Bright, florescent orange discs, about six inches in diameter, float like Frisbees 20 feet above the ground until Don Krietemeyer and his friends fire their shotguns and the clay saucers crumble to the ground.
The gunshots echo around the landscape and small orange bits litter the clearing where the Effingham County Sportsmans' Club has its skeet shooting course. Krietemeyer and his friends actually seem to enjoy it more when they miss because that’s when the friendly ribbing can begin.
After shooting, Krietemeyer leads the group to a little shed explaining, “We got a wood stove in here. We can stay here and stay pretty warm.”
Effingham is a town of 12,000 people, about three hours south of Chicago, and when it comes to gun violence and proposals to ban guns, you hear a common refrain here that Krietemeyer echos: “It wasn’t the gun it was the guy behind it.”
That’s a variation of the “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people” cliché that can sound a little flippant when we’re talking about kids dying, but it’s a saying that’s rooted deeply in the experience of people here.
Fact one: It’s hard to find people in Effingham who don’t own guns.
“If I was betting I would guess, out of every hundred houses I’d say probably 90 to 94 of 'em have a gun in the house,” said Krietemeyer.
Fact two: Despite the high level of gun ownership, there aren’t problems with gun violence in Effingham - it’s the reason people here are adamant that gun violence is about something besides guns. But that doesn’t mean these gun owners don’t back some of the so-called “common sense” gun laws.
I talked to dozens and dozens of gun owners in Effingham. I did run into a couple of rabidly pro-gun people who just wanted to go on a little tirade on my microphone and then walk away. But among the gun owners who were willing to discuss the issue, without exception, every one supports thorough background checks.
And everyone I asked agreed with Chicago’s police superintendent that there should be a law requiring people to report lost or stolen guns.
“I don’t understand why anybody who has a gun that was stolen would not report it unless they themselves are part of the criminal element,” said Clarence Funneman. Funneman is one of the gun owners I met who makes me think the divide might not be so great between Chicagoans and gun owners in rural parts of the state when it comes to gun laws—at least some gun laws. But when it comes to banning assault rifles?
Well, that gets tricky. Many of the thoughtful gun owners I talked to oppose an assault weapons ban. I asked Funneman to explain because he’s a bit of an expert. He and his wife Lydia own a gun store, Funneman Frontier Arms. The store itself is a simple shed they built beside their house out in the country.
“I have a 16 by 32 building. As you can see it’s packed full,” said Funneman on the day I visited. There are dozens of rifles leaning against the wall behind the counter, rifles leaning against the back of the counter, rifles on the counter, a few clusters leaning against the front of the counter.
Funneman says he and most of his customers oppose a ban on assault rifles and high capacity magazines. He says people who think common sense requires a ban on assault weapons are simply ignorant about guns and they don’t actually know what they’re talking about.
“They are saying assault style, what looks like an assault rifle is an assault rifle. That’s not true. It’s just, it’s not an assault rifle,” said Funneman. For Funneman, the important distinction is between automatic and semi-automatic firearms.
A fully automatic firearm is one where you hold down the trigger and bullets keep coming out until you release the trigger or you’re out of bullets, and those guns are already banned by federal law. Semi-automatic rifles on the other hand are very common. They automatically reload another bullet into the chamber but they require you to pull the trigger for each bullet. Funneman picks up a very average-looking rifle from behind him.
“This is a semi-automatic 22 that holds just as many as what a assault-style rifle would hold,” he said. He picks up another rifle but it’s green and has a rectangular opening on top for a magazine.
“This is what they used in World War II. Load it from the top. They had bandoliers with 8-round magazines. These people that shot these were just as efficient as what people who have AR-15’s are now,” said Funneman. Funneman says the label ‘assault rifle’ sounds bad and they look intimidating but they aren’t that different from other rifles.
So he says you could ban them, but that wouldn’t be an effective way to tamp down gun violence because there are lots of other semi-automatic rifles that could be just as deadly as an assault rifle. And for many gun rights advocates, banning any gun is a slippery slope. It’s an argument I hear from a lot of people at Neimerg’s, a popular and moderately priced restaurant/coffee shop/bakery/bar where Ray Foster and his wife just had dinner.
“I think it’s all garbage,” said Foster. "They just wanting to take our guns away from us completely 'cause they’ll start with the AR-15’s, and then they’re going to go for the pistols that hold more than seven rounds and then eventually they’ll have all our guns.”
That can sound like an overly conspiratorial viewpoint unless you think, like many do, that the line dividing assault rifles from other rifles is not so clear. But assault rifles are expensive, so a number of gun owners here are somewhat indifferent on an assault rifle ban because they wouldn’t be affected anyway.
Not so for Brandon Hutchens and Tyler Conner. The two men in their early 20s sit chatting after dinner. They both own AR-15’s, assault rifles. Conner got his as a Christmas present from his parents his sophomore year of high school. He says he uses it for target practice and hunting coyotes (pronounced down here ky-oats).
“It’s reliable. It’s easy. You don’t have to clean it all the time and it’s just an easy gun to have. I’ve had mine for six years now and shot several thousand rounds of ammunition through it and it’s never hung up one time,” said Conner. Conner’s friend Brandon Hutchens says in the wake of a tragedy like the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in December people want solutions.
“Everybody’s looking to find something easy to point finger at,” he said. Hutchens says proposing gun laws is easy and it makes lawmakers look good and it makes some of the public feel good, but he thinks those laws won’t be effective. He says lawmakers aren’t proposing solutions that will seriously help because those solutions – like strengthening families and schools, or addressing a culture of violence – those issues are complicated compared to simply focusing on a few new gun laws.
A lot of other people I talk to mention these persistent social issues, people like Bill Hartrich.
“I think anybody should have whatever they want. We’re looking at the wrong thing. We need to be talking about violence in movies, violence videos, and mental health.”
A lot of gun owners and gun rights supporters down in Effingham think that rather than banning certain guns, the government should be banning violent video games. But that of course would be an infringement of the constitutional right to free speech, and Americans tend to be very protective of their constitutional rights.