Fargo-area members say NRA fights for their gun rights

WEST FARGO -- When he's teaching a beginner how to shoot a pistol, Darrell Kersting doesn't look at the target to see where the bullets are going but at the shooter's hands and eyes.

WEST FARGO - When he's teaching a beginner how to shoot a pistol, Darrell Kersting doesn't look at the target to see where the bullets are going but at the shooter's hands and eyes.

"If you maybe see a lot of what's called 'muzzle flip,' they maybe are not holding the gun up as high so it balances and receives that energy correctly," he said Friday night, March 23, his voice drowned out at times by gunfire at the range behind him.

He also noted the direction of the muzzle because, with the compact shape of a pistol, it's easy to accidentally point the gun in an unsafe direction with a small wrist movement, such as during reloading.

Friday was ladies' night at the Red River Regional Marksmanship Center and Kersting was here with his wife, Sue, as instructors. They're both members of the National Rifle Association and certified by the organization as range safety officers.

The NRA, known for its uncompromising stance on the Second Amendment, has been in the news a lot lately, as it often is after a mass shooting. Polls taken after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that killed 17 on Valentine's Day show a growing number of Americans view the NRA in a negative light, especially after its rhetoric about the student survivors calling for gun control.


But the Kerstings and many NRA members remain supportive. They say they agree wholeheartedly with the organization's mission of training responsible gun owners and protecting owners' rights.

Erik Clemenson, a Glyndon Rod & Gun Club member and conceal-carry instructor, said NRA members are the ones getting background checks and licenses, while criminals don't.

"That's the biggest frustration to me, is why are you fighting against those who are trying to do things right?" he said.

Benign view

For many who aren't owners, guns have a fearsome reputation built by news stories about mass shootings such as the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival shooting that killed 59 in Las Vegas last October and the recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. Neither of the shooters had prior criminal records and were able to obtain their guns legally.

To NRA members like the Kerstings, those events have little to do with their weapons experience.

Darrell Kersting said he grew up hunting around his parents' dairy farm in Waubun, Minn, and it was as much a part of the rhythm of rural life as milking cows and baling hay.

Sue Kersting said she just enjoys shooting. She said she finds it very relaxing to focus on hitting a target and, with muzzleloaders, on loading powder and shots. "Each gun gives you a challenge and a different way of shooting."


Clemenson, who owns an AR-15 rifle, said he uses it for "plinking around" and deer hunting. It makes him proud to be able to put meat on his family's table and he's teaching his boys self-sufficiency, though they're too young for his rifle.

The AR-15 and those styled after it are frequently called "assault weapons" in news reports. These guns have become notorious for use in mass shootings, including the ones in Las Vegas and Parkland. Mass shootings in earlier years, some with high body counts, have involved other weapons, such as pistols.

Though Clemenson said the AR-15 is similar to the assault rifle he's used in the military, he argued it's not a "killing machine" because the small, high-velocity bullet is designed to wound. Bullets of any caliber would kill if aimed right, he said, and suggested that a double-barrel shotgun would be more deadly in a mass shooting.

Critics have argued that with less recoil than a shotgun, AR-15s are much easier to handle. They also have large box magazines that are easy to reload compared to shotguns.

Good guys

From its earliest days, the NRA has focused on training people to use guns. According to the organization's history, the group was founded after the Civil War by Union officers appalled by the lack of marksmanship among soldiers.

The aggressive lobbying for which it's now known began in the mid-1970s when the NRA created the Institute for Legislative Action. But the NRA's training mission has never gone away.

Craig Roe, a Kindred, N.D., gun owner, said he joined because of the "tremendous training resources" and, as a certified conceal-carry instructor, he has to be a member. He said his membership dues go to training, not lobbying, which the NRA conducts with donations.


But he, Clemenson and the Kerstings all said they support the organization's overall mission of protecting Second Amendment rights.

Critics describe the NRA's view as absolutist or close to it because the group tolerates few laws restricting gun ownership. Local NRA members said they didn't necessarily agree with all NRA positions, but nothing really came to mind when asked what they disagreed with.

They all said they agreed that teachers should be allowed to carry guns in schools and that the ban on assault weapons shouldn't be revived. Both ideas have been discussed in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

As Wayne LaPierre, a top NRA official, said after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun."

Roe said he feels it's better for teachers who are there to have guns and be trained to use them because the damage is done by the time police arrive. Even a police officer patrolling the halls would need time to get across the building, he said.

Many law enforcement officials say they fear more guns in schools would make it hard to distinguish between good guys and bad guys. Other officials say teachers would need to receive vigorous training.

Clemenson said he believes criminals would think twice if they knew everyone had guns. Washington, D.C., and Chicago have strict gun control laws but still have gun violence, he said.

Under attack


As supportive as members are of the organization, it appears to have lost support among the general public, which may have to do with the NRA's hardline rhetoric.

After the Parkland shooting, the NRA released an ad in which spokeswoman Dana Loesch accused critics in media, Hollywood and legislative chambers of lies, arrogance and undermining the will of voters - all but treason. She ended with an ominous tone: "Your time is running out. The clock starts now."

NRATV hosts have also made personal attacks against student survivors of Parkland now demanding gun control.

A Quinnipiac University poll done days after the Feb. 14 shooting found a majority of Americans, 51 percent, believe the NRA supports policies that are bad for the country, while 38 percent said the policies are good.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from earlier this month found the percentage of Americans who view the NRA negatively is now higher than those who view it positively - 40 percent versus 37 percent - for the first time since 2000.

Darrell Kersting called the tone an "unfortunate sign of our times," but said it's an organization simply responding to mudslinging. "I think they throw some of that mud right back and then people say 'Oh, they're throwing mud at me.' Well, you know, you step into the public arena, it's kind of what ends up happening nowadays."

Roe agreed, painting a picture of an organization under attack by its critics.

"I would call them defensive," he said. "Everything the NRA wants to do, there's always the other side that wants to tear down the NRA and call them bad guys. Instead of being combative, I think what they are is being defensive."

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