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In hotbed of firearm freedom, a hamburger comes with a side of handgun

Waitresses Ashlee Saenz, left, Lauren Boebert, Jessie Spaulding, and Dusty Sheets pose for a photo with their sidearms in front of the Shooters Grill in Rifle, Colo., earlier this year.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Christopher Mullen

RIFLE, Colo. - In this saloon-style restaurant, it's not just the fried jalapenos packing heat.

A spicy hamburger, here, comes with a side of handgun.

America's dual love affairs with fast-food and firepower coalesce into one at Shooters Grill, just off the highway where Colorado's mountains morph into Utah's desert canyons.

The waitresses are armed. So are many of the patrons.

A sign in front says: "Guns are welcome on premises. Please keep all weapons holstered unless need arises. In such case, judicious marksmanship is appreciated."

Waitress Dusty Sheets scoots between tables during a mid-afternoon rush, with plates in her hands and a nine-millimetre Smith & Wesson holstered on her hip.

The gun-friendly restaurant is barely a year old but it's become a big draw in the aptly named town of Rifle, Colo.

She said the crowds grew after a TV station out in Denver did a story on the small-town, gun-themed joint — where the burgers have names like "Ricochet," "Swiss & Wesson," and "Guac Nine."

''I'd say it's tripled in business,'' Sheets said.

Firing that point home is a visitor from Hawaii a few feet away, talking about how she just had to come see this restaurant with the guns. The objects of this tourist's fascination, however, are just an everyday sight for the locals, Sheets says.

"I was raised on guns," said the 23-year-old waitress.

"And most of the girls (in the restaurant) who do carry were raised on them, too. It's who we are. Most of us open-carry — so it's nothing new to people around here."

Waitress Dusty Sheets poses in Shooters Grill on Aug. 22, 2014, a restaurant in Rifle, Colo., where the staff are armed with handguns. So are many of the patrons.
Waitress Dusty Sheets poses in Shooters Grill on Aug. 22, 2014, a restaurant in Rifle, Colo., where the staff are armed with handguns. So are many of the patrons.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alexander Panetta

What's new in America, though, is a political shift on guns. Even for a country renowned for its world-leading gun-ownership rates, these are particularly triumphant times for gun-rights enthusiasts.

Exactly two years ago, the country was debating the possibility of national gun-control measures following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 12, 2014.

But a new poll illustrates the implausibility of that now. For the first time in more than two decades of Pew Research surveys, the organization announced this week that it found more support for gun rights than for gun control.

A record 52 per cent called it more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns compared to 46 per cent who called gun control more important — adding public opinion to a gun-rights arsenal that already includes a friendly Supreme Court and an ever-friendlier Republican-dominated Congress.

Shares in gun companies nearly doubled after Sandy Hook, before the recent stock-market dip. Gun sales appear up, with background checks through the FBI system doubling since the program was created in 1999. In the hope of making Texas the 45th open-carry state, advocates recently took to demonstrating with assault rifles in stores like Target.

In Colorado, open-carry is allowed without a permit. Some people, however, prefer to keep their weapons concealed.

Across the street from Shooters Grill, a mother and her young children walk into a pawn shop called The Tradesmen. The owner's chatting about gun rights and, to illustrate a point, he calls out to the woman and asks where her weapon is. Mom pulls up her shirt, and shows off a handgun tucked into her pants.

The shop offers a vast selection of guns.

There are old muskets. A little pen gun, like the type James Bond might use to carry out an espionage-thriller-execution. And there's a semi-automatic like the .223-calibre Bushmaster used in the real-life killing of 20 schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary.

The owner passes it over the counter to visitors, to let them handle it while he delivers an enthusiastic defence of gun rights. All the Bushmaster is, he says, is a tool — a slightly more effective, more modern tool than those old rifles for sale up on the wall, and just a few degrees of innovation ahead of the ones America's founding fathers used to wrest their independence from England.

Gun-control supporters are, unsurprisingly, expressing distress over recent developments. The Brady Campaign issued, in response to another new poll, a statement full of alarming stats — like one that says a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to kill an occupant than to be used in self-defence.

But the pawn-shop owner throws back a counter-stat: that violent crime is lower in states with relaxed gun laws because, he says, criminals there had better think twice before attacking someone.

Across the street at Shooters, the waitress chalks it up to a cultural misunderstanding.

Sheets was taught to shoot by her dad. They started when she was five. She's gotten pretty good — although she confesses she's better at open-sight shooting than with a scope.

And she gets annoyed when she hears guns being disparaged, by people like President Barack Obama — who responded to the failure to pass gun control in Congress with over two-dozen executive actions, mostly aimed at promoting background checks, simplifying the checks process, and funding research on gun violence.

"We do get offended. Because it is our right," Sheets said, referring to the Constitution's Second Amendment.

"In the city, most of those people don't experience this way of life. When you live in the country, this is how we're raised. If the city people were raised here, they might think a little differently."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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