- Author: Niki D'Andrea
- Category: Valley News
- Issue: Dec 2012
From territorial shootouts to 21st-century gun clubs, Arizona’s love affair with firearms is still smoking.
Also See: Behind-the-scenes footage and images of classic guns.
The young man raises his handgun and takes aim, closing one eye and squinting at his target. When he pulls the trigger, the brass casing of his bullet – now speeding toward the cardboard face of what looks like a cross between Osama Bin Laden and a deranged camel – dings off the side of his noise-canceling headphones. A cloud of gun smoke drifts around the shooter’s head, leaving a slightly sulfuric smell lingering in the air.
It’s lunch time on a Friday afternoon in north Scottsdale, and this man is one of nearly three dozen people going ballistic on the 32 firing ranges at Scottsdale Gun Club, sating their appetite for shooting paper zombie-cartoon effigies of Paris Hilton and Osama Bin Laden.
On the other side of the indoor lanes, separated by a sound-proofed wall and bullet-resistant glass windows, is the vast retail area, where the muffled gunshots sound like popcorn in a microwave and the zombie targets – along with plug-able posters of big yellow smiley faces and plasma-shaped, black-silhouetted boogeymen – hang for sale. Also for purchase: handguns, rifles, shotguns, AK-47s, armor, ammo, holsters, gun cases, gun locks, gun safes, and camouflage iPad covers.
In December 2011, Scottsdale Gun Club was listed as the No. 1 ranked attraction in all of Scottsdale on popular travel website tripadvisor.com, and has remained in the top 15. At 30,000 square feet, SGC represents the largest public indoor shooting facility in the United States, with an estimated 5,000 members. Arizona is also home to the largest public outdoor range in the country, the 1,650-acre Ben Avery Shooting Facility in northern Phoenix, operated by the Arizona Game & Fish Department. There are around 63 shooting ranges across the state – one of the highest numbers in the nation (Florida, with roughly three times the population of Arizona, has the most, with about 144 ranges).
Guns helped settle this state, and they’ve remained an indelible part of Arizona culture. From fending off bandits with shotguns on stage coaches to shooting at images of a harmless hotel heiress on a Friday afternoon, the “right to bear arms” in Arizona has gone from a necessary defense on an unruly frontier to a rite of nearly-pop-cultural passage. Here, shooting guns is a familial tradition – fathers take their sons hunting, parents proudly watch their children compete in rifle matches – and a legal right. People carry guns here because they can.
Bob Boze Bell, editor of Cave Creek-based True West magazine, says people from eastern states, where gun laws are generally stricter, often don’t understand the cultural mentality in the West, where guns are part of the heritage, and where proximity to the Mexico border and its attendant violence remains a big concern.
“Everybody was armed in the Old West,” Bell says. “You had to be... it was just a matter of course, everyday wear. If you look at it that way, then it helped settle Arizona. Guns were absolutely a part of that, and that tradition continues to this day, among the old-timers. The problem is, we have all these newcomers coming in from all over the world... and they’re bringing with them their own values, which many times are at odds with the old Arizona.”
It’s not just newcomers. Our vision of what it means to be Arizonan today is also at odds with the old Arizona. Arizonans have always had a love affair with guns; it goes hand-in-hand with our self-sufficient streak, our frontier identity. But we’ve also always had issues with gun control – Wyatt Earp grappled with some of the same challenges Sheriff Joe Arpaio faces today. The difference is that if anything, the West is getting wilder.
When the Arizona Legislature was considering a proposal in 2011 to allow the carrying of firearms on college campuses, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik told Tucson Weekly, “We’re the Tombstone of the United States of America... I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state... carry weapons whenever they want, and that’s almost where we are.”
Dupnik was invoking the most iconic image of Arizona’s Wild West days – the 1881 shootout behind the O.K. Corral in Tombstone – in an attempt to illustrate how Arizona was reverting back to its wild and violent frontier era. But the metaphor is myth. The truth is, the gun laws in Tombstone circa 1881 were much more strict than today’s state laws – and territorial towns, while certainly rough-and-tumble, weren’t perpetually besieged by the saloon shoot-ups and high-noon draw-downs that Hollywood later projected.
For starters, you could not legally carry a gun in territorial Tombstone. “You could wear your firearm coming into town and leaving, but when you were in town, they had an ordinance that you had to leave your guns at a couple places in town,” Bob Boze Bell says. “The cowboys traditionally left their guns at the Grand Hotel, and they would just go to the bartender and hand him their guns, and he would put them behind the bar. Then when they were ready to leave, they’d put their guns back on and leave.”
It was the no-guns-in-town ordinance that actually triggered the infamous shootout between the Clantons, McLaurys and Wyatt Earp’s group behind the O.K. Corral, when the latter demanded the former surrender their guns. Though there weren’t a lot of killings within Tombstone, and the no-guns ordinance was rightly considered a safety measure, outside the town there were many more killings, and guns were seen as a necessity because of Apaches, cowboy outlaws, stagecoach robbers, and snakes. “[Guns] were almost a requirement. You had to have them if you were traveling on the roads,” says Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s official state historian.
But overall, historians say the reality doesn’t measure up to legend. “It was not as violent as the movies would portray,” Bell says. “There are cowboys who were in Arizona in the 1880s, and they lived well up into the 20th century, and one of them said he never saw a gun pulled in his life.”
But by 1900, the legend of Arizona’s Wild West was forever locked into America’s imagination, partly borne on the boredom of east coasters reading their local papers. “They longed for something exciting in their lives,” Trimble says. “There was no television to watch, and no radio to listen to, so they devoured these stories of the Wild West. And if they weren’t true, they just exaggerated them. It was the golden age of prevarication. And they would even make up stories about fictitious gunfights out here in the West and put them in the papers. You also had the dime novels, and Arizona was rich fodder for dime novel writers. So all of this went together from about the 1880s right on into the beginning of the Western movies in the early 1900s, when they put all this wild, woolly lawlessness on the silver screen.”
One of the reasons Arizona’s Wild West gunslinger image has endured, Bell says, is because “it’s a compelling narrative,” and one that’s been profitable from the beginning. Bill Cody took his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show on the road in 1883, the first and most famous of many traveling troupes that reenacted (and in many cases, fictionalized) gunfights and stage coach robberies. Such shows were much loved and lucrative – within the first two years of Cody’s debut show, an estimated 10 million spectators had seen it worldwide, and it generated $100,000 in profits (roughly the equivalent of $2.7 million today).
Today, there are a number of “Wild West” shows at theme parks around the state, including daily reenactments of the shootout behind the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, live action stunt shows in the Six Gun Theater at Rawhide in the East Valley, and staged gunfights at the Rockin’ R Ranch in Mesa. One could argue that Hollywood’s glamorization of Arizona’s gunslinging past, though largely apocryphal, has become an important part of the state’s identity, and perhaps that’s why we’re loathe to let go of the Wild West reputation – because it makes us special.
In 1910, two years before Arizona became a state, Arizona National Guard rifle team captain Charles Wilfred Harris discovered that his was the only team not competing with an emblem at Camp Perry, Ohio. So Harris designed a blue, gold and red flag with a star in the center and thirteen sun rays emanating from it. In 1917, the rifleman’s design became Arizona’s official state flag.
At Arizona’s 1910 Constitutional Convention, lawmakers narrowly shot down a provision that stated, “The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the state shall not be impaired.” But they also decided the anti-gun ordinances in towns like Tombstone violated the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Arizonans have been freely packing ever since, and fighting federal restrictions all the way.
