Republicans in Congress are much better armed than their Democratic counterparts, a USA TODAY survey found.(Photo: USA TODAY Design)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- Republicans in Congress are much better armed than their Democratic counterparts - a fact that helps explain the deep partisan divide as Congress gears up for its first major votes on gun control in a decade.
One hundred nineteen Republicans and 46 Democrats declared themselves as gun owners in a USA TODAY survey of lawmakers.
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There is no uniform public record of gun ownership by members of Congress, and it is not part of the information lawmakers are required to reveal in their annual financial disclosure forms. So USA TODAY and the Gannett Washington Bureau contacted every congressional office to ask: Does the lawmaker own a gun?
The results show a partisan - and regional - divide. Only 10% of Republicans who responded said they do not own a gun, while 66% of Democrats said they are not gun owners.
Michael Hammond, legislative counsel of Gun Owners of America, said he's not surprised. In Republican districts, a gun "is a campaign accoutrement," he said.
Plotted on a map, the survey results speak to the cultural chasm between those districts where guns are a talisman of individualism and those where guns are viewed more as a criminal tool. Only 12 lawmakers from the Northeast, including Pennsylvania, said they own firearms, while 77 Southerners said they do.
Congress' gun gap suggests that cultural factors are at least as important as the influence of the gun lobby in determining where members stand on President Obama's package of gun control proposals.
The gun gap
Some members were more than willing to give an inventory of their gun lockers. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., owns three shotguns, three rifles and two pistols, press secretary Lucy Speed said. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, owns a dozen, but her favorite is a 20-gauge Ruger, communications director Matthew Felling said.
Others - overwhelmingly Southern Republicans - declined to answer, even suggesting it was "irresponsible" for reporters to ask the question.
Again there is a partisan split: 36 Republicans in the House refused to say whether they own guns; 11 Democrats refused to say. Across both the House and Senate, an additional 161 lawmakers did not return repeated phone calls, e-mails and requests for comment - 97 of those were Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he owns guns, though he wouldn't say what kind. His Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, declined to say whether he does. In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she does not own a gun, and Speaker John Boehner's office did not respond to multiple requests.
The White House has released photos of Obama shooting skeet but asked by reporters Monday whether Obama owns a gun, spokesman Jay Carney said "not that I am aware of."
Obama is pushing Congress to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, expand background checks for gun purchases and adopt other measures to curb gun violence. Any new gun legislation in Congress would have to pass through the Judiciary Committee in each chamber. Eight of 23 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee confirmed they are gun owners, but only one of the panel's 17 Democrats admitted having a gun - Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee.
On the Senate committee -- which is drafting gun legislation -- Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island were the only two Democrats who said they own firearms, while six of the eight Republicans on the committee said they do.
Gun ownership is clearly correlated with members' political positions. Over the last two years, the National Rifle Association's political action committee gave 10 times more contributions to House members who own guns than to those who don't, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports filed last week. And members who owned guns were eight times more likely to get an "A" rating from the NRA than those who did not.
You don't say
For some members, their gun ownership is a point of pride. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., provided a list of weapons he owns, and his spokeswoman followed up a few days later to note the congressman had also just bought "a third-generation Glock G27" handgun.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who famously used a rifle to shoot a copy of an environmental bill in a 2010 campaign ad, seemed surprised by the question about his gun ownership, pointing out that he is from West Virginia. "Why would anybody not own a gun?" he asked.
At least a dozen members spoke of heirloom weapons, inherited from fathers, grandfathers and mothers, that are as much a part of the family as their name. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., in a television ad, proudly brandishes the Smith & Wesson his grandfather used to stop a lynching - but his office did not return phone calls to confirm his gun ownership. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., keeps a pistol and two rifles as mementos of his late father.
Asked about his gun ownership, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, tells of his great-grandfather, a Swiss immigrant who, at age 80, "went out into a duck blind on a frozen lake and he never came back.
"And they went out to find him at the end of the day, and he had died of a heart attack in the duck blind with his gun over his lap and with a smile on his face, which is part of the Portman family lore because he loved to hunt," Portman said. "I have that gun. And my kids have shot that gun, so it's a tradition in our family."
Portman said he's mostly concerned about the views of his constituents on gun rights - but said he couldn't deny that his own experience influences his votes.
For others, the question itself was an intrusion.
Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, said, "Given the security concerns for members of Congress and their families after the shooting of (former Arizona congresswoman) Gabrielle Giffords, it is irresponsible for members of the media to publish how members and their families protect themselves in public and at home."
Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., through spokeswoman Sarah Wolf, provided a more succinct response: "None of your damn business."
Some lawmakers declined to respond to the survey even though they have already made public statements declaring themselves to be gun owners. Rep Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., would not respond to the survey, but his website says, "I am a gun owner and avid hunter, and have consistently fought to protect the right to keep and bear arms."
Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican who appears to be the only licensed gun dealer in the House, also declined to respond. Graves holds an active license for the Rockin H Gun Shop, which apparently has been in his family for some time, though there is no longer a shop affiliated with the name.
Hammond, the gun owner's group lobbyist, said he was surprised by the number of lawmakers who declined to talk about their guns. It suggests "they feel that gun ownership is more sensitive than some of the other things they have to reveal," he said.
Members are allowed a few secrets.
Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer, who previously served as chief of the Capitol Police, said lawmakers are "permitted to have guns in their offices" and would not have to tell anybody they had a gun.
"We discourage them," he said. "I personally don't know of any member who is packing," he said.
In the public hallways of the Capitol, a lawmaker can carry a weapon only if it is "unloaded and securely wrapped," Gainer said.
Outside the Capitol, members are governed by the gun laws of their states. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., "travels with firearms while on official business in (his) district," press secretary Doug Coutts said.
Reflecting the constituents
The responses suggest that gun ownership among lawmakers is on par with gun ownership nationwide. In a December 2012 USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, 43% of respondents said they have a gun in their home. In USA TODAY's lawmakers survey, 43% who responded said they were gun owners.
Hammond argued that gun ownership does not determine a lawmakers' vote on gun control. More likely, he said, the culture of the district they represent shapes their view of gun control and their decision to own a gun.
"Lots of Democrats live in urban areas like Chicago and New York where guns are all but banned," said Hammond, whose Gun Owners of America bills itself as "the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington."
Those lawmakers "don't have a lot of constituents who place a high value on the Second Amendment," and also "don't have the personal experiences with guns that would lead them to see them as anything other than a dangerous nasty object," Hammond said.
Some gun owners in Congress support gun control. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from a Minnesota district where six people were killed in a sign-shop shooting last fall, said, "I am a gun owner, and I believe in common-sense gun safety rules."
But gun-control advocates say the USA TODAY survey shows how difficult it is for Republicans to endorse gun measures or to even publicly declare that they don't own guns. "This has become a political totem - a badge of honor for many politicians," said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Gun ownership and the Second Amendment have become "a symbol of a political identity: a rugged individualist who is willing to lay down the law when the government oversteps its bounds," with an emphasis on small government and personal freedom, Everitt said.
For Republicans in conservative, rural districts, he said, "the reality of whether they own a gun may be butting up against the image they want to project."