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Listen to the political discourse this election year and you'll hear about jobs, the economy, the deficit, health care. But there's one word you're not likely to hear: guns. Even after two mass shootings this summer, talk of gun control is almost nonexistent. Still, gun rights advocates are as engaged as ever, especially in Texas.
NPR's Wade Goodwyn met up with two leading gun rights advocates there to find out what's on their minds.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Texas House Representative Wayne Christian was born two blocks from where he now lives in what is called Deep East Texas.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE WAYNE CHRISTIAN: We were not wealthy people, common laborers. But that was typical in rural East Texas at that time.
GOODWYN: Christianity says that when he was growing up, by first or second grade, an East Texas boy would accompany his father or grandfather on a hunting trip. But before he 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, somebody 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 need not be exchanged and often weren't.
CHRISTIAN: I remember my dad and my granddad, 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. And then finally, when they 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.
GOODWYN: 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.
Fifty-two -year-old Rick Campbell is the Shelby County judge.
JUDGE RICK CAMPBELL: We're at Ashton Hill. My grandfather, every time he got a chance to buy river bottomland, he bought river bottomland. He accumulated over 4,000 acres of land and had 14 and a half contiguous miles of the river.
GOODWYN: East Texas has changed in Rick Campbell's lifetime. Quite simply, what used to be vast tracks of empty land has filled up with people. It's a big reason gun ownership is declining in America, down 40 percent since 1977. The wilds where hunters once roamed now sport track housing and doublewides.
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.
CAMPBELL: I guess when Brook was about nine years old, I had killed my first deer when I was eight, 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, well, 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, and she gets the .270 deer rifle up against her shoulder. And 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.
GOODWYN: Standing on the very ground where the story took place, Campbell tries but cannot keep the pride from his face.
CAMPBELL: 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. The same experience I experienced with my dad that he taught me.
GOODWYN: When asked how he feels about the general state of gun ownership in America and in Texas, Judge Campbell says this...
CAMPBELL: I feel good about it. I think the Second Amendment right and the First Amendment right, I think they're equally as important.
GOODWYN: And Campbell's colleague Wayne Christian feels the same.
CHRISTIAN: Well, of course, in Texas, I feel very satisfied, very good. I think Texas is protected. But, of course, the national leadership in Washington, the Obama administration, is a great threat.
GOODWYN: Although President Obama has never made gun control a issue as a candidate or president, Christian nevertheless doesn't trust the administration.
CHRISTIAN: Because of their friendship with the United Nations, with the worldwide treaties, with weapons control, with ammunition control and taxation of ammunition, to have a president and administration that you start hearing even them negotiating on these type things, are great concern to those of us who believe in our freedom.
GOODWYN: 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.
CHRISTIAN: Inside the United States, we're talking, hearing taxation, or fees and regulations that can be put on the sale of ammunition. You know, they can't control the guns, so they're going after the bullets.
GOODWYN: The treaty Christian is referring to was designed to keep arms away from African warlords and was actually opposed by the American government. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to overstate the level of distrust East Texas gun owners have for the Obama administration. Judge Rick Campbell doesn't trust the president, either. But even he is taken aback sometimes.
CAMPBELL: I have friends who just 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?
GOODWYN: Although Campbell isn't preparing for a possible invasion of U.N. troops, he shares the sentiments about the president.
CAMPBELL: He's done these things with the health bill. He will do the things with the U.N. treaties to take our guns away from us.
GOODWYN: At his farmhouse, Campbell goes to his gun safe.
CAMPBELL: It'll hold about 40 guns. And I've got about 25 in there. But I've got some really neat guns. I've got my grandfather's .22. I have an STW. I have an AR-15, a Smith & Wesson .22-250.
GOODWYN: Some of the rifles are for deer. Campbell has got many beautiful shotguns because he is an avid duck hunter. The AR-15, which is essentially the military's M16, Campbell uses to hunt feral hogs. We go out back and the judge lets fly with the semiautomatic.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
CAMPBELL: I've got a night vision scope on it. The hogs only come out at 2:00 in the morning and I turn on my little, trusty night vision scope and I smoke them.
CAMPBELL: All of them. But 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.
GOODWYN: As for any willingness to compromise on something like limiting the size of ammunition clips, Campbell says if he could trust the Democrats not to ask for more and more, he'd consider it. But he says he can't trust Democrats in general, and he certainly can't trust President Obama. And he says liberals mistake gun owners' distrust of the president for something it's not.
CAMPBELL: It's not a black thing, it's a liberal thing.
GOODWYN: 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, if there were more law-abiding Americans carrying concealed handguns, the psycho murderers could be shot before they did even 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.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
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