REDDING, Calif. — Imagine plopping a dark-red Texas county deep in the heart of California and forcing the Texans to abide by tough gun laws. They might learn to live with them. But they're not going to like 'em.
Just ask the residents of Shasta County, the gun-buying capital of the Golden State. It's a place where the public firing range on a sunny weekend day seems as crowded as a San Francisco Bay Area Apple Store; the sheriff has doled out 12 times as many concealed-weapon permits as there are in Los Angeles County; and one of the county seat's top elected officials owns one of the area's biggest gun stores.
"We like shooting," said Redding Vice Mayor Patrick Henry Jones, whose family-owned shop sells about 250 guns a month. "It's just normal up here."
As part of deep-blue California, Shasta County could be a window into gun-loving America's future. That's because residents here already live with many of the same gun controls that polls show most Americans believe should be imposed nationwide after mass shootings such as those in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.
California has banned "assault weapons" since 1989. It has required background checks on all gun sales since 1991. And it has outlawed ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 bullets since 2000.
Whether or not they need, or even want, assault weapons and large-capacity magazines isn't really the point, many Shasta residents say.
"They don't like being told by government entities that they can't own a certain thing," said Rich Howell, general manager of Redding's Olde West pawnshop and gun store, where ducks, heads of bucks, pictures of bucking broncos and racks upon racks of long guns adorn the walls.
But Howell and others concede the county's gun culture has endured, even thrived, despite the restrictions — at least so far.
Still, the talk in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento of more gun laws has sent firearms and ammunition flying off the shelves at the vice mayor's gun store. He's buying back AR-15-type semi-automatic rifles — at least those that aren't already banned under the state's assault weapons law — at twice the price he sold them just a few months ago, knowing that he can charge customers even more because manufacturers can't make them fast enough.
The deep gun divide between urban and rural America is as clear in Redding as the snow-capped peaks visible from downtown. Nestled along Interstate 5 between Sacramento and Oregon amid some of the state's most rugged forests, Redding is heavily white, Republican and working-class. Only three hours from the liberal, ethnically diverse and generally upscale Bay Area, it's a world away.
Candy Shelly understands both sides of the cultural chasm. For most of her life, she never considered owning a firearm. But after running a gift shop in Santa Barbara, she moved to Redding six years ago to retire. Living alone at age 67, she was recently spooked when her dog started barking as if someone were lurking outside.
So she found herself at Jones' Fort to buy a five-shot, .32-caliber revolver.
She didn't mind all the paperwork. "I have no problem with any of this," she said. "I think people should have thorough checks."
But many longtime Shasta County gun owners say Texas and the rest of the country will have plenty of problems with California's definition of "thorough."
For Shelly to buy her handgun, she had to bring in two proofs of residency, earn a California Handgun Safety Certificate by passing a written exam and pay a $25 fee. She had to show that she knew how to handle the weapon: unlocking it, loading it, unloading it, relocking it. She had to buy a state-approved safety device — a trigger lock, cable lock, gun cabinet, lockbox or gun safe. She had to plunk down another $25 for the state to run her background check, then wait 10 days before returning to Jones' Fort to pick up the gun.
And if she wanted to buy another handgun — from Jones' Fort, from a neighbor or online — she'd have to wait at least 30 days and go through the same background check process again with another $25 fee, even if in the interim she had spent the $300 or more needed to get a concealed-carry permit, which involves a background check of its own.
In Texas and most other states, she'd simply bring in her ID, fill out a form and then wait for a store clerk to do a free instant background check through the FBI's database. If she passed, she would walk out with a handgun — and could buy another one the next day. And as is the case in all but four states — California, Rhode Island, New York and, beginning in July, Colorado — Texas wouldn't have required a background check if she bought the revolver from an unlicensed seller at a gun show or in a private sale.
That's one of the reasons why Shasta performs background checks — 57.15 per 1,000 residents a year from 2007 through 2011 — at a higher rate than 20 states, including Texas. Shasta also performs more background checks per capita than any other California county.
Jones said he doesn't know anyone who would walk into nearby forests without a firearm to protect themselves from "critters and pot growers." And a doubling of the violent crime rate from 2006 to 2010 has had many local residents clamoring for firearms to protect their homes, too.
But Shasta's gun culture has a darker side. The county's gun death rate was significantly higher than California's — higher even than gun-crime-ridden Alameda County's — from 2001 through 2010. County health officials say more than 75 percent of those gun deaths are suicides. The county's suicide rate is roughly twice that of the state's overall.
Many studies have shown higher gun-ownership rates correlate with higher suicide rates. But county Sheriff Tom Bosenko, an ardent gun rights supporter, argues the issue is one of mental health, not gun availability. "If they are set on committing suicide, they will go out and find a method," Bosenko said.