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Debate looks different from behind a Wichita area gun shop counter

Editor’s Note: This is one of 14 different perspectives The Journal is reporting on the topic of guns and public safety in Kansas. Click here to find more.

For licensed business owners who make a living in the firearms trade, news coverage involving shootings has an exasperating sameness about it: blaming guns and not the person pulling the trigger. Overwhelming numbers of gun owners use the guns safely and lawfully, they say, something that’s apparently not newsworthy.

When gun violence flares in America, the journalistic coverage typically features calls for fewer firearms from gun-control advocates while Second Amendment defenders say the real solution – and true safety – is more guns.

That debate resonates with gun buyers, say two men who sell firearms in Wichita. “We have a lot of buyers come in and say, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t want to lose those rights,’” says Ken Grommet, owner of Range 54, a gun shop and indoor range on the city’s east side. “People start fearing they’re going to take our guns away. We see that knee-jerk reaction.”

Just down the street at another gun retailer, The Wichita Gun Club, general manager Ryan Ballard sees the same thing, but not necessarily for the same reason.

“The interesting part is it’s not just the people panic buying, thinking things are going to get banned,” Ballard said. “We’ve seen a very large increase in the number of people coming in looking for personal defense firearms and asking about concealed carry (laws) and looking for firearms to carry concealed.”

Grommet and Ballard both identify strongly as gun rights advocates, although their backgrounds differ. Grommet, who’s also a retired Derby police officer, has carried a firearm professionally for 33 years as a police officer and for three years as a Marine before that. He hunts and target shoots. Ballard bought his first rifle at age 21 and took up hunting, then developed an overall interest in firearms, something nobody else in his family particularly shared. “A lot of it is just the history that goes along with some of it,” Ballard, now 31, says. Working at The Wichita Gun Club “is a chance to have a job in, like, my hobby.”

Neither man believes gun rights advocates get a fair shake from what some call the “mainstream media” – that is, general circulation newspapers and magazines, network television stations and a portion of cable TV news outlets. However, their views are more nuanced than some people might guess.

Grommet, for instance, notes that in what might be called popular media – video games, movies and TV shows – guns often play a huge role, yet are portrayed “not poorly.” But in news coverage of real-life violence involving guns, he says, “It seems to always be the gun’s fault, and not the person wielding it.”

Ballard says calls for gun control in the wake of mass shootings and other violence miss the point that the vast majority of people use them lawfully.

“I would say that we in the industry for the most part feel like we get a bad image from just a couple of bad apples. We’re always told not to judge other people by the actions of a few. We in the gun community feel that we don’t get the same treatment. It’s one person did something bad with a particular firearm, so then all firearms and the people that own them are bad and get treated unfairly.”

Marc Murphy, owner of Michael Murphy & Sons of Augusta, which is known for its top-of the-line clay target shooting guns, said his business is little affected by media coverage of firearms. But as someone who caters to gun fanciers around the world, he thinks the media overlook something that – for lack of a better phrase – makes America great.

“Most other countries have more restrictive laws. In England, to own a gun or hunt, it’s a rich man’s sport. Not over here. I think it’s awesome.”

Grommet and Ballard do think anybody who owns a firearm should undergo training – although they stop short of saying it should be mandatory. In their view, the Second Amendment (which states, in its entirety: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”) clearly entitles Americans to bear arms. That’s something gun control advocates ignore, Grommet says.

“The Second Amendment is not about protecting us from individuals; it’s about protecting us from a tyrannical government,” Grommet says. “It could be argued that ‘a well regulated militia’ could mean ‘trained,’ but (U.S. Supreme Court justices) haven’t broken it down to that yet.”

Despite his reading of the Second Amendment, Grommet clearly feels that more guns, in the right hands, make society safer. He’s gone to the Legislature to argue for arming teachers in schools.

“We do a better job in the state of Kansas of protecting property than kids. For example, if you drive by the (Wichita) East High football field, or go to (Wichita) South High or Derby, they’re all fenced in.” Armed teachers might not stop every shooter bent on violence but, “it is another layer of security. We defeat criminals through layers.”

His store offers discounts to high school students participating in clay target shooting, which he described as an up-and-coming sport in Kansas. “We want to help grow that.”

Despite their dissatisfaction with how firearms and the people who own them are sometimes portrayed, neither Grommet nor Ballard expects a serious move to curtail gun rights in Kansas to pop up any time soon. The political climate regarding firearms might be gauged from Kansas being one of only eight states that allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Or from the fact that Ballard sees more and more husbands bringing in their wives to buy them firearms – “almost like getting fit for a nice pair of shoes.”

“Being in Kansas, we’re pretty lucky that we are a very gun- and firearm-friendly state. And not just target shooting and hunting,” Ballard says. “They enacted the permitless conceal and carry (law), and it’s gotten more people into firearms and carrying for personal defense. That’s what makes our state and our firearms community so strong.”

But if such a move does take place, Grommet says, he’ll welcome the debate.

“I enjoy sitting down and having conversations, as long as we have a conversation and not a shouting match. As long as it’s going to be civil.”

Murphy will entertain, at least theoretically, the idea of a gun control measure that stops mass shootings. “If you came to me and said to me that school shootings would stop if we’d do this one thing, I’d say have at it.”

But the reality, he says, is “it wouldn’t matter at all. If (a criminal) wants to do mischief, they’re going to do it.”

A version of this article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit https://www.amazon.com/Journal-Kansas-Civic-Leadership-Development/dp/B00DHU4X44/.

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