Gun ownership is clearly correlated with members' political positions. Over the past two years, the National Rifle Association's political action committee gave 10 times more contributions to House members who own guns than to those who don't, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports filed last week. And members who owned guns were eight times more likely to get an "A" rating from the NRA than those who did not.
YOU DON'T SAY
For some members, their gun ownership is a point of pride. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., provided a list of weapons he owns, and his spokeswoman followed up a few days later to note the congressman had also just bought "a third-generation Glock G27" handgun.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who famously used a rifle to shoot a copy of an environmental bill in a 2010 campaign ad, seemed surprised by the question about his gun ownership, pointing out that he is from West Virginia. "Why would anybody not own a gun?" he asked.
At least a dozen members spoke of heirloom weapons, inherited from fathers, grandfathers and mothers, that are as much a part of the family as their name.
Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., in a television ad, proudly brandishes the Smith & Wesson his grandfather used to stop a lynching -- but his office did not return phone calls to confirm his gun ownership. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., keeps a pistol and two rifles as mementos of his late father.
Asked about his gun ownership, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, tells of his great-grandfather, a Swiss immigrant who, at age 80, "went out into a duck blind on a frozen lake and he never came back.
"And they went out to find him at the end of the day, and he had died of a heart attack in the duck blind with his gun over his lap and with a smile on his face, which is part of the Portman family lore because he loved to hunt," Portman said. "I have that gun. And my kids have shot that gun, so it's a tradition in our family."
Portman said he's mostly concerned about the views of his constituents on gun rights -- but said he couldn't deny that his own experience influences his votes.
For others, the question itself was an intrusion.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said, "Given the security concerns for members of Congress and their families after the shooting of (former Arizona congresswoman) Gabrielle Giffords, it is irresponsible for members of the media to publish how members and their families protect themselves in public and at home."
Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., through spokeswoman Sarah Wolf, provided a more succinct response: "None of your damn business."
Some lawmakers declined to respond to the survey even though they have already made public statements declaring themselves to be gun owners. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., would not respond to the survey, but his website says, "I am a gun owner and avid hunter, and have consistently fought to protect the right to keep and bear arms."
Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican who appears to be the only licensed gun dealer in the House, also declined to respond. Graves holds an active license for the Rockin H Gun Shop, which apparently has been in his family for some time, though there is no longer a shop affiliated with the name.
Hammond, the gun owner's group lobbyist, said he was surprised by the number of lawmakers who declined to talk about their guns. It suggests "they feel that gun ownership is more sensitive than some of the other things they have to reveal," he said.
Members are allowed a few secrets. Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer, who previously served as chief of the Capitol Police, said lawmakers are "permitted to have guns in their offices" and would not have to tell anybody they had a gun.
"We discourage them," he said. "I personally don't know of any member who is packing," he said.
In the public hallways of the Capitol, a lawmaker can carry a weapon only if it is "unloaded and securely wrapped," Gainer said.
Outside the Capitol, members are governed by the gun laws of their states. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., "travels with firearms while on official business in (his) district," press secretary Doug Coutts said.
REFLECTING THE CONSTITUENTS
The responses suggest that gun ownership among lawmakers is on par with gun ownership nationwide.
In a December 2012 USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, 43% of respondents said they have a gun at home. In USA TODAY's lawmakers survey, 43% who responded said they owned guns.
Hammond argued that gun ownership does not determine a lawmakers' vote on gun control. More likely, he said, the culture of the district they represent shapes their view of gun control and their decision to own a gun.
"Lots of Democrats live in urban areas like Chicago and New York where guns are all but banned," said Hammond, whose Gun Owners of America bills itself as "the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington."
Those lawmakers "don't have a lot of constituents who place a high value on the Second Amendment," and also "don't have the personal experiences with guns that would lead them to see them as anything other than a dangerous nasty object," Hammond said.
Some gun owners in Congress support gun control. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from a Minnesota district where four people were killed in a sign-shop shooting last fall, said, "I am a gun owner, and I believe in common-sense gun safety rules. Sensible gun violence prevention will help our communities to avoid devastating tragedies. We must work together to prevent gun violence."
But gun-control advocates say the USA TODAY survey shows how difficult it is for Republicans to endorse gun measures or to even publicly declare that they don't own guns. "This has become a political totem -- a badge of honor for many politicians," said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Gun ownership and the Second Amendment have become "a symbol of a political identity: a rugged individualist who is willing to lay down the law when the government oversteps its bounds," with an emphasis on small government and personal freedom, Everitt said.
For Republicans in conservative, rural districts, he said, "the reality of whether they own a gun may be butting up against the image they want to project."
Members of Congress Who Say They Own a Gun
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