In 1963, the same year he procured a Gatling gun for Yuma Territorial Prison, U.S. Senator Carl Hayden, an Arizona Democrat who served as sheriff of Maricopa County in territorial times, made national headlines by holding up a Colt .38 revolver at a Senate Commerce Committee meeting and joking, “Who shall I shoot?” The pistol was on a witness table with other confiscated weapons, and Hayden was there with other Arizona leaders to oppose a measure banning the sale of mail-order guns, a reaction to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, whose alleged shooter purchased his rifle via mail-order catalogue. Republican Arizona Governor (and later U.S. Senator) Paul Fannin asked Congress to “not be carried away by the hysteria of our president’s assassination.” The ban passed despite the pleas of pro-gun politicos, including U.S. Representative George Senner, a Democrat from Arizona who stated, “Coming from the West, there is no doubt that Western feelings are strongly embedded in the American tradition of the right to keep and bear arms.”
When Graham County Sheriff Richard Mack challenged a provision of the Brady Bill in 1994 that required local law enforcement to conduct five-day criminal background checks on gun buyers, a U.S. District Judge agreed the requirement violated the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The judge was the late John Roll, among those killed in the 2011 shooting outside a Safeway near Tucson that wounded Democrat congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Roll was reportedly a marksman who encouraged his wife and many of his colleagues to take firearm lessons at Marksman Pistol Institute in Tucson.
In territorial times, people came to Arizona partly to get away from big government – and some still come for that reason, especially firearms enthusiasts who fear federal laws encroaching on their gun rights. In 2010, Governor Jan Brewer allayed some of those fears when she signed the Firearms Freedom Act, which included a provision stating the federal government could not regulate or require registration for guns manufactured in Arizona.
Such legislation makes Arizona’s gun laws among the most lax in the country. Arizona is one of only three states that allows the carrying of a concealed weapon without a permit (the other two are Alaska and Vermont). Purchasing a gun in Arizona is as easy as bringing money to one of the more than 1,600 federally licensed firearms dealers in the state (or one of the nearly hundred gun shows rolling through every year) and passing a mandatory federal criminal background check. That’s it. The entire process takes about 30 minutes. No more questions asked. No registration required. Buy as many boxes of ammo to go with that as you’d like.
Many Arizonans take advantage of these liberal gun laws, a fact we can glean by looking at pre-sale background checks. The FBI reports that from January through September of this year, 232,529 Arizonans underwent background checks to purchase firearms. Per capita, that puts us well ahead of firearm-averse states like California but behind hunting hotbeds like Kentucky, which racked up 1.9 million queries.
Arizonans aren’t just buying guns and ammo; they’re making them, too. Our state is home to a booming gunsmithing and ammunition industry, with north Scottsdale at the epicenter. Just across the sidewalk from Scottsdale Gun Club is US Autoweapons and its massive stock of arms. American Spirit Arms, a local company that manufactures AR-15 rifles, is also nearby. Dillon Aero, which makes miniguns for the Air Force and Army, and its sister-company, Dillon Precision, which manufactures presses for reloading spent bullets, are a few miles down the road. Also in the neighborhood: Guntec USA, which provides tactical accessories for AK-47s, and a Smith & Wesson outpost. There are a handful of other prominent companies throughout the state, such as Phoenix-based, family-owned McMillan Firearms Manufacturing, plus Patriot Ordinance Factory in Glendale and Coharie Arms in Mesa (both of which manufac-
ture semi-automatic rifles), and Sturm, Ruger & Co. in Prescott.
There are also numerous gun clubs, competitive marksmen groups, and places for law enforcement and military training.
“We have lots of guns in Arizona. Just about everyone has guns here,” actor Stephen Keith, who plays Doc Holliday in the reenactments at Tombstone, told CBN News after the Giffords shooting. “We don’t have the kind of gun violence you have in a place like Washington, D.C.” (According to FBI statistics, D.C. – which requires gun owners to register all handguns with the police, submit to background checks, submit fingerprints and photos, take a gun safety course, pass a written test on D.C. gun laws, give police a spent shell from each gun for ballistic fingerprinting, and declare how the weapon will be used and where it will be kept – has the highest rate of robberies with firearms per capita in the nation, and roughly 75 percent of all murders there are committed with firearms.)
