‘Armed People Are a Free People.’ NRA Supporters Aren’t Swayed After Las Vegas

8 minute read

The National Rifle Association surprised many Thursday when it said it is open to regulations on the “bump stocks” that allowed the Las Vegas shooter to fire into a crowd at a rapid clip. But the organization’s grassroots supporters remain fiercely skeptical of new gun restrictions.

In interviews with TIME this week, people who have donated small amounts to the NRA’s political victory fund said that the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas did not change their mind that restrictions on guns won’t make people safer.

“If we are going to talk about gun control, in my opinion what we need to talk about is punishment for the misuse of any tool or weapon,” said Richard Shackleton. “Look how many people [have been] killed in cars or buses. Don’t single out guns because they’re an easy target.”

These grassroots supporters form the bedrock of the NRA’s political power. In 2017 alone, over 3,000 individuals contributed to the victory fund, which has raised over $4 million.These donors come from all 50 states and include carpenters, truck drivers, attorneys, doctors, real estate agents, just to name a few. Often, these contributions are small;92 percent of the donations in 2017 were below $200.

After the Las Vegas shooting, TIME contacted 56 small-dollar donors to the NRA to see if their opinions had shifted. Only seven were willing to speak on the record. These donors, all of whom represent different geographic regions of the United States, said Las Vegas was a horrifying tragedy. They were not angry with the NRA for Thursday’s announcement supporting restricting bump stocks, although one expressed some trepidation that it could lead to more rules. Some were supportive of other regulations like background checks.

But they were universally adamant about preserving their ability to obtain and carry weapons; if anything, Sunday’s attack only intensified these beliefs. And, as TIME explained in its cover story this week, their arguments were hardly ever about weapons, but about preserving the Constitution and their own independence from the government.

Here is what these donors had to say.

Richard Shackleton, 84, Long Beach Township, New Jersey

A life member of the NRA, Shackleton is an attorney in Long Branch, New Jersey who has run his own practice for over 50 years. He keeps guns, he says, to hunt and birds, but also protect himself and his family, but also believes the right to bear arms was crucial to the founding of the United States and remains so today.

“Without the provision of the Second Amendment, without the fact that the colonists had a right to keep arms, we would be singing Hail Victoria and saluting the British flag,” he said. He also noted that citizens in countries where guns were banned, like Germany and Italy in the 1930s, ended up succumbing to tyranny. “The fact is that armed people are a free people,” he said.

Although Shackleton has no opposition to background checks, he does not agree with the argument that the attack in Las Vegas showcases the need for tighter regulation. “All the gun control laws in the world would not have prevented a man from smuggling firearms up to … a room in the hotel, shooting out the window, breaking the window and peppering people in the streets below.”

Ginny Rapini, 70, Colfax, California

Rapini, who is the coordinator of the northern California Tea Party chapter, donates to the NRA on a monthly basis and has a concealed weapon permit, which she said she acquired after she received death threats for her role in a lawsuit against the IRS. Like Shackleton, she strongly believes the Second Amendment was written as a form of democratic protection. Any regulations that would impede this language, she believes, would ultimately impede democracy.

“Our founders know governments are run by humans and there are times when we see governments outstep enumerated powers and it’s up to the people to be able to protect themselves against the government,” she said.

Rapini had friends who were at the Route 91 Harvest Festival when Paddock began firing into the crowd. They escaped and were physically unscathed, but are mentally shaken. “It’s evil, it’s darkness,” she said of the attack. But she said, this does not change her view about establishing new gun regulations. She also said there was more focus on the guns than the shooter, even though the Las Vegas Police Department has been giving daily briefings to the media about the ongoing investigation into Paddock and his motive.

“You can’t legislate people’s hearts and minds. If he didn’t have guns to do what he was gonna do he had explosives,” she said. “The interesting thing to me is every time there is a shooter like this the guns are blamed, not the shooter.”

Arly Richau, 67, Scottsdale, Arizona

Richau is now an attorney in one of the wealthiest town in Arizona, but grew up hunting in North Dakota, a sport he started learning at age 5. Today, he owns an estimated 50 guns, which he uses for shooting as a sport. “I can use it to defend myself it’s a great investment, and it’s fun to use. Can you think of anything that is better than that?” he asked rhetorically.

He says he understands the meaning of the Second Amendment can evolve. “When they said the right to bear arms should not be infringed … know it’s not that simple, they [the framers of the Constitution] clearly meant the right to defend one’s self,” he explained. But he thinks the status quo for gun regulations is adequate, although he agrees with the NRA about restricting bump stocks.

“Passing a law provides a false sense of safety and security which is even worse,” Richau said. “My concern for my safety has gone up not down. I am really glad I have the weapons I do in case I get in a bad situation.”

Philip Baker 55, Batesville, Arkansas

Baker is a pharmacist from Arkansas who says he uses guns to hunt, fish and protect his family. He said he was a “little surprised” by the NRA’s announcement supporting regulations for bump stock devices Thursday. “All of these politicians I think are feeding into the narrative that they want the public to feel as though they’re doing something” he said. “And I don’t think there is any gun legislation that they could have done or they can put in place that would have stopped this maniac in Las Vegas from carrying out his agenda.”

But while he said he didn’t necessarily expect the NRA’s announcement on Thursday, he did think there was a positive aspect. “Based on the tragedy that just happened I feel good that they are taking a step towards taking a look at things that might stop it from happening again even though I don’t think it would stop it.”

John Goglia, Saugus, Massachusetts

Goglia is likely one of only a handful Americans who supports Planned Parenthood as well as the NRA, because both organizations try to block federal intervention. “There’s government interference in everything we do,” he said.

His support for the right to own a gun is rooted, like many others, in his belief in the Cconstitution. “Bill of Rights is like a jigsaw puzzle and each piece fits perfectly with the other one and they all support each other,” he explained. He supports background checks and is adamant that people with a criminal past should be prohibited from gun ownership.

But past shootings have not played a role in shaping these views, and Las Vegas is no exception. Nothing could have stopped Paddock from getting a weapon, he said, and calling for gun control now is politicizing the issue.

“There’s a litany of people just [have] a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “Before we even knew what was happening we got people calling for changing the laws.”

Chris Puckett, Edmund, Oklahoma

Puckett, 67, owns a towing business, which has been in his family for generations.

“To me, the Second Amendment really protects all the others,” he said. “Look at Hitler — they confiscated the guns and then took over everything. It happened time and time again through countries.” He donates to the NRA to ensure legislators support Second Amendment rights, and the organization’s announcement Thursday concerned him that it would set a precedent. “Once you start that slide where do you quit?”

Although Puckett is opposed to gun regulations because they are explicitly laid out in the constitution, when pressed if he was opposed to any regulations, he acknowledged that was a “fine line”” and didn’t have a problem with the regulation of automatic rifles.

“But the problem is,” he said, “once you let the camels nose in your tent, the camel will end up in the tent.”

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com