By James V. Grimaldi and Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 6:54 PM
When Jared Lee Loughner went to the Sportsman's Warehouse outlet on Nov. 30, he faced few obstacles to walking away with a Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun. Loughner was making the purchase in Arizona, a state with an Old West culture where gun laws are among the most lenient in the United States.
The 22-year-old passed an instant background check required under federal law for all gun buyers, said Reese Widmer, manager of the Tucson store. A law enacted last year allowed Loughner to conceal and carry the pistol without a permit.
On Sunday, Loughner was charged with using the Glock in the Tucson rampage that gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six others, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl. In all, 20 people were shot in the attack.
Arizona gun laws, which have been criticized by gun-control groups, permit any law-abiding resident older than 18 to buy or possess a firearm. To buy a handgun, as opposed to a rifle or shotgun, federal law requires the buyer to be at least 21.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik, a chief law enforcement official in the area where the shooting spree occurred, on Sunday criticized unfettered freedom to carry guns in Arizona.
"I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want," said Dupnik, a Democrat. "And that's almost where we are."
Dupnik criticized lawmakers who proposed a bill in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings to allow students and teachers to carry guns to class.
"That's the ridiculous state to where we have become," he said.
Guns are permitted almost everywhere in the state except a business or doctor's office. The state rifle association lists restaurants that permit concealed weapons. Guns are permissible inside the state Capitol and many other public buildings.
State law permits gun owners to carry a concealed weapon into establishments that serve alcohol as long as the gun owner isn't imbibing. Concealed guns are permitted on school grounds while picking up or dropping off a child, as long as the weapon is unloaded and the gun owner remains in a vehicle.
Arizona's stand on gun ownership is rooted in the state constitution, adopted in 1910, which says, "The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the state shall not be impaired, but nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing individuals or corporations to organize, maintain, or employ an armed body of men."
Former state senator Pamela Gorman (R), a sponsor of the bill allowing guns on school grounds, earlier last year explained to The Post the reasoning for the opposition to gun-control laws.
"The people that you would be trying to control are not concerned about breaking some little city ordinance," she said. "If they're thinking about taking life, do you think the fact that their gun isn't properly registered is something that even crosses their minds? That's why the gun restriction laws we just think are ridiculous."
Arizona gun laws were relaxed further in 2010 when Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed a National Rifle Association-backed bill repealing a state law requiring gun owners to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. State law now permits anyone 21 or older and legally qualified to own a firearm to carry the weapon without a concealed-to-carry permit.
The new law won praise from gun groups.
"This is a major victory for gun owners in Arizona," Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's political arm in Washington, said at the time. "The NRA is also grateful . . . for this measure making Arizona the third state in the nation behind Vermont and Alaska to offer its residents a constitutional carry option."
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has given Arizona among the poorest ratings of any state. The group assigns as many as 100 points to states for every law or rule passed to limit access to guns; in the organization's 2009 state score card, Arizona earned two points.
"Arizona, as it turns out, has almost no gun laws," said Paul Helmke, director of the Brady group.
A Washington Post analysis of data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shows that Arizona is a net exporter of guns that are seized in crimes. In 2009, 1,637 guns first purchased in Arizona were recovered at out-of-state crime scenes, according to an analysis of guns traced by ATF. That means that for every 100,000 state inhabitants, 25 guns were exported from Arizona.
Giffords joined a congressional friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to declare the District of Columbia's gun ban unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court issued its 2008 opinion in the D.C. case, Giffords issued a statement praising the decision.
"As a gun owner, I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment," Giffords said. "This is a common-sense decision that reaffirms the Constitutional right - and Arizona tradition - of owning firearms. I commend the court for ruling in favor of restoring our right to bear arms."
But her record garnered only a D rating from the NRA, which endorsed her 2010 Republican opponent, former Marine Sgt. Jesse Kelly, 29. The NRA spent $38,946 in independent efforts to defeat Giffords, who won by two percentage points.
U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, who was killed in the rampage, was one of the first federal judges in 1994 to strike down part of the Brady gun-control law, saying it was unconstitutional for the federal government to require states to conduct background checks. Ultimately, the law was upheld and background checks are required today.
After the shooting, the NRA posted a statement on its Web site.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this senseless tragedy," it said. "We join the rest of the country in praying for the quick recovery of those injured."
Staff writer Sari Horwitz in Tucson contributed to this report.