PHOENIX — In the red rock and sand of the Arizona desert, just past the retirement villages and golf greens that have made this sun-worshipping city famous, sits the biggest public shooting range in the United States.
Not far away are the Walmarts where Arizonans pay Sun City retirees to wait in line when a new ammo shipment arrives, lest the supply run out. Residents have the right to carry handguns openly, and starting last month residents who have no criminal records and are at least 21 also are able to carry concealed weapons just about anywhere, without the bother of getting a permit.
The full embrace of firearms is just as fervent to the north in Montana, where nearly two-thirds of all households have firearms. Montanans feel so strongly about their right to own guns for hunting and fending off grizzlies and — if it comes to it — fellow humans that lawmakers passed a measure last year that challenges the federal government's authority to regulate guns made and kept in their state.
This is the gun culture of the American West, and it is from here that the latest challenge has come to firearms laws enacted by the city government of Washington, D.C. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., have proposed a law that they say would sweep away overly stringent regulations imposed by the D.C. Council after the Supreme Court struck down the city's 32-year ban on handguns.
Council member Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said the McCain-Tester bill could gut the city's regulatory powers, including laws that are stricter than most states', about keeping guns away from people with records of domestic violence. He also said the law shows a disregard for the realities of the city, where guns mean drive-bys, holdups and intimidation more than sport, tradition and the American way.
McCain and Tester declined requests for interviews. But their bill reflects a philosophy that seems part of the American West.
If the Ben Avery shooting range is not the heart of Arizona's gun culture, it's close to it. More than 220,000 shooters a year test their firepower at ranges covering more than 1,500 acres of desert on the outskirts of Phoenix.
"It's a Phoenix Point of Pride," said Noble Hathaway, president of the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association, referring to a community promotional designation. "All my kids and grandkids grew up out there."
Gun-rights advocates say that the city of Washington's gun control laws — not to mention prohibitions against murder — did not prevent a drive-by shooting in March that involved illegal weapons. They also say that despite having nearly 158,000 people with concealed weapons in Arizona, their homicide rate of 6.3 per 100,000 is lower than the District's, 31.4. That's true of Phoenix, too, where the homicide rate is 10.5 per 100,000.
And although most gun-rights advocates skew Republican, Arizonans say that large numbers of Democrats embrace the Second Amendment.