Ryan J. Rusak

‘Legos for adults’: Gun-grabbers should respect culture that drives firearm lovers

There’s an entire culture on display at the Fort Worth Convention Center this weekend. And it’s one that gun-control advocates need to understand and respect at this “do something” moment.

The National Rifle Association’s Personal Protection Expo brings together thousands of gun enthusiasts, product sellers and self-defense instructors. These are people for whom gun ownership and use is a way of life.

It comes with every accessory you can think of.

Hand crafted, Western-style leather holsters. Mini stun guns, including one in pink. Bulletproof backpack inserts. Flashlights so bright that the seller asks that only adults handle them.

J.B. Hill, a boot company, offers to make boots from the hide of an animal a hunter has killed himself.

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J.B. Hill, a Texas company, advertises customizable boots for hunters. Ryan J. Rusak

And of course, there was the concealed-carry fashion show Friday night.

“Refuse to be a victim,” reads a huge sign at the front of the exhibit hall. For these gun owners, that covers politics, too.

Anti-gun activists think they’re closer to long-sought policy victories than they have been in many years, on expanded background checks and perhaps even new weapon restrictions. Even Texas Republican officials are on the defensive.

Democrats, in their lurch to the left, are talking openly about confiscating so-called assault rifles. You have to listen carefully; the preferred euphemism is “gun buyback.”

You’d think campaign reporters, who work with words every day, would note that the government cannot buy back what it never owned to begin with. A forced confiscation with token compensation is still a confiscation.

Gun-control advocates used to mock gun owners’ concerns about potential confiscation efforts. Now, they’re openly promising it. Several Texas Democratic Senate candidates, appearing together for their first public forum Thursday in Frisco, casually threw out their support for a government roundup of AR-style rifles.

They should consult with people like Abby Walker. Her Aegis Bags of Burleson makes stylish handbags for women who want to carry a concealed weapon.

On the exhibit floor Friday, with the rhythmic thuds of muffled semiautomatic fire coming from an enclosed range on one side and the crackle of test-fired stun guns from the other, she explained how her business began. Around 2003, she was alarmed to find a tube of lipstick sticking through the trigger guard of the pistol in her purse.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to start carrying more safely than this,’ ” Walker said. But all she could find were “Western-looking” bags.

So, she designed her own, proudly American-made. She demonstrated the first she created, with a velcro holder for a pistol so a woman can hold the hidden gun and draw quickly.

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Abby Walker, owner/designer of Aegis handbags, demonstrates the first bag she designed for concealed handgun carry. Ryan J. Rusak

Walker owns enough guns to fill a safe. But she’s open to expanding background checks, if there’s a way to include more mental health information. She would even like to see psychologists empowered to share information about patients they consider too dangerous to possess guns.

When you talk about banning certain rifles or high-capacity magazines, though, you lose her.

“The people who are law-abiding aren’t the ones out there shooting [people], anyways,” she said.

AR-15s are the flashpoint of the moment. But they’re the most popular rifle in America for a reason.

James Wiggins, who works for AR-chitect, a company that helps users assemble their own weapon, says the interchangeable and customizable nature makes for a challenge, like “Legos for adults.”

“Can I really build one, and will it go bang?” Wiggins said.

He notes that the key part of the weapon, the “lower receiver,” must be obtained from a federally licensed dealer, so background checks are conducted. He’s sure the current fever on ARs will pass.

“I don’t see changes on the horizon, but we see an uptick [in sales] every time” the discussion starts, Wiggins said.

Thaine Hepler and Dawn Armant came all the way from eastern New Mexico to take a class to qualify for concealed-carry in Utah and Arizona, which will help fill the map of states where they can carry under state reciprocity agreements.

Hepler, walking the exhibit hall in a “Trump 2020” cap, collects pre-World War II custom-made rifles — and assembles his own ARs.

“I own 20 of them for a reason,” he said.

You or I might walk through the collections of knives for sale or browse the catalog of self-defense seminars and scoff at the intense focus on personal safety. There’s a sense of survivalism in some of the exhibits.

But the desire to protect oneself from crime that’s statistically unlikely is the mirror image of the irrational reaction to the uptick in mass shootings. You’re still not likely to be a victim of either.

And for gun owners, there’s more at stake. Asked what gun opponents don’t understand about the culture he lives in, Hepler thought for a moment and said: “Ownership, sense of pride in something and the enjoyment I get from it.”

That’s not something anyone’s going to give up without a fight.

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Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He grew up in Benbrook and is a TCU graduate. He spent more than 12 years as a political journalist, overseeing coverage of four presidential elections and several sessions of the Texas Legislature. He lives in east Fort Worth.