Orlando area, all of whom declined interviews. Hilton agreed to one, only after I agreed to personally try to shoot for the first time - a Glock 19 and then an AR-15. He needed to know that I was open-minded and had a little hands-on experience. I met other first-timers at his shop, people who've never owned a gun before but want one now, after 49 people were killed at Pulse nightclub.

HILTON: So our sales - just to put it in perspective - the last three days have been record-breaking for our corporation.

SHAHANI: Asked to put numbers on it...

HILTON: Probably about 300 percent.

SHAHANI: Mass shootings make some people want guns more, much more. And so when the anti-gun camp leads their reform efforts with calls to ban whole categories of weapons, like so-called assault-style rifles, Hilton says they lose his camp's respect. But - and this is a key point - if he could trust the other side, there are significant reforms he would support, like ending the private sale of guns. Right now it's easy for someone who's banned from owning a gun to get one anyway by buying from an individual instead of a licensed dealer. Hilton says that's a problem.

HILTON: You know, there's got to be a system involved to where it has to go to a legitimate shop and a legitimate background check.

SHAHANI: Maybe it sounds self-serving, a gun shop owner would support a statute to kill private sales. So Hilton offers another idea - get an existing public agency with access to law enforcement databases to help with private sales.

HILTON: Maybe you meet at the police department and stuff can be ran there. Maybe they have a form. Maybe they have a private sale form.

SHAHANI: That's not going to stop all illegal activity. Like drugs, guns will still circulate, but changes to state laws could slow it down, he says. Hilton's position is not in line with the NRA even though he's an NRA member. So is competitive marksman John Spier.

JOHN SPIER: I am also an NRA-certified range safety officer, NRA-certified firearms instructor and an NRA-certified pistol instructor.

SHAHANI: Spier is in California, widely considered to have strict gun laws, and he says there is a way to be stricter. A couple years back, voters approved a measure that reduced firearm theft to a misdemeanor. He says, reverse that.

SPIER: I'm all for stiffening penalties for gun crimes. For God's sakes, make them as stiff as you want. I'm never going to commit a gun crime.

SHAHANI: Spier also says he'd support better enforcement of existing laws. For example, people declared mentally ill by a court are barred from buying guns, but many databases used for gun checks don't include those legal records, which basically means mental illness goes unchecked.

SPIER: Why even ask the person? If they have mental problems - if they're there to buy a gun and they have mental problems, they obviously aren't going to tell the truth.

SHAHANI: Yesterday the Senate failed to pass four gun measures, two related to background checks, two related to barring guns to terror suspects. Spier says, while politicians can't find the common ground, it's there. He notices conversations are less volatile. Even on Facebook, his pro an anti-gun friends are fighting less and stopping to ask why can't we get anything done. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.