Chris Christensen, a rough-hewn cowboy beneath a big brown hat, finished up his M-16 burrito and took a slug of coffee.
Waitresses glided past, balancing trays of bacon and eggs on their shoulders while sleek black pistols bounced on their hips.
“It’s inspiring to see them so openly claiming their right to bear arms,” Christensen said over breakfast recently. “But around here, really, it’s not so strange.”
His friend Jose Miranda nodded.
“I wouldn’t walk into a place like this in New York City though,” he said. “They probably can’t shoot straight.”
Here at Shooters Grill in aptly named Rifle, diners can order a Guac Nine burger served up by a waitress packing a Glock 9 handgun.
And unlike at Starbucks or Target, which have asked customers not to bring firearms into their stores, the gun-toting public is warmly welcomed here. With this caveat:
“Please keep all weapons holstered unless need arises,” advises a sign on the door. “In such case, judicious marksmanship is appreciated.”
Owner Lauren Boebert, a 28-year-old former Miss Junior Colorado and self-described born-again Christian, insists the guns are no gimmick.
“It’s a way of life. When you walk into Shooters you are walking into America,” she said, a compact Ruger 9-millimeter tucked into the small of her back. “This is what America is.”
The cozy diner, which sits across from a gun shop, has created something of a sensation in this small town on the western slopes of the Rockies. The media have trekked in from around the globe while curiosity seekers form lines out the door. Some drive from Utah, Kansas and Washington for the chance to tuck into an omelet while carrying a gun.
“This place is well within my comfort zone,” said Perry Sweeney, 70, of nearby New Castle, as he sipped coffee with a .45 on his belt. “Over the last five or so years a lot of people have climbed onto the ‘ban guns’ bandwagon. I open-carry because our rights are under assault.”
While it’s legal to openly carry firearms in most of Colorado, guns remain highly divisive in a state still traumatized by the mass shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and at a movie theater in Aurora in July 2012.
Five months later came the shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012 that left 20 schoolchildren and seven adults dead — a tragedy that revived the debate over gun control in America. And in March 2013, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, signed landmark legislation requiring expanded background checks on gun buyers and limiting the size of magazines.
Many gun owners have felt under siege ever since.
“The state makes me buy insurance but won’t let me defend myself,” Boebert said.
She began bringing a pistol to work shortly after opening Shooters in 2013 with her husband, Jason. The servers were allowed to carry as long as they passed a safety course.
Boebert even dreamed up the “sidearm sandwich” special — dinner and a concealed-carry class for $75.
Still, no one seemed to notice until a local newspaper ran a story on Shooters, triggering worldwide attention.
The National Rifle Assn. dispatched a video crew to chronicle a place they say serves up “some mighty good cooking seasoned with a touch of the 2nd Amendment.”
The diner has since become a rallying point for state Republican politicians equally eager to pay homage to the 2nd Amendment and its “right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
“I might run for office myself,” Boebert said. “They need someone God-fearing in there.”
Her unstinting defense of gun rights attracts critics.
“Whenever there is a firearm incident people send me the story and say, ‘See what happens?’” she said. “I don’t advocate violence, but if someone comes after me they need to know what they’re up against.”
Such views are largely mainstream in Rifle, a rural town of about 9,500 people with some of the best elk hunting in the country.
“Guns are part of the fabric of the community,” Police Chief John Dyer said. “I know the waitresses at Shooters have undergone training, and we’ve never had any complaints.”
He’s a regular himself, although he sheepishly admitted ordering a salad on his last visit.
“I usually get the Swiss & Wesson burger,” he quickly added.
Most of the waitresses, like Erin Schmalz, 21, grew up with guns.
“My dad gave me a .22 rifle when I was 7. I would go shoot pop cans or quarters,” she said. “Last Easter, we filled milk jugs with food coloring and shot them with an AR-15.”
Eight of the 10 waitresses now carry firearms. And the consensus here is that anyone foolish enough to cause trouble in Shooters wouldn’t last very long.
“There are enough people to resolve the situation quickly,” said 23-year-old waitress Dusty Sheets.
As the breakfast crowd thinned, Rhianan Spanjers, 29, a registered nurse, wandered in.
“This is great,” she said. “Cute girls with guns. How can you lose?”
Spanjers, a hiker, uses her own gun mostly to ward off mountain lions.
“This is our culture,” she said. “After all, you’re sitting in a town called Rifle, right?”