'Til Death Do Us Part: Arizona's Dangerous Love Affair with Guns

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The fatal shooting of a lawyer and a businessman on January 30 just outside a Central Phoenix office building would have been bigger news on any other day.

But it happened to occur at the exact time that Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona Congresswoman and mass-shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords, gave testimony in Washington, D.C., during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence.

Viewers already struggling with memories of the January 8, 2011, massacre in Tucson, where six died and 13 were wounded in a hail of bullets, suddenly had another reason to view Arizona as gun-crazy.


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The timing of the fresh murders only seemed to emphasize the point of gun-control advocates at the hearing, which itself was a reaction to the classroom bloodbath on December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster AR-15 to slay 20 little kids and six adults.

Attorney Mark Hummels, who died two days after the Phoenix shooting, was a likable, well-known lawyer in town. (New Times mentioned him in a December blog post for his defending Cox Communications against a lawsuit by Joel Fox, the scandal-plagued former Maricopa County Sheriff's Office captain.)

The businessman, Steve Singer, was CEO of Scottsdale-based Fusion Contact Centers. The shooter, Arthur Harmon, had been involved in a legal dispute with Singer, angry over payment for contract work he'd done for the company. A day after gunning down the two men and wounding a bystander, Harmon was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Mesa.

There was a 100 percent chance that gun violence would occur somewhere in the nation during the hearing. The United States recorded 8,583 firearm murders in 2011, most recent FBI statistics show. That's an average of about one per hour.

Murders with firearms are slightly more common in Arizona than in other states, though the state still doesn't crack the top 10. In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the state ranked 13th in firearm murders per capita. Phoenix, the sixth-largest city in the country, has a murder about every third day. But most murders and shooting incidents don't involve people like Hummels and Singer — as in other cities, murderers and their victims tend to come from lower economic classes.

Before Kelly announced the news of the shooting to U.S. senators and millions of TV viewers, Giffords spoke to the panel briefly in a halting voice, with obvious effort. Giffords beat the odds by surviving the bullet that passed through her head, but she was left blind in one eye and paralyzed in her right arm, and she suffers motor and speech impairments from her brain injury.

"Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important," she said. "Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you."

After the Newtown horror, Kelly and Giffords formed an activist group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, which they hope will raise millions of dollars to wage battle with the well-funded National Rifle Association. They haven't been specific about the type of new laws and equipment restrictions they support and didn't return calls for this article.

But a poll on the ARS website suggests that their issues dovetail with those raised and presented to President Barack Obama following meetings of a task force led by Vice President Joe Biden. The issues include the potential banning of "assault weapons" and gun magazines that have a "high capacity," as well as requiring background checks for buyers in private sales of weapons.

Later in the hearing, Kelly was asked by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) whether "better" background checks would make Arizona and the nation safer.

"Absolutely, Senator," the retired astronaut replied. Then, with a twinge of excitement, he relayed the news that "while we were having this hearing . . . in Phoenix, Arizona, there is another what seems to be possibly a shooting with multiple victims."

The interruption by Kelly became its own story that day, with national news outlets and blogs noting the coincidence.

"Gabby Giffords' hearing today interrupted with news of mass shooting in Phoenix," reads a headline from a post in the Daily Kos blog.

"Irony alert," begins a headline on a story by Matt Wilstein of Mediaite.com.

But it wasn't really ironic.

It also wasn't ironic that Kelly and Giffords, who overnight became the country's two most famous gun-control advocates, are honest enough to admit that they both own guns. Giffords, as was widely reported before she was shot, owns a semi-automatic Glock similar to the one used by her assailant.

Such things are what the country has come to expect from the Wild West state of Arizona.

Guns are an American tradition, and the United States has, by far, the highest per-capita gun ownership on Earth — about nine guns for every 10 people. The country with the second-highest rate is Yemen, which has about 5.5 guns for every 10 people.

In Arizona, the last territory to gain statehood in the lower 48, guns rule.

It's a place where the NRA can breathe easy, where people's rights regarding guns and self-defense are unimaginable to most around the world.

The idea that "we must do something" in the wake of a particularly violent shooting has a different meaning in Arizona. As other states enact bans on semi-automatic rifles or large-capacity magazines, the Arizona Legislature has responded by proposing more rights for gun lovers.

Following the 2011 Tucson massacre, for example, lawmakers introduced several pro-gun bills. One that would have allowed people to carry guns on school campuses (most of which restrict the practice) passed the state House and Senate. It famously was vetoed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer, typically a friend of gun-rights advocates. Brewer did, however, sign into law several other pro-gun bills, including one (in the wake of Loughner) that set up an appeal process to help people with a history of mental illness restore their right to own firearms.

Bills that attempt to tighten rules about where Arizonans can carry guns or use them rarely go anywhere.

The reason is a well-funded lobbying force and, undeniably, the will of the majority of Arizonans. The state has had strong pro-gun sentiments since before statehood, and a large number of the people who moved here during the years of explosive growth have shared these sentiments. The phenomenon has meant that even though nearly half of the residents of the Phoenix area haven't lived here for longer than about 20 or 25 years, the gun culture is stronger than ever.

Of course, not everyone in the state embraces the love affair with guns. Even in the state's earliest days, some Arizonans were repulsed by the idea that they or anyone else should possess such rights — because of the steep price paid in blood.

But whether you like it or not, if you're in Arizona, you've entered the land of the gun. We even have an official state gun: the Colt Single Action Army revolver.

You're an adult with no felony record? Your state government trusts you to carry concealed weapons. Fit as many as you can hide under your coat.

Pack heat in a bar? As long as you're not drinking and you're one of Arizona's 182,000 concealed-carry permit holders, your state government approves.

Drive around with a fully loaded arsenal? Sure, registration isn't required in AZ.

Walk into a gun store with a credit card, walk out with an AK-47 and 10,000 bullets. (If you can find them, that is — recent talk of gun control has spurred a run on bullets and firearms that has emptied store shelves in Arizona and some other states.)

Even silencers and fully automatic machine guns are okay here, with a federal permit: As of last year, Arizona became one of two states to let hunters use silencers.

This is a right-to-shoot state — and a right-to-get-shot state.

Arizona has one of the strongest "castle doctrine" laws in the nation, but the right to defend yourself applies everywhere, not just in the castle. Not only can Arizonans shoot to kill to protect themselves or other innocents, they legally can unleash bullets to stop people from committing crimes like child molestation or arson of an occupied building.

As demonstrated by the interruption at the U.S. Senate gun-control hearing — and, indeed, the very presence there of Kelly and Giffords — Arizona is foremost in the national consciousness when it comes to guns. The rest of the country sees Arizona as the living Wild West, and it's not much of an exaggeration. Take your shooting supplies out to Arizona's undeveloped tracts of land and fire away. No one legally can hassle you (unless you disrespect the ecosystem by leaving targets and shells strewn about or shoot something you're not supposed to, like a protected saguaro cactus or a mountain biker).

"I think there's a romance with the gun out here," says Thomas Mangan, spokesman for the Arizona division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. "It is the West, and the West was won by the gun."

Clear weather, wide-open spaces, the high number of servicemen and women here because of the state's several military bases, and the influx of retired veterans and gun enthusiasts from around the country are some of the factors that have helped keep the gun culture thriving in Arizona, Mangan says.

Though the state's reputation as firearms-friendly is deserved, statistics show that Arizona may not have a particularly high level of gun ownership.

A December report compiled by the Daily Beast news website attempts to gauge each state's gun ownership by tallying the number of federal background checks per capita performed during the previous year.

By that measure, Arizona ranked 39th in 2011 — up from 41st a year earlier.

If there really are fewer guns per person in Arizona, they seem to be used more than those in other states.

Gun deaths in Arizona are higher per capita than in most other states.

The state's murder rate also is on the high side, comparatively: 6.4 murders per 100,000 people in 2010, above the national average of 4.8 that year.

