CHICAGO Many gun owners fear a ban on assault weapons like one used in the Connecticut elementary school massacre would be the first step to taking away their guns, even though the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to bear arms.
Since a shooting rampage last Friday left 26 people dead at a school in Newtown, Connecticut using a type of assault rifle called an AR-15, a growing number of politicians have called for a ban on assault weapons.
"I wept like a baby when I saw what was happening in Connecticut," recalls Claude Diehl, 50, a self-employed structural designer in Savannah, Georgia, who has two daughters of his own. Diehl owns a number of weapons, including an AR-15 and several Glock 9mm pistols with high-capacity ammunition clips that gun control advocates want to see banned.
"Everyone is blaming the weapon used in this tragedy and calling it an assault weapon," he said. "But really, what gun isn't an assault weapon in the wrong hands?"
"If we start with an assault weapon ban, where does it end?"
Interviews conducted with gun owners in 10 states on Wednesday elicited a similar response when they were asked about assault weapon ban legislation supported by Democratic President Barack Obama.
"I honestly think a total ban (on guns) is coming," said Ryan Jones, 31, who works in security in the Detroit area and who proudly boasts he killed his deer for this season recently with a pistol at 35 yards.
"But if they ever try to take away what founded this country they'll have a major problem."
"For a start, They'd turn me into a criminal because legal or not I'd still carry a gun to protect my family."
Gun owners said that in the wake of the massacre, the focus should be on better access to mental health for people such as suspected Connecticut shooter Adam Lanza, or finding ways to prevent guns from ending up in the hands of the mentally ill.
INDIVIDUALS, NOT FIREARMS SEEN AS ISSUE
Lanza was apparently seen as troubled before last week's rampage, though not as a risk to others. The weapons he used belonged to his mother, who was also his first victim.
"A lot of this comes down to state of mind," said Jose Rodriguez, 47, a gun safety trainer based in the Chicago area. "If someone wants to commit a crime like that, they will find a way to do it."
"The type of gun is not the issue here, the issue is the individual."
Other gun owners argued that as America is already awash with so many firearms, including assault rifles, any ban would have little impact. The Small Arms Survey, a research project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, estimated in 2007 that American civilians owned around 270 million firearms - more than six times either China or India, which both have far larger populations.
"If someone is planning to break the law, I don't see how a ban will stop them getting firearms," said Randy Keller, who is training to be a nurse in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and who owns assault rifles. "Nothing that's being proposed would have prevented the tragedy in Connecticut last week."
JB Williams, a conservative activist in Nashville, said he received between 600 and 800 emails a day this week from people concerned their gun rights were threatened by the "far left."
"In many cases gun owners are people concerned with individual rights," he said. "They see this push to ban assault weapons as part of a broad attack on many fronts on their individual rights by people who do not value what is part of the DNA of this country."
Gun enthusiasts such as Claude Diehl said the problem America faces is much broader and cuts much deeper than gun ownership and is a "cultural issue of the heart."
"President Obama spoke at the weekend about protecting children," he said. "But how are we protecting our children when we kill 3,500 babies a day in America through abortion?"
"If they banned abortion I'd give them all of my guns, every last one of them. But instead of focusing on the bigger issues, it's easier to go after guns."
(Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham)