Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images
Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images
Texas state Rep. Wayne Christian was born two blocks from where he now lives in what is called Deep East Texas.
"We were not wealthy people, [we were] common laborers, but that was typical in rural East Texas at that time," he says.
When he was growing up, Christian says, by first or second grade, an East Texas boy would accompany his father or grandfather on a hunting trip. But before a boy got a gun, he had to learn how to act — how to address the other men respectfully, to watch how it worked.
In these rituals of the woods, you saw and were seen. If you did well, someone might suggest that on the next hunt, you be awarded a rifle. And on the drive home with your dad, you'd get a loving smile and a clap on the back. Christian says words needed not be exchanged and often weren't.
Courtesy of Rachel Campbell
Rick Campbell, a Texas judge and gun owner.
Rick Campbell, a Texas judge and gun owner. Courtesy of Rachel Campbell
"I remember my dad and my grandad, my dad mostly. I think it was deer hunting that we first started going to, and I'd go with them and just sit with Dad and watch what was going on," Christian says. "And then when they finally put you by yourself in a stand, that was quite a time of growing up. And I was probably small enough that I was really kind of scared."
The Piney Woods of East Texas is more Deep South than Wild West. But regardless of the geography, these hunting traditions, rooted in rural culture, have been passed down through many generations. And the emotional content of the associated memories is very much tied up with the guns themselves.
A Changing Landscape
"My grandfather, every time he got a chance to buy river bottomland, he bought river bottomland and he accumulated over 4,000 acres of land and had 14 1/2 contiguous miles of the river," says Shelby County Judge Rick Campbell, 52.
East Texas has changed in Campbell's lifetime. Quite simply, what used to be vast tracks of empty land has filled up with people. The wilds where hunters once roamed now sport tract housing and double wides. It's a big reason gun ownership is declining in America — down 40 percent since 1977.
But here on Campbell's big farm is a little piece of what once was. And like many of his peers who came of age in the '70s and '80s, Campbell saw no reason for his daughters to be excluded from the rituals he grew up with.
"I guess when Brook was about 9 years old ... I had killed my first deer when I was 8, so she was sitting in my lap and a little buck walked out at about 400 yards, and she said, 'Dad, I can take him!' I said, 'Let's try to get him a little closer.' And sure enough, the buck ends up about a hundred yards out and she's sitting in my lap," Campbell says.
"She gets the .270 deer rifle up against her shoulder. She said, 'Dad, you want me to shoot him in the neck?' And I said, 'That's right, right in the neck.' Two seconds later, she dropped that deer, a little six-point."
Standing on the very ground where the story took place, Campbell tries but cannot keep the pride from his face.
"I gave her that knife and I said, 'Now here's where you cut.' And I put the blood on her, and she had to take a finger and taste it and had to wear it for three days, and I cut her shirt tail — the same experience I experienced with my dad that he taught me," he says.
Safe, But Vigilant
Texas was once the center of the movement to safeguard gun rights. Today, nearly every fight has been won in the state, and indeed around the country.
While gun owners in East Texas appreciate their rights, many remain wary.
How does Judge Campbell feel about the general state of gun ownership in America and Texas?
"I feel good about it. I think the Second Amendment right and the First Amendment right ... I think they're equally important," he says.
Campbell's colleague Wayne Christian feels the same.
"Well, of course in Texas I feel very satisfied, very good. I think Texas is protected. But of course the national leadership in Washington, in the Obama administration, is a great threat," he says.
For gun owners like Christian and Campbell, the election of President Obama four years ago was literally a call to arms. Gun shops across the South enjoyed a rush of customers buying weapons and ammunition of every type. Although Obama has not made gun control a campaign issue, Christian doesn't trust the administration.
"Because of their friendship with the United Nations, with the worldwide treaties, with weapons control and ammunition control and taxation of ammunition ... to have a president and administration that you start hearing that they're even negotiating in those types of things are great concern to those of us who believe in our freedom," Christian says.
Both Christian and Campbell believe the administration is using the United Nations as a back-door channel to restrict American gun rights through proposed small arms treaties.
"This is all part of this attitude that Washington, our administration, is now bringing to the front. Inside the United States, we're talking, hearing taxation [is] fees and regulations that can be put on the sale of ammunition. They can't control the guns, so they're going after the bullets," Christian says.
It would be difficult to overstate the level of distrust East Texas gun owners have for the Obama administration. Campbell doesn't trust the president, either, but even he is taken aback sometimes.
"I have friends who don't order two or three boxes of shells — they order them by the thousands. And it's like, 'What are you getting ready for?' " Campbell says.
Although Campbell isn't preparing for a possible invasion by U.N. troops, he shares the sentiments about the president.
"He's done these things with the health bill. He will do these things with the U.N. treaties to take our guns away from us," Campbell says.
At his farmhouse, Campbell goes to his gun safe.
"It will hold about 40 guns, and I've got about 25 in there. But I've got some really neat guns," Campbell says. "I've got my grandfather's .22. I have an STW. I have an AR-15. I have a Smith & Wesson .22-250."
Some of the rifles are for deer. Campbell has many beautiful shotguns because he is an avid duck hunter. He uses the AR-15, which is essentially the military's M16, to hunt feral hogs. We go out back, and the judge lets fly with the semiautomatic.
"I've got a night vision scope on it. And the hogs only come out at 2 o'clock in the morning. There are certain spots they come out at. I drive up very quietly. I'm normally only 200 yards out, and I turn on my little trusty night vision scope and I smoke 'em. All of 'em," Campbell says. "I can shoot 30 shots in eight seconds, and I've killed as many as 26 out of 30 shots at night with that gun."
As for any willingness to compromise on something like limiting the size of ammunition clips, Campbell says if Democrats could be trusted not to ask for more and more, he'd consider it. But he says you can't trust Democrats in general, and you certainly can't trust Obama. And he says liberals mistake gun owners' enmity toward the president for something it's not.
"It's not a black thing, it's a liberal thing," Campbell says.
As for the mass murders that take place in this country seemingly like clockwork, what is a ridiculous cliche to many urban Americans is bedrock truth here in East Texas: "Guns don't kill people — people kill people." And, the thinking goes, if there were more law-abiding Americans carrying concealed handguns, the psycho murderers could be shot before they did more damage.
If you need convincing, Christian and Campbell can tell you stories until the cows come home about how the bad guys got stopped in their tracks. The NRA shares these tales of successful self-defense with their membership like sweet candy. There's no disputing its organizational success. The push for gun control in this country is deader than Campbell's hogs.