The FBI’s most recent report on gun crimes (2010) shows that California – a state which requires permits for handguns and bans “assault weapons” – had a higher number of homicides committed with firearms per capita that year than Arizona, with 1,257. The District of Columbia had the highest per-capita firearm homicide rate, with 16 murders per 100,000 people. Arizona, which reported 232 murders-by-gun, didn’t even make the top 10 for per-capita firearm homicides.
Still, Arizona’s lenient gun laws concern some residents, like Hildy Saizow, president of Arizonans for Gun Safety, who’s repeatedly told media there’s “a Wild West attitude” in Arizona. After the Tucson shooting, AGS issued a statement saying, “Arizona now carries the distinction of having the least restrictive gun laws in the nation... we simply cannot continue down this path of more permissive gun laws.”
Arizona consistently receives low scores for its gun laws from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which gave the state “0” out of 100 points in 2011 for its “weak gun laws that help feed the illegal gun market and allows the sale of guns without background checks,” according to the Brady State Scorecard for Arizona.
But the trajectory doesn’t look to change anytime soon. There’s a powerful gun rights lobby here that enjoys a good amount of political support, some from seemingly unlikely places.
Since the National Rifle Association’s inception in 1871, three Arizonans have served as its president: former Arizona attorney general Bob Corbin, attorney Sandra Froman, and the late Joe Foss, a leading fighter ace in the Marine Corps during World War II.
Over the years, several prominent politicians from Arizona have been photographed holding or shooting guns, including Barry Goldwater, Janet Napolitano, former Arizona State Senator Pamela Gorman, and even Gabrielle Giffords, who had a record of supporting gun rights, including signing a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 calling for the overturn of Washington, D.C. laws prohibiting the possession of handguns in homes. Giffords told the New York Times in 2010, “I have a Glock 9-millimeter, and I’m a pretty good shot.” (Giffords has not made any public statements regarding gun rights since the Safeway shooting.)
Perhaps surprising to some, the Tucson shooting has not resulted in any new state gun control measures, nor has there been an overwhelming public demand for them. In fact, aside from Governor Brewer vetoing bills in April 2011 that would have allowed guns on college campuses and in public facilities not secured by armed guards for being “poorly written” and having “too many loopholes and flaws,” respectively, we went the opposite direction.
Three months after the Safeway tragedy, Brewer designated the Colt Single Action Army revolver our official state gun, making us one of only two states with an official firearm (the other is Utah, which adopted the Browning M1911 pistol a month prior).
“Arizona is one of the best states as far as gun laws are concerned,” former NRA president Bob Corbin has said. “We trust our people out here.”
Bang! Bang! “Yeeeeee-haaaaaaw!”
“Hot Shot” Johnny Tuscadero is on the stage at the Wild West Fest at Sahuaro Ranch Park in Glendale, twirling three-pound revolvers around his head and shooting runaway red balloons with dead-eye precision. Every time he does a trick, he has the audience prepped to scream “yee-haw.”
“That’s how it was in the Wild West. And if it wasn’t, it should have been,” Tuscadero says repeatedly throughout the show.
This festival, one of several local Wild West-themed events throughout the year, is a prime example of Arizona’s enduring gunslinger culture. Everywhere you look, little kids in cowboy costumes are showing off their cowhide chaps and clutching plastic revolvers in holsters.
Tuscadero is an expert in juggling six-shooters and making crowd-pleasing trick shots, but when it comes to jokes, he’s a little off target. On this sweltering Saturday afternoon in mid-October, the hundred or so people crowding the bleachers around the stage include dozens of children, one of whom – a little boy in a black cowboy hat – starts to crawl under the rope that separates the performer from the audience.
