Attitudes toward guns predict places in a divided electorate

Election 2004

October 04, 2004|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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."

"Lean forward."

"Perfect."

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.

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