The national debate over