Though this may be cause for alarm, there's one other important stat to consider. Overall, violent crime in the state is near a 20-year low. The mysterious national decline in crime over the past two decades — occurring as Americans bought more guns than ever — has been even more acute in Phoenix and Tucson.

It's not the number of guns in Arizona or even our anything-goes gun laws that make us the most permissive gun state in the country.

It's our attitude.

Here in Arizona, we love our guns — even when they're the death of us.

Guns didn't just win the West — they won the United States. When the Founding Fathers created the Bill of Rights, the issue of guns was the second-biggest thing on their minds.

In the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a handgun ban in the nation's capital (Washington D.C. v. Heller), justices wrote that Englishmen in the mid-17th century, having seen kings use loyal militias to suppress political dissidents, fought for gun rights. They were "extremely wary of concentrated military forces run by the state" and were jealous of the militias' firepower, the ruling says. When the Crown began to disarm colonists in what was to become the United States, people had a "polemic" reaction that led to a strong belief in the right of the individual to own and use guns.

The Second Amendment states: "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."

The 2007 Supreme Court decision, celebrated by gun-rights advocates, hinged on the idea that the right to keep and bear arms was not dependent on any organized militia.

"The prefatory clause does not suggest that preserving the militia was the only reason Americans valued the ancient right; most undoubtedly thought it even more important for self-defense and hunting," the majority wrote.

Following the war with Mexico, a brutal campaign was waged against Indians in the new territory of Arizona. "Atrocity bred atrocity as the body count on both sides climbed into the hundreds," writes Thomas E. Sheridan in the 2012 book Arizona: A History.

The war, waged by settlers and the Army, continued through the 1870s and '80s. Arizona was "really a dangerous place," state historian Marshall Trimble tells New Times.

"Everybody knew somebody who had been killed by the Apache," he says. "Then there were the 'border bandits,' who would kill you just to get the boots you were wearing. The more heavily armed you were, the better."

When more Arizona towns sprang up, boosters wanted them perceived as peaceable places, to draw in business. That led to town ordinances prohibiting the carrying of firearms, like the one in Tombstone that led to the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral.

Yet when Arizona leaders sat down in 1910 to draft the state's first constitution, most had no interest in curbing gun rights. They chose to copy the Washington state Constitution's exact language on the matter, as former Arizona resident and North Dakota attorney Jerod Tufte (now a staffer for Republican North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple) notes in a 2001 article on Arizona gun laws published in the Arizona State Law Journal.

The text that became Article II, section 26 of the Arizona Constitution reads: "The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself, or the state, shall not be impaired, but nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing individuals or corporations to organize, maintain, or employ an armed body of men."

But a minority of Arizonans at the convention didn't want to allow unfettered gun rights. Contradicting part of the popular image of the Wild West, a delegate named Baker moved to strike the pro-gun text completely, Tufte writes.

"I never, in all my life, found it necessary to carry a six-shooter, and I have passed through nearly all the scenes and experiences of this wild and unsettled country," Baker is quoted as having said. "I have seen lives lost and innocent blood spilled just through the carrying of arms — concealed weapons — under one's coat or shirt. It is most dangerous and vile, a practice that should never be permitted except in times of war and never in time of peace."

No record of a vote on that motion was recorded, but two votes were taken later that evening on separate motions that tried to put limits on Arizona's gun rights. One specifically would have called on lawmakers to regulate gun rights, while another wished to give lawmakers the right to "regulate the wearing of weapons to prevent crime." Both motions failed.

Meanwhile, in January 1911, two months after Arizona approved its constitution, New Mexico adopted a constitution that granted state gun rights but specifically stated that concealed weapons were not one of them. Because Arizonans were familiar with the debate over concealed weapons in their neighboring state, Tufte writes, the intentional exclusion of similar language in the Arizona Constitution is telling.

In other words, most Arizona pioneers were what today would be called gun nuts.

Arizona began as a gun-friendly state but fell head over heels in love with firearms by the mid-1990s.

In the '70s and '80s, as Phoenix and its surroundings grew from a big small town into one of America's largest urban centers, it wasn't uncommon to see people taking advantage of the state's open-carry law by wearing a holstered gun in public. The sight has become less common now that nearly anyone can carry concealed weapons.