“Are you coming under that rope? You better not. I’ll shoot a kid. I don’t care if there’s witnesses. Just kidding,” Tuscadero says. “I do care about witnesses.”
Later, Tuscadero stops the show to “get serious for a minute.”
“Guns are dangerous, even when you’re shooting blanks like I am. Children should not play with guns,” he says. He asks the children in the audience what they should do if they ever find a gun. A blond boy around age 12 answers, “Don’t touch it. Go get an adult.”
Tuscadero applauds the boy’s correct response. Then a little girl raises her hand and says, “You only touch it if it’s not loaded.”
“No, you don’t touch it at all,” Tuscadero says. “You assume every gun is loaded, and you’re not gonna pick it up to check and see if it’s loaded. You just don’t touch it, no matter what. Okay?”
Tuscadero’s sideshow lesson is redolent of what the NRA has been trying to teach children for years through its Eddie the Eagle educational programs: If you find a gun, don’t touch it, and tell an adult. There are several gun safety education programs offered throughout the state; Scottsdale Gun Club conducts a free Family Firearms Safety Course every Wednesday night. The focus is on what children should do if they encounter a firearm. It seems like a logical step – in a state where people are free to carry guns almost anywhere (airports, government buildings, and public facilities with posted no-guns policies being exceptions), the chances are higher that a child will come across one. In Arizona, the odds are also higher that a youth will already be trained in its safety and use.
The competitive junior marksmen divisions in Arizona are among the winningest in the nation. This past July, three Arizona junior rifle shooters – Tyler Rico, Alexandria Provine and Joey Kendrick – were offered appointments to the rifle teams at the Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, and the U.S. Naval Academy, respectively. Tom Kirby, junior division director for the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association (ASRPA), said having three junior teammates appointed to the three military academies is “likely an Arizona and national first.”
Other notable junior marksmen include Zoe Birch, who this year became the first person in Arizona to qualify for both the air rifle and small bore competitions at the Junior Olympics; Alan Rodriguez, who finished 15th out of 2,149 shooters at the 2012 Army Service Championships; and Christine Costello, who graduated from the University of Nebraska on a full scholarship from the Huskers rifle team, and now helps train junior marksmen at Rio Salado Sportsmans Club in Mesa.
The majority of teens in Arizona’s junior marksmen programs – many of which are subsidized by grants from the National Rifle Association – are straight-A students. Some bring their homework to the range. Most of the parents are present at the practices and shoots. At least two Arizona politicians, Pamela Gorman and Susan Bitter-Smith (former vice mayor of Scottsdale), have their children in marksmen programs. Bitter-Smith’s teenage daughter shoots an AR-15, and is a member of the Arizona Women’s Shooting Associates. Gorman’s teenage son, Ryan, also shoots an AR-15 rifle, which Gorman told The Washington Post in 2010 was “just part of an all-around American kid’s experience.”
In addition to the junior marksmen programs, Arizona is a lauded training ground for law enforcement. Several miles south of Anthem, off the rutted Old Carefree Highway, sits Cowtown, an 80-acre enclave populated by bullet-riddled buildings and surrounded by saguaro-studded mountains. Originally constructed as a Western movie set by stuntman Ron Nix in 1973, Cowtown was reborn as a movie set/shooting range/paintball arena after Shooter’s World co-founder Richard Shaw purchased the parcel in 1994.
Since then, numerous military and law enforcement agencies have used the grounds for training exercises, including the US Army Delta Force, Air Force Special Operations, US Navy SEAL teams (including Seal Team Six, which conducted the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden), and the FBI. SWAT team members in full riot gear kicking open saloon doors in a Western ghost town isn’t an anachronistic vision here – it’s everyday reality, a fusion of past and present gun culture that’s hard to imagine anywhere else.
