Sean Stephenson was born with a rare disease that makes bones brittle and confines him to a wheelchair. He wasn't expected to survive after birth and suffered more than 200 broken bones by age 18.
But he survived — and thrived. He's a therapist, author and motivational speaker from Chicago who challenges crowds to "overcome their excuses, fears and insecurities." He believes strongly in self-responsibility.
Which is why, he says, one of the very first things he did after moving to Arizona in January was buy a gun.
With his purchase, Stephenson became one of many Arizonans who give this Wild West State its reputation as especially gun-friendly.
Arizona was pro-gun since before statehood and has become even more so in the early 21st century. Yet, as we noted in this week's cover story on Arizona's love of guns, about half of the state's residents are relative newcomers, having moved here since 1990.
How did the state retain and even bolster its interest in preserving firearms rights during this period of explosive growth? Heck if we know.
But we'll speculate that many new residents feel the way Stephenson does on the subject.
That is, gung-ho for gun rights.
We'll be frank: It was a surprise to see Stephenson plugging away with his gun when we met him a few weeks ago at a local gun range while reporting the above-mentioned cover story. His condition, osteogenesis imperfecta, limits the use of his limbs and he needs a custom wheelchair for his small frame. True to his personality, he overcomes his challenges while shooting and manages the weapon fairly well, for a beginner. But at first glance, we were fascinating by the visual juxtaposition of this small, seemingly frail man unleashing holy hell on a paper target with his semi-auto.
Stephenson told us in an interview a few days later that he moved here "for the weather, mostly."
But one thing he'd found on previous visits, and another reason he likes living here, is the fact that people, in general, share his conservative views more often than those in the hometown he left behind.
"It's easier to talk openly about people's frustration with big government than it ever was in Chicago," Stephenson says. "The people I meet around town, at coffeehouses — the culture, the conversations are different."
Don't get the impression that Stephenson is a cheerleader for Glenn Beck and Alex Jones. He's more complex than that. He voted against Obama in November, he admits — but voted for him in 2008. He respects former President Bill Clinton, under whom he once worked as an intern. And he's "shared the stage" with the Dalai Lama, a peacenik who himself is an unlikely supporter of shooting in self-defense.
"I worked for both Republicans and Democrats," he says. "I don't look at this as a party issue. It bothers me when people try to make it that."
Still, the glowing way he talks about the gun culture of Arizona would probably make some left-wingers want to run for cover.
In Chicago, well known for its numerous restrictions on firearms, he occasionally thought about guns, and he's long held the view that people have a right to own and carry them. Once in Arizona, he immersed himself in local gun culture.
He and his wife, having lived "off and on" in the state for about a year and a half, bought a home in north Phoenix and became official residents on January 2, he says. The same day, bought his handgun and began training at the Scottsdale Gun Club's range. He now shoots once or twice a week.
"When you are socially programmed that guns are bad, and then you get to a place where it's more open, your whole psyche changes... It was extremely comforting and relieving. It's an issue that has become quickly very important to me."
The idea of self-reliance is what he likes best about guns and the right to wield them.
"I do not take federal money for being disabled. I don't expect someone to come into my life and save me," he says.
Stephenson dismisses statistics (disputed, as are many statistics in the ceaseless debate on firearms in America) that show the odds are better that gun owners would use their weapons to commit suicide or accidentally shoot themselves or a family member than shoot an attacker.
"Statistics went out the window at birth with me," he says. "You'd have to argue why the hell am I still here."
Guns shouldn't get the blame in mass-murders like the ones in Tucson and Newtown, Connecticut, he maintains — it's a mental-health problem. He believes that's obvious because most mass murderers are young men, and almost never women. Society needs to address the mental-health issue rather than make changes to firearms laws, which won't be effective, he says, because "since when do criminals follow laws?"
He'd like to hear more talk about how to address the problems faced by the many kids he's seen in the schools at which he's given speeches. He wants more attention paid to the ways children can avoid bullying, build self-esteem and better manage their emotions.
Address the issue in any number of ways.
But don't mess with this Arizonan's right to own guns.
Got a tip? Email Ray Stern