Many people have been involved in turning Arizona into a state consistently rated by gun-control groups as having the "worst" gun laws.

Tucson's Todd Rathner is a key activist against gun control here. He's the lobbyist for the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association, the NRA's official Arizona affiliate. He moved to Arizona from New York in 1993 and began to work with local advocates to tackle what he called "stupid gun-control laws being proposed in the Legislature."

He recalls today that he told people, "We have to go on offense. Why are we on defense all the time here?"

The strategy isn't always dependent on actually passing new laws. The idea is to keep the "anti-gun" crowd on the ropes, forcing them to expend most of their energy fighting pro-gun or pro-self-defense bills. If a major proposal, like the 2011 guns-on-campus bill that Jan Brewer vetoed, draws significant opposition, the pro-gun lobbyists still manage to slip in "small improvements" that advance their cause, Rathner says.

Part of the game is to target moderate Republicans for defeat in primary elections if they aren't staunchly pro-Second Amendment, he acknowledges, adding that gun-rights advocates were responsible for defeating state Senator Sue Gerard, a Phoenix Republican, in 2002.

"This is a very effective way of making sure that Republicans remember that in a Republican primary, gun owners can be the difference between keeping your seat and losing your seat," Rathner says.

The NRA helps push the pro-gun agenda, naturally: "It's what our members pay the NRA to do," he says. But if the people of Arizona didn't want lenient gun laws, he says, "we'd lose."

One of the gun lobby's first missions was to strengthen a "preemption" law that prevented local governments from passing gun laws stricter than the state's. The law has been on Arizona's books since statehood but was "basically being ignored by the cities," Rathner says. "They said, 'We're going to ban guns from parks, buildings, and other public places, so sue us.'"

Tucson resident Ken Rineer, cited for violating a Tucson provision against carrying a gun into a city park, sued and lost. But Rineer, president of the Firearms Action Committee of Tucson, joined forces with Rathner and other advocates to bolster the preemption law, a goal they finally achieved in 2010. Last month, Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik called on the Legislature to repeal the law, which forced Tucson to allow concealed weapons in parks.

After Congress passed the Brady Act in 1993, which established the current nationwide background-check system, and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994 (a.k.a. the "assault weapons ban"), Arizona joined a trend to begin allowing the carrying of concealed weapons with a permit.

Gun advocates believe it's no coincidence that the long-running decline in violent crime in Arizona and other states happened about the same time that many states passed concealed-carry laws. Researchers, however, say the reason for the crime-rate drop is unclear and caution against making such connections.

When Democrat Janet Napolitano left as Arizona governor for her new job as Homeland Security Secretary under President Obama, gun-rights advocates gained even more traction.

One law that helped solidify Arizona's modern reputation as a gun nut's paradise is the guns-in-bars bill that Brewer signed in 2009. If you're legally carrying a concealed weapon, you can take it into a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol — as long as you don't drink.

In July 2010, Brewer signed a law that eliminated the permit and required training classes as qualifying factors for carrying a concealed weapon, essentially allowing any citizen 21 or older without a felony record to secretly pack heat.

After Giffords and 18 others were shot during a Congress on Your Corner event in Tucson, the Legislature didn't respond with tougher gun-control laws. It went the other way and approved the guns-on-campus bill and other pro-gun proposals.

In her veto letter, Brewer hinted that she'd be open to a better-written bill to allow campus guns in the future, particularly if it covered only colleges and not elementary schools.

This year, on the heels last year's Aurora, Colorado, shooting of 70 people in a movie theater and the senseless loss of 26 lives in a Newtown school, President Obama and gun-control advocates are trying to advance a package of measures they see as reforms to current gun laws.

New York reacted to the Newtown shooting by passing a law that limits gun magazines to seven rounds — even for police. In the past few days, Minnesota's state lawmakers have debated a law that would make possession of magazines with more than 10 rounds illegal, no matter when the magazines were manufactured.

