HELENA, Mont. — Stephen Watt is no stranger to gun violence. In 1982, as a 26-year-old Wyoming state trooper, he stopped a fleeing bank robber who pumped five bullets into Watt before leaving him for dead on an empty stretch of highway.
Watt lost his left eye and a good chunk of his liver. He has a bullet lodged in his spine, which still causes pain, and uses crutches and a wheelchair to get around.
Despite all that, Watt is a fierce opponent of gun control, convinced it doesn’t work. “Never has,” he said. “Never will.”
Watt, a Republican state representative in Wyoming, is one of a number of legislators across the country who’ve countered the push for tougher federal gun laws by advocating more lenient state standards and, in some cases, open defiance of Washington.
“Someone has to hold the federal government accountable,” said Montana Rep. Krayton Kerns, a Republican, who introduced a law prohibiting the use of any state money or manpower to enforce new federal gun controls. “If we don’t, who does?”
The U.S. Senate’s rejection last week of tougher gun laws showed how custom and local sensibilities continue to drive the politics of the issue, even in the charged national atmosphere after December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
It was telling that four Democrats — all from rural parts of the country — joined the overwhelming majority of Republicans in killing the compromise legislation, including a bipartisan measure to expand background checks to cover sales at gun shows and over the Internet. Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who is up for reelection next year, was among those opposed, and his explanation was as revealing as it was straightforward. “Montana,” he said, naming his home state.
The West has become increasingly friendly political terrain for Democrats, helping put President Obama in the White House and bolstering the party’s ranks in the Senate. But guns remain a touchy matter, and not just in deeply red states like Wyoming, where the president eked out a mere 28% of the vote in November. (He pulled a more robust, if losing, 42% in Montana.)
In New Mexico and Washington state, both of which Obama carried twice, bills to expand background checks died in the legislatures. In Oregon, which hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan, gun control advocates tried and failed to pass a ban on military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines.
The reason for the resistance is simple. “We like our guns,” Watt said, speaking for many Westerners.
“Most of us believe that a gun isn’t an evil thing,” he said from his home in Rock Springs, Wyo. “A gun doesn’t commit a crime. I can take my shotgun, set it by my door, and it’ll sit there for 100 years and it’ll never go outside and shoot somebody.”
There are plenty of voters in the West who support at least some gun control. In Colorado, the scene of a mass shooting in a theater last summer, lawmakers adopted a package of measures expanding background checks and banning magazines that can hold more than 15 rounds of ammunition. The state’s two Democratic senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both voted for the proposed federal background check, which aimed to keep guns away from criminals and the mentally unstable.
But even gun control supporters like Jill Hanauer, a Democratic strategist in Denver, cautioned against political overreach.
“A majority of Westerners really celebrate their heritage and view gun ownership as a recreational and lifestyle choice,” she said. “While they agree on background checks, they want to see the right to bear arms remain. And Western politicians, regardless of party, need to respect that and show that, even if they don’t know how to shoot a gun, they respect gun ownership.”
Montana’s newly elected governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, is well aware of the cross-pressures.
A hunter and gun owner who ran last year with a middling B-minus rating from the National Rifle Assn., Bullock has also been touched by gun violence. In 1994, his 11-year-old nephew was accidentally shot and killed on a Butte, Mont., playground by a boy who brought a pistol to school after being bullied by another student.
“We have strong traditions,” Bullock said in a recent interview. “We have hunting traditions. We have 2nd Amendment traditions…. That doesn’t mean that a parent in Helena is any less concerned about the safety of their kids. It’s just whether or not some of the gun control measures are going to be what moves the needle on that.”
Bullock has taken a measured stance on new gun laws. He signed legislation ensuring privacy for people applying for concealed weapon permits. But he has vetoed other bills, including Kerns’ proposal to prevent enforcement of any new federal gun regulations inside Montana. “That’s a political statement,” he said. (A similar Wyoming measure died in the state Senate without coming to a vote.)
Bullock was equally measured when discussing the federal gun debate, answering questions as though picking his way across a bed of glowing coals. Arming schoolteachers, as the NRA would like? “I don’t think that’s the solution.” Limiting the size of gun magazines? “I don’t think it necessarily moves that needle that much.”
“These issues are so much more complex than just guns,” Bullock said, “and we as a society don’t always want to address all of the pieces,” including mental health, bullying and family stability. “This is a discussion that extends far beyond just 2nd Amendment rights.”
Those sentiments, coming from a moderate Democrat, show why gun control advocates scaled back their ambitions, focusing on expanded background checks — a proposal with overwhelming public support, even among Westerners — rather than press for more contentious measures, such as limits on high-capacity magazines and a ban on assault-type weapons.
“We would love to have that discussion,” said Pia Carusone, head of the gun control group Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. A gun owner and native Westerner, Giffords was shot and nearly killed two years ago at a Tucson shopping center.
“But,” Carusone said, “we don’t have enough willing partners … to make that happen.”