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Survival and Tradition: Why rural Northern Californians want their guns

by Mina Kim, The California Report | Take Two®

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A trash bin full of handguns collected during the LAPD Gun Buyback Program event in Van Nuys area, north of Los Angeles, on December 26, 2012. By noon LAPD collected more then 420 handguns, rifles and shotguns such as TEC-9, Assault rifle, Uzi, WWI rifle. Apart from it, there are 16 assault weapons and some vintage weapons. One is dated 1895. JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

The gun ownership debate probably won't end anytime soon, and Northern California presents a good example why. As communities in Fresno grapple with keeping gangs and guns off the streets, some residents in the rural, forested ranges of Northern California say guns are a means of survival. The California Report's Mina Kim has the story.

As communities in Fresno grapple with keeping gangs and guns off the streets, some residents in the rural, forested ranges of Northern California say guns are a means of survival. With law enforcement an hour away, guns help them scare off bears and burglars, they say. Reporter: Mina Kim

In the wake of the Newtown shootings, reactions to calls for more gun regulations are taking a different tone from some in urban counties.

In towns like Ukiah, two hours north of San Francisco, talking about guns after gun tragedies is a mistake, according to Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.

"Until we get to the point where we say we've improved mental health services for people who desperately need crisis intervention, then the point of discussing which guns, or which parts of guns would be banned is a conversation that shouldn't be happening," said Allman, who recently published a book about the 2011 murders of two of the region's prominent citizens and the manhunt that ensued.

It's a sentiment echoed by Allman's counterpart to the north, Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey, who is on his way to investigate a site where, days before, authorities had uncovered a stash of more than 100 weapons on the property of a man with a criminal record. But Downey said that's rare here.

"We have a more free spirited, self-reliant type of people here," Downey said. "Many of the people in this county are gun owners and they're responsible gun owners."

Although he doesn't know how many people own guns, he said he has issued 1,500 permits to carry concealed weapons.

Last month, Downey signed a national petition opposing President Obama's gun control measures, and Obama's directive to Congress to pass laws that would ban "military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines." Downey said he's sworn to uphold the Constitution and worries such laws come dangerously close to violating it.

"My concern is, if it's the Second Amendment today, is it the First Amendment tomorrow? Is it the Fourth Amendment after that; where does it stop?" he said.

Downey's stance is at odds with the state's urban police chiefs, but then his jurisdiction is mostly rural. Despite a "criminal element" that comes with the county's infamous marijuana trade, its yearly homicides tend to run in the single digits. About 130,000 people inhabit an area the size of Los Angeles County, an eclectic mix that includes hippies, artists, urban transplants and back-to-the-landers.


News blogger Kym Kemp and her husband Kevin, who live "off the grid" on a parcel of land in Southern Humboldt County that would take a 911 call responder an hour to get to, have two dozen guns on the property.

"If somebody were to try and come into our house we could not depend on anyone but our neighbors, and even those are ten minutes away, so we would have to defend ourselves," Kemp said.

Solar panels and a generator supply their power, they collect their own water, and the last four miles to their home is dirt road. If a deer gets tangled in a fence, they're the ones who have to put it down.

Kevin, who prefers not to use his last name, picks up the shotgun he's just unloaded and points it at himself.

"This end is intimidating, it's big and it looks big and it sounds intimidating. That's a useful thing for home defense as well," he said.

Kevin hasn't had to kill anyone with it, though he has used it to scare off bears. Using guns safely takes constant practice, which is why he and Kemp disagree with the National Rifle Association's call to arm schools after the Newtown massacre. Besides the cost of properly training and equipping armed guards, the two worry it would promote a culture of fear.

"[Gun owners] are willing to make some reasonable accommodations," Kemp said.

She would support a federal law limiting the number of bullets in a clip. What's more, most of the gun owners she knows would support beefed-up background checks and closing the loophole on private sales by unlicensed dealers at gun shows.

"But when they see people demonize them and gun owners become demons, then in turn, in reaction, they get more, 'I got to get my guns; I got to get my ammunition because I won't be able to get them tomorrow,'" Kemp said.

Kemp has seen gun owners get cast as stupid, ignorant, mean people.

"It is really hard for me to watch a part of the culture that I grew up with and a part of the culture that many people still feel gives them a lot of joy, being reviled," she said.

But for Barbara Kennedy, who moved to Humboldt 10 years ago from the San Francisco Bay Area, privately-owned firearms are unsettling. Kennedy is on the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee based in Eureka, which just passed a resolution in support of President Obama's call for bans on assault weapons and high capacity clips.

"Law enforcement and our army and our armed forces are the ones that are entitled to own guns and that's it as far as I'm concerned," Kennedy said. "But of course, that's a very far out opinion."

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