FLORENCE — Gwen Stackhouse knows first-hand what it means to be a victim of crime.
A few years ago, someone tried to rip her purse from her hand while she walked along Court Street in Florence with her young daughter.
The experience left a lasting impression.
“I had post traumatic stress disorder afterward,” she said.
While overall crime rates have been declining in recent years, according to federal statistics, violent crimes — especially those committed with firearms — have dominated the news recently. The mass murder of 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Dec. 14 by a mentally ill man armed with an AR-15 rifle galvanized the nation. President Barack Obama is calling for stricter gun control laws.
One reaction to the violence and potential restrictions on firearms ownership has been skyrocketing weapons and ammunition sales. Locally, shooting classes sponsored by the Florence Police Department have seen an upsurge of interest, with classes booked well into June.
Stackhouse and her husband, Bill, enrolled in the shooting classes and have joined the Florence Gun Club, which has access to the police firing range. Bill Stackhouse has been an avid target shooter for years, and the club offers a place to shoot. Gwen Stackhouse used to target shoot, but hasn’t handled a gun in a while, so the classes appealed to her.
“I want to feel comfortable with it,” she said of her pistol. “I want to know what to do with it and how to use it. You can’t go years and years without shooting a gun and be comfortable with it. I wanted to keep that skill current.”
Had she been armed the day someone tried to take her purse, would she have drawn her pistol?
“I don’t want to say I would have pulled out my gun, but I would have had that option,” she said. “It is a self-defense thing. More and more people feel that way.”
The shooting classes, along with a concealed carry permit, are prerequisites for joining the Florence Gun Club. The club itself began after several people took the classes and wanted a safe place to shoot in a structured environment.
Elaine Augustine cofounded the club three years ago after taking a class. The club is incorporated as a 501c7, with annual dues of $240, most of which go toward the lease the club has with the Police Department for the range.
“So many of the class participants wanted a place to practice,” she said. “People who didn’t live out in the county didn’t have a place to shoot.”
The club has 75 members. Augustine expects the number to grow as more people complete the classes.
“I have people saying I am arming the citizens of Florence,” she said, “but I say no, they are already armed and they want to be responsible by taking the classes and knowing how to use their weapons.”
Police Chief Ron Tyler shares that view.
“This is the epitome of responsible gun owners,” he said. “They know the responsibility of using a firearm. They have taken the initiative to learn how a gun operates, how to care for it and how to store it securely.”
Tyler said police firearms instructors are present at all gun club shooting sessions at the firing range.
Augustine said the club membership represents a cross section of the community, from single parents to professionals who are sometimes vulnerable in their work.
One of the cofounders of the club is Lee Smith, a Florence police officer and firearms instructor who also owns the Gunrunner pawn and firearms shop. He said the spike in firearms and ammunition sales is a form of hysteria fueled by fear that Second Amendment rights will be curtailed.
“I’ve been in the gun industry since I was 5 years old, and I’ve never seen this before,” he said. “Even the Clinton-Brady (assault rifle ban) didn’t cause that.”
Smith is not convinced banning certain types of weapons and magazines would have reduced the number of mass shootings in recent years. He said political clout and money would be better spent on expanding access to mental health, and on making available some of that information for firearms purchase background checks.
“Most of the shootings we’ve had recently were done by people who were adjudicated mentally defective, and they would not have gotten a weapon on a background check” had all states been providing more complete histories of their treatment, he said. “We’ve got to fix that.”
Greg Brackin joined the gun club in January after having been a member of the shooting club in Sheffield that is shutting down. He said he enjoys shooting and likes the well-regulated club at the Florence range.
But he is also concerned that Second Amendment rights are being threatened because of what happened in Newtown, Conn., and other places.
“From one aspect, I understand people saying we should ban high-capacity magazines, but that’s not going to do anything,” he said. “Say, the Aurora, Colo., shooter. If he had a 10-round magazine all he would have had to do was change magazines. So that’s not going to curb gun violence in this country.”
Among the proposals being floated in Washington, D.C., is limiting magazine capacity to 10 rounds and outlawing larger capacity magazines.
“A lot of the gun crime in this country has to do with Saturday night specials, cheap, throw-away handguns,” Brackin said. “I understand and agree with restrictions on certain people with tighter background checks, but banning weapons because they look like military weapons does not make sense.”