Arizona's now-infamous response was to call for the arrest of federal agents who might dare to enforce new federal gun laws.

A bill in the Legislature aims to prohibit the feds from enforcing federal gun laws that might pass this year. The bill already has passed the state Senate Public Safety Committee.

State Senator Kelli Ward, a Lake Havasu Republican, tells New Times that if the bill she sponsored becomes law, Arizona peace officers would have to arrest ATF agents, for example, who might try to enforce a new gun law.

It sounds like chaos, but Ward doesn't think her proposed law ever would be enforced. She describes the bill as an effort to "take every opportunity, with the current administration in Washington, to remind them that we are a sovereign state."

Because of the efforts of the NRA and Republican lawmakers, gun-control advocates in Arizona are much like Arizona Cardinals fans. Not a lot to celebrate.

That doesn't mean Hildy Saizow isn't trying.

Saizow, president of Arizonans for Gun Safety, was one of 19 citizens invited to Washington last month to form a task force with Vice President Biden on potential gun-control measures. Biden later would present the president with a list of ideas from the meeting, focusing largely on shoring up background checks and a desired new ban on semi-automatic rifles and large-capacity magazines. Whether the plan has a chance is still unknown; a detailed bill incorporating these ideas by California Senator Dianne Feinstein appears dead, but new restrictive bills still are possible.

Saizow returned home semi-famous and with memories of a profound experience.

A criminologist with a master's degree in justice administration from American University, Saizow moved to Arizona in 1998 after living in Australia for four years and witnessing one of the world's most dramatic gun-control efforts. A 1996 mass shooting spurred the government Down Under to ban all semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns, about a fifth of Australia's private gun collection. Australia spent a half-billion dollars to buy the banned weapons from its citizens. (Owning handguns already was tightly restricted.)

Video footage of truckloads of Australian rifles getting trashed under the ban-and-buy-back program have become propaganda for both sides of the American gun debate. Nearly two decades later, the country still hasn't had another mass shooting — despite Australians' quietly importing about a million guns that aren't banned under the law, such as bolt-action and single-round-loading guns. A 2010 mass shooting in England, which bans almost all handguns and has major restrictions on other weapons, was committed by a firearm license-holder who killed 12 people and wounded 11 with a shotgun and bolt-action .22-caliber rifle.

Impressed by her Australian experience, Saizow says gun violence has been slashed in half in that country since the 1996 ban. (That statistic, like many in the gun debate, is disputed. Some experts claim that while suicide by gun is down slightly, violent crime — including those in which criminals use guns — has increased in some Australian cities.)

Yet passage of such restrictive laws in the United States, much less in Arizona, seems about as likely as a summer blizzard in Phoenix.

Saizow says she realizes this and would like gun-safety laws to be tailored to the needs and wishes of each community.

It seems most Arizonans wouldn't want any of the gun-safety ideas she helped develop with Biden. But Saizow claims that a silent majority of Arizonans actually does support her group's goals.

"The majority of people have common sense," she says. "They want to take a different path on this issue."

A CBS poll last month showed that the percentage of Americans satisfied with current gun laws outnumber those who aren't, 43 to 38. Some polls show high support for universal background checks and other measures. But Americans, in general, aren't as pro-gun as Arizonans.

Still, Saizow is working with state Senator Linda Lopez, a Tucson Democrat, on bills introduced last month that would ban possession and sale of semi-automatic magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds (though people who already own such magazines could keep them), require background checks for private gun sales, and stop cities from selling guns seized by police.

Saizow believes the bills have a chance, even in our Republican-dominated Legislature.

If the bills do pass, they will save lives, she says.

If gun violence has been reduced by 20 percent within five years — something she thinks the bills could do — "we'd feel pretty gosh-darn good about it."

One of Saizow's priorities is to roll back some of the "dumb policy decisions" of the Legislature on guns in recent years. She'd like to see training requirements put back into the concealed-carry program, for instance.

The pro-gun side views changes to the status quo as the proverbial "slippery slope." And the language used by Saizow and other advocates makes it clear that they want to push for ever-tighter laws. If the current round of restrictions were to pass, Saizow says, it would be a "good start."