On this sunny Tuesday in October, a film crew from the Military Channel is also in Cowtown, dressing an “Afghan village” for a documentary about special ops weaponry, along with two officers from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department enthusing about the sniper practice platforms, and Ed Roberts, vice president of the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association, who’s scouting potential places for marksmen matches. Retired Marine Corps drill instructor R. Lee Ermey (star of Mail Call and Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket) is a few miles down the road at the Ben Avery Shooting Facility, to compete in the Creedmoor Cup matches.
“Many people don’t realize we’re a major player in defense,” Cowtown manager Steve Simon says. “There are a lot of local companies making weaponry and armor, and a lot of military and special ops training happens here. Up here, it’s not a flat range. Every step is a different elevation. It’s year-round shooting weather out here, and the gun laws are different. That’s how we’re able to have [Cowtown]. When it comes to the laws and the landscapes, Arizona’s a great state for shooters.”
Paul, who works as a military training liaison for Cowtown and asked to be identified by his first name only, says Arizona’s permissive gun laws and open space are the reason he moved here from the Midwest last year. “There are so many places to shoot here,” he says, “and so few restrictions.”
Despite the limited restrictions, there is an effort locally – at least on ranges, at gun clubs, and through local marksmen programs – to encourage responsible gun ownership and use. There are numerous youth education and safety courses (many offered for free). Such measures are one indication that at least some of Arizona’s firearm enthusiasts want to mitigate our reputation as an irresponsibly trigger-happy state.
Paul’s reticence to have his last name used in this story reflects the kind of cautious thinking common among firearm fans, who don’t want to be seen as “gun nuts” or “extremists” and feel that “mainstream media” often portrays them as such.
“A gun is a tool, just like any other tool,” Paul says. “That gun, sitting there like that, isn’t going to hurt anybody,” he continues, pointing to his M4 rifle lying on the ground. “It’s not going to just jump up on its own and start shooting. It’s irresponsible users that kill people.”
Arizona Gun Laws (1880s – present)
1880s: Small frontier towns across the Arizona Territory, including Tombstone, enact gun laws prohibiting the carrying of firearms.
1912: Arizona officially becomes a state, and gun-control ordinances in towns like Tombstone are shot down as Second Amendment violations.
1991: A law banning anyone from carrying guns on school campuses, excepting school-sponsored gun safety classes, goes into effect.
1994: The state begins conducting criminal background checks for handgun purchases. A law is passed allowing the carrying of concealed weapons with a $50 permit.
2000: A law permitting people to carry concealed firearms in public parks is enacted. The law also stipulates that any public buildings that disallow firearms must provide weapon storage. “Shannon’s Law,” named after Shannon Smith, a 14-year-old Phoenician killed by a stray bullet, increases the penalty for random gunfire from a misdemeanor to a felony.
2003: Governor Janet Napolitano signs a bill allowing out-of-state gun owners to carry concealed weapons here with permits from their home states.
2005: Napolitano signs a bill permitting schools to offer an elective “Arizona Gun Safety Program Course.”
2006: Twenty new gun laws are passed, including: elimination of a required two-hour class for concealed weapons permits; recognition of all valid firearm permits issued by other states; and SB 1145, which states citizens have no duty to retreat and may use “physical force or deadly force” when faced with threats of “death or serious physical injury” in their homes or vehicles.
2009: Laws are passed allowing the concealed-carry of weapons in bars and restaurants, as long as the carrier is not drinking alcohol. Establishments that don’t want guns on the property must display a sign stating such. Property owners are prohibited from banning firearms in their parking lots, as long as guns are locked in privately-owned vehicles.
2010: A new law allows Arizona residents 21 and older to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Other laws prohibit any local agency from adopting gun-control ordinances stricter than state law, and mandate that firearms and ammunition manufactured and kept in Arizona are not subject to registration or federal regulation.
2011: Governor Jan Brewer signs a law recognizing the Colt Single Action Army Revolver as Arizona’s official state gun.