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What NRA Attendees Said About Louisville's Gun Violence Problem

Justin Schmidt grabbed some pizza and took a seat against the wall. It felt good to rest his legs.

He'd been browsing booths nearly all day Friday at the Kentucky Expo Center. This weekend, the National Rifle Association's annual meeting is bringing an estimated 70,000 people and hundreds of guns to the center's south wing.

Suppressed handguns dangled from displays. Attendees waited in line to get a glance down the barrel of a long-range sniper rifle.

Boys in cowboy hats shot air pistols at fake trains. Men in jeans fired at mysterious villains in simulation machines.

Louisville — the city on track to see its deadliest year in decades in terms of homicides, and where gun violence is spiking — is for the weekend the hub of America's gun culture.

Metro Police reported 150 shootings through the end of March. That's a nearly 40 percent increase compared with last year, which ended with more than 80 homicides, the most in nearly four decades.

So we asked NRA convention attendees for their thoughts about gun violence and gun culture, and what -- if any -- relationship the two have to one another.

Schmidt said while guns are sometimes the means for harm, they're not the motive.

"It's easy to blame a tool," he said. "The focus should be on the individual."

Like many gun advocates here, Schmidt said guns cause little harm until someone squeezes the trigger.

What leads someone to do that, though, doesn't seem so clear. And that's true even here, among some of the nation's staunchest gun rights supporters.

Schmidt is from Minneapolis. He said he believes humans are inherently violent and some lose the ability to control themselves. Such behavior can result from violent upbringings, a lack of family support and desensitization, he said.

"When you become desensitized to that violence, it's just like eating a slice of pizza, it's nothing," he said.

David Jones, from Maysville, Kentucky, believes there's a lack of gun education in the country. He also said the justice system fails society by clogging jails with nonviolent offenders.

Focusing on stricter punishments for gun-toting criminals is one way to reduce gun violence, he said.

"If a guy commits a crime with a gun, don't put him in jail for 30 days, put him under the jail," he said.

Justin Hughes echoed the concerns of many city officials in Louisville, that guns are too easily accessible, especially for people involved in crime.

"There's not going to be a perfect answer," he said.

Hughes said gun advocates and gun opponents need to find common ground and develop a more productive dialogue.

"That's the way to solve anything, especially in this country," he said.

Hughes hesitated to call for more gun regulations. He said existing laws need more enforcement. But regulations and reform aren't the real issue, he said.

People, he said, are the problem — echoing a long-held belief of the NRA. Ridding society of violent people means tapping into and changing human psyche, which won't be easy.

"At the end of the day, guns aren't going anywhere," he said. "The most important thing is that we all get along."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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