Though Lopez's bill says nothing about semi-automatic rifles, Saizow insists that no one "needs" such a weapon. She also says that though she supports using a gun for home defense, she's not thrilled with concealed weapons or that people can take their guns outside for defense.

On the other side of the debate is Arizona Gun Owner's Guide author Alan Korwin. Like Saizow, Korwin occasionally interrupts to gently correct the terminology of a reporter: Saizow eschews the term "gun control," preferring "gun safety"; Korwin doesn't like "assault rifle" but likes "sport-utility rifle."

The two have gone head-to-head in public debates.

Asked what solutions might be appropriate following a mass shooting like the one in Newtown, Korwin says, "I'm not of the opinion that we have to do anything."

Korwin criticizes NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre's call to put armed guards at schools, saying the group "drank the Kool-Aid" by suggesting the Newtown incident required a special reaction.

Korwin is against "universal" background checks, which he says is code for gun registration. He claims that any system mandating background checks for private sales would lead to registration, because the government will need to know which guns you own, which you sold, and who bought them.

And, says Korwin, "registration precedes confiscation."

Feinstein's bill specifically requires registration of guns, but it isn't gaining traction in Congress. A group of senators is trying to strike a compromise for a potential new bill.

Gun-control advocates claim "40 percent" of gun sales in the country weren't conducted with background checks, but Korwin is skeptical of the number — because the number, released by a gun-control group, comes from a decades-old study. Experts say the real percentage of sales that don't involve background checks probably ranges from 5 to 20.

Firearms advocates like Korwin downplay stats coming out of Europe, which show that the United States has rates of gun deaths several times that of most western European countries. (Such gun-death figures, however, often include suicides by guns. In Arizona in 2009, 71 percent of gun deaths were suicides.)

Korwin says the United States is peaceable, despite the immense number of guns here. If we could subtract suicides, solve the problem of "ghetto" shootings that cause homicide rates to skyrocket in cities like Baltimore and Chicago, end the "war on some drugs," and fix illegal immigration, Korwin contends, "We're the shining city on the hill — safer than Norway and Sweden."

For now, though, the United States' firearm murder rate remains much higher than the rates of most developed countries. England, for example, recorded just 51 gun homicides in 2011, compared to the 8,583 in the United States.

England, whose population is one-sixth the size of the United States', has an enviably low record of gun violence, even though it's true that violent crimes — including some gun crimes — are on the rise there.

Restrictions on firearms equipment might make a difference in the United States. Restricted access to large-capacity magazines could have slowed down the actions of Jared Loughner in Tucson, James Holmes in Aurora, and Adam Lanza in Newtown — which, in turn, could have reduced the number of lives lost.

Yet only a fraction of gun crimes in the United States are committed with semi-automatic rifles. And in most gun crimes, the presence of a large-capacity magazine is irrelevant because only a few shots are fired.

On the issue of background checks, common sense dictates that if fewer criminals or mentally ill people found it more difficult to obtain weapons, some shootings could be avoided.

Still, nothing about the current proposals by the Obama administration, Feinstein, or Lopez would have changed what happened here to Mark Hummels and Steve Singer on January 30.

Three guns were found in Arthur Harmon's vehicle after police recovered his body: A .45-caliber Springfield 1911 and a .22-caliber Ruger, both handguns, and a 1970s-era Colt AR-15 rifle.

Harmon used the pistols to shoot his victims, police say. He fired multiple shots during the incident but had only two intended targets. A third victim, Nicole Hampton, was hit in the hand by a stray bullet.

Large-capacity magazines were not a factor in the incident, police confirm. Harmon used the AR-15 to take a shot at a witness who'd followed him in a car, but he didn't hit the person. Almost nothing about the event would have been different had Harmon left the rifle at home.

Phoenix police confirm that all three guns were legally acquired by Harmon -— he borrowed the two handguns from a friend. Police aren't yet sure if he borrowed the AR-15, too, or if he owned it.

Harmon was just another law-abiding Arizonan.

Until he wasn't.

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