Armed and Dangerous

When I was coming of political age, in the late 1970s, there were important decisions to be made. Learning what adults meant when they used complicated words like "filibuster" and "the Senate," for example. And, of course, deciding which political party to join. After carefully researching the Democratic and Republican parties -- reviewing their platforms, examining what they stood for, studying their leaders -- I noted several crucial differences.

Republicans wore suits; Democrats wore jeans. Republicans drank Scotch; Democrats smoked pot. Most important, the Democratic Party was littered with young hippie chicks -- liberated, free-spirited and braless women who held out the intoxicating promise of casual sex. By contrast, the Republicans, as far as I could tell, had none. My choice was clear.

What a difference a quarter-century can make. Today, Democrats and Republicans dress the same. Members of the GOP still drink Scotch; Dems have switched to Chardonnay. And the braless hippie chick? She's mutated into a nagging soccer mom intent on instructing people in what they can't do: Don't smoke -- it infringes on others' rights! Don't drink -- you might get date-raped! People have been known to die from bullet wounds; thus, if there are fewer guns, more people will live.

In short, the fun-loving Democrats of my youth just don't seem to be having much fun anymore. At the same time, Republicans have loosened up as they've aged.

Today's exhibit: The 1st Annual Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Day, a fundraiser for the Independence Institute, a Golden-based conservative think tank. "I've always wanted to have a politically incorrect event," explains institute president Jon Caldara. So, on a recent Saturday, about three dozen people who've paid $150 each gather at the Kiowa Creek Sporting Club, an hour's drive east of Denver, drawn by the promise of socially illicit hijinks. The cost covers gun rental and ammo. Beer, brandy and cigars will also be provided.

The mood is festive. After all, school vouchers are now law in Colorado. Anyone who can fog a mirror and hasn't committed a murder in the past couple of minutes can get a permit to carry a concealed gun. A smoking ban for Denver is on the cusp of defeat. What conservative wouldn't be in the mood to throw back a few martinis, light up a stogie and bust a few caps in the name of personal freedom?

Shooting events, no matter if they are sponsored by Dudley Brown and the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners ("Colorado's Largest No-Compromise Gun Rights Organization) or a high-minded think tank, tend to attract a varied mix of people. Many grew up hunting and love guns. Others simply hate being told what to do. "If guns kill people, then pencils miss pel words, cars make people drive drunk and spoons made Rosie O'Donnell fat," reads one T-shirt.

Jennifer, an organizer, passes out waivers that, in small print, admit more than some pro-gun activists: "I acknowledge that the use of firearms by myself and other persons involves risk of personal injury and death to me."

Caldara yells for attention, then offers a greeting and some words of advice. "I've never done this, so stand behind me," he advises. "We want to make this an annual event," he adds, "so don't shoot off your toe, or anyone else's. And if you do, don't sue me."

"Never point the gun at something you're not willing to destroy," adds Amy, a National Rifle Association instructor. We are given a shwag bag from the NRA, which is co- sponsoring the event: safety goggles, ear protection and a small towel emblazoned with "NRA."

A dozen shooting stations are set up at a nearby creek bed. The crowd breaks into groups of three and four. Everybody gets ten shots at each of ten stations -- a hundred blasts in all.

Dave Kopel, an Independence Institute researcher who specializes in writing about the Second Amendment, is one of the first to set up at a firing line. He wears a shooting vest plastered with gun-organization and achievement patches, a sort of adult Boy Scout sash. "PULL!" he shouts. A clay flies out from his left. He shoots.

"That would be a clean miss," observes Steve Close, who is wearing a shirt that says "Close for State Senate" (he plans to challenge Democratic Senate Minority Leader Joan Fitz-Gerald next year). Kopel misses his next two, then scores a hit.

Close doesn't fare much better. He misses shooting at the first two clays altogether while he figures out the gun's safety. When he pumps the shotgun, the spent shell that pops out of the chamber seems to surprise him. "The last time I did this, I was a teenager," he admits.

Down the riverbed a ways, a club employee is frantically trying to prepare the clays. "Apparently there's some big group here, and, of course, no one told me about it," he gripes. When he learns who the big group is ("The Independence what?"), though, his eyes light up.

"It's the era of the conservative!" he exclaims.

I ask if he gets a lot of Democrats out here shooting. He breaks into a long peal of laughter and walks off, shaking his head.

Still, I run into one almost right away. "See? People get the wrong idea about Democrats," complains Lois Tochtrop, a Democratic state representative from Adams County. "I'm a firm believer in Second Amendment rights. I grew up in Missouri hunting. Shot rabbits to eat -- we'd just spit out the buckshot. I won't shoot rabbits here, though; they have fleas."

"And I won't shoot anything I can't eat," she adds, although she admits that her ethical stance could be tested this fall: Tochtrop's husband has just drawn his first moose license.

Back with Caldara's group, Tim Trumble, owner of a greeting-card company and an Independence Institute supporter dressed in a red, white and blue shirt, says he was thrilled to receive the invite to the 1st Annual ATF Day. "I'm a shooter," he explains, "so when I heard about this, I said to my wife, 'This is for me!' I don't drink or smoke. But I shoot, and she drinks. And maybe I will try smoking today!"

When Trumble and Chris Gierach, a DU law student who is interning for Caldara over the summer, hit a shooting dry spell, Caldara perks up. "Like a good Republican," he tells them, "my success comes from your failures."

The shooting starts to wrap up around 1 p.m. Caldara, for one, is ready to move on. "I've only been doing this for a little while," he says, nodding at his shotgun. "But drinking! I've been practicing that since college."

Back at the parking lot, state Senate president John Andrews and Representative Nancy Spence lean against a car. Caldara walks up to them. "I've always wanted to approach a couple of representatives with a gun on my shoulder and say, 'Okay, let's talk,'" he says.

"Anything you say, boss," Andrews quips.

Andrews claims to have missed the shotgun portion of the morning because of a previously scheduled Republican Party engagement. Still, he says, he's plenty in favor of the shooting sports. Besides, the senator adds, he's tired of hiding his true colors: It's time Republicans came out of the stuffy closet and revealed what fun they really are.

Take his car, a sporty Toyota convertible: "People say this doesn't fit with my man-of-the-people image. But I'm over that. It's not what it's cracked up to be. Now I'm just another suburban right-winger."

I track down Tochtrop and put the question to her directly: Is it true Republicans have become more fun than Democrats?

"No," Representative Tochtrop says forcefully. "Democrats have more fun."

"Doing what?"

There is a silence. "Golf," she says. "We have lots of golf fundraisers."

Inside the lodge, Kopel ponders the historical significance of Republicans as new fun guys on the block. "It wasn't always this way, you know," he says. "Churchill and Roosevelt used to split a pitcher of martinis when they met. And when I was growing up, the liberals had all the fun: You know, having sex..."

At the end of the day, Caldara proclaims the fundraiser an unqualified success. After all, he's on a mission. "We've got to dispel the rumor that liberals have more fun," he says. "They still have better sex than us. But we're working on that."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer