In a region where gun ownership is a cherished right, holiday shoppers snake through rows of shotguns, pistols and semi-automatic assault rifles at the Kittery Trading Post. The school massacre in Connecticut — and potential changes to firearms laws because of it — is fresh on their minds.
AR-15 assault rifles in particular have been flying off the shelves here and elsewhere, according to a trade group that attributes the sales boom to fears among gun owners that the weapon — the same used by a gunman at an elementary school to kill 26 people, including 20 young children— will be outlawed.
Among the aisles packed with bullets and used firearms, shoppers say they are deeply conflicted about the proper response to the massacre.
"If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns," says 51-year-old gun owner Perry Clark, sharing a quote from his father.
But asked about the need for semi-automatic assault rifles, Perry, the father of a first-grader, strikes a different tone: "Assault rifles are designed to assault. They're designed to kill," he says, adding that he's been deeply disturbed by the school shootings. "I'm very leery of assault rifles."
In interviews that provide a snapshot of what some gun owners are feeling, most agreed with President Barack Obama's recent declaration that changes are needed to protect America's children. Some questioned the need for automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons. Others said there should be more background checks or mental health exams for gun owners. And most called for greater emphasis on mental health and school safety.
"Teachers should be armed," 24-year-old Danny Allen said this week, after browsing the Trading Post's gun section. Allen, on active duty with the Navy, argued that tightening gun laws is unnecessary because "criminals don't abide by gun laws." He defended the need for semi-automatic weapons, saying: "With semi-automatic, it's easier to kill a deer. With semi-automatic, it'll be easier to kill the person trying to kill your kids."
Firearms are in a third or more of U.S. households and suspicion runs deep of an overbearing government whenever it proposes expanding federal authority. The argument of gun-rights advocates that firearm ownership is a bedrock freedom as well as a necessary option for self-defense has proved persuasive enough to dampen political enthusiasm for substantial change after recent mass shootings.
That may be changing.
A growing number of Democratic politicians — even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had previously taken pro-gun positions for years, and moderate gun owners like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — have indicated an openness to tighten gun laws. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., plans to introduce a bill next year that would renew the expired ban on newly purchased assault weapons in addition to restricting clips or drums that hold more than 10 bullets. And even some Republicans now say they're willing to discuss the politically treacherous issue of gun control along with mental health issues and violent video games.
Some gun owners appear to be anticipating changes in the law, buying up certain types of firearms while they're still permitted.
Andrew Molchan, director of the Professional Gun Dealers Association, said Tuesday that sales of the AR-15 — the same rifle Adam Lanza used in Newtown, Connecticut — have increased across the country.
"It's what you might expect especially when people start talking about banning certain guns," Molchan said. "I would be surprised if there is much inventory on the shelves anywhere at this point."
Other gun owners in states like Maine are reaching out to their elected officials to ensure their interests are protected.
"I've been contacted by Mainers on all sides of this issue," said Rep. Maine Michaud, a moderate Democrat who represents much of the rural part of the state. "Some are looking for reforms to our gun laws as they relate to assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and others are concerned about restrictions on their constitutionally protected rights."
The challenge for lawmakers in the months ahead will be striking the right balance between protecting the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms with the expressed need by Republicans and Democrats alike to protect young Americans.
Polling offers mixed messages for politicians looking for guidance.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll in the days after the Connecticut massacre showed roughly half or more favoring a ban on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. But seven in 10 were opposed to banning the sale of handguns to anyone except law enforcement officers.
The voices of gun owners here and elsewhere illustrate their struggle to square issues of rights and safety.
At a Charleston, W. Va., mall, 31-year-old Republican Chris Feldhaus suggested he was open to new restrictions on assault weapons.
"But you've got to protect yourself. Because if you take guns away, then how do we protect ourselves against the criminals that are going to find them regardless?" he said.
The father of three doesn't own a gun, saying his wife doesn't feel comfortable with them. But the recent shootings changed his mind.
"Now I will probably be buying a gun," Feldhaus said. "I've been wanting to get one. There's too much going on with the world."
In Virginia, retired salesman Mike Graham said he has "deep concern" that the Connecticut shooting will result in tighter gun laws.
"Once you start saying, 'This gun is good, this gun is bad,' it becomes blurred, then they're all bad. And that's wrong. You end up everything is illegal," said Graham, 57, as he left a Richmond gun shop and shooting range.
Back at the Kittery Trading Post, Clark declared that he has no confidence that Washington politicians will fix the problem.
"I think Washington screws up everything they touch," he says. "I think it needs to be dealt with at the state level."
Associated Press writers John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, Larry O'Dell in Richmond, Virginia. and AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.