Washington • Utah’s members of Congress are gun-loving, though only half of them are gun-toting.
As the debate continues over boosting gun control in the wake of several high-profile mass shootings, the fight mostly follows a parallel between those who own and fire guns, and those who don’t.
But while Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Rob Bishop and Jim Matheson may not personally have a cache of firearms at home, they still come down on the side of protecting the right to do so, something their fellow Utahns in Congress take full advantage of.
Rep. Chris Stewart has a couple of Beretta handguns, a .30-06 rifle and two different shotguns. Rep. Jason Chaffetz owns a Glock .40-caliber handgun and a 12-gauge shotgun. Sen. Orrin Hatch has “a few” handguns, a hunting rifle and a shotgun.
“For some, owning a firearm may bring a different perspective to the gun-control debate,” Hatch said. “But I don’t think it’s necessary to be a gun owner to understand the importance of the Second Amendment.”
But most of the time, it helps.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed that 62 percent of people who have guns in their home say that the government is a threat to their personal rights and freedoms compared with 45 percent of non-gun owners who said the same thing. The Pew poll shows that gap is growing.
“A good number of Americans own guns and are comfortable with using guns and enjoy using guns. That certainly colors their political perspective,” says Michael Hammond, legislative counsel of the Springville, Va.-based Gun Owners of America.
“If you’re from New York City, where guns are banned, and you’ve never heard anything in your life other than guns are big, dirty, dangerous things that can only do harm or are killing machines … then I think you come at this from a different perspective.”
Polls show about 45 percent of Americans say they own at least one gun, and Utah’s delegation largely follows the trend.
In guns we trust • After earning the wrath of the mafia in 1982, Hatch petitioned the U.S. Marshals Service to deputize him so he could carry a firearm for protection. The service did the same 11 years later when Hatch faced death threats, but he doesn’t regularly carry a sidearm now.
After then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011, Chaffetz was quick to note that he planned to carry his Glock more often when he was attending events in Utah.
“Somebody who has never had experience with a gun, who has never gone out and shot would be mystified by why someone likes this,” Chaffetz says. “I feel safer with them.”
Stewart says he grew up on a farm and shooting guns was just part of life. He notes that owning a gun does lend a perspective to the debate that some are lacking.
“You recognize the safety of a handgun is the individual,” Stewart says.
“The weapon itself is not the enemy. The weapon itself does not go out and kill things, it’s the individual who does.”
Chaffetz, Hatch and Stewart all hold Utah permits to carry concealed weapons, as does Matheson, who doesn’t own a gun.
The only Democrat in Utah’s delegation, Matheson enjoys the National Rifle Association’s top rating, like his fellow Republicans from the state, and has similarly pointed to video games as a more significant problem.
Lee, who doesn’t own a gun or hold a concealed-carry permit, says he does go shooting with friends “all the time,” but that owning a gun isn’t essential to his support for the Second Amendment.
Interestingly, Bishop, who used to lobby in Utah for the NRA and the Shooting Sports Council, doesn’t own a gun, doesn’t shoot and doesn’t have a concealed-carry permit.
“The issue is not are guns cute, or are guns used for shooting or have you ever shot skeet with a gun, the issue is the Second Amendment is an individual right for self-protection and that right is an absolute,” Bishop says.
“Congress is prohibited from taking that right which is given by God in the first place. Whether one has a gun or not is insignificant to the issue that is at hand.”
Guns, though, are a significant campaign prop.
Varmint hunting • In 2007, when Mitt Romney was trying to show his rural bona fides and raise his profile in the Republican presidential primaries, he noted that he had gone shooting before and uttered fateful words that came back to haunt him.
“I’m not a big-game hunter,” Romney said. “I’ve made that very clear. I’ve always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will.”
Then-Sen. John Kerry, tripped over the issue too, donning camouflage, an orange vest and toting a shotgun in 2004 to up his standing with the gun crowd. The move backfired, with conservatives likening the Democrat to the cartoon character Elmer Fudd.
Even President Barack Obama felt pressure to prove that he, too, had fired a gun. The White House recently released a photo of the president firing a shotgun at Camp David. The president had told The New Republic that he likes to shoot skeet.
“He never pretended to, or suggested that he had grown up as a hunter, or engaging in sports activities with weapons,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “He simply said that he had — and this is the truth — that he had enjoyed shooting at Camp David.”
Of course, owning or shooting a gun doesn’t lock one into one side of the debate.
Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and husband of Giffords, the ex-congresswoman who still suffers from being shot, notes that he and his wife own guns.
“We have our firearms for the same reasons that millions of Americans just like us have guns, to defend ourselves, to defend our families, for hunting and for target shooting,” Kelly testified recently before the Senate Judiciary Committee, adding that he backs the Second Amendment right to own firearms.
“We take that right very seriously and we would never, ever give it up, just like Gabby would never relinquish her gun, and I would never relinquish mine,” he added. “But rights demand responsibility, and this right does not extend to terrorists, it does not extend to criminals and it does not extend to the mentally ill.”
Utah’s delegation: Packing or not?
Sen. Orrin Hatch • Owns several guns. Concealed-carry permit holder.
Sen. Mike Lee • Doesn’t own any firearms or hold a concealed-carry permit. Does enjoy shooting.
Rep. Jim Matheson • Doesn’t own any firearms. Does hold a concealed-carry permit.
Rep. Rob Bishop • Doesn’t own any firearms or hold a concealed-carry permit.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz • Owns one handgun, one shotgun. Concealed-carry permit holder.
Rep. Chris Stewart • Owns four firearms: Two Beretta handguns, a 30.06 rifle and 12-gauge and a 20-gauge shotguns. Has a concealed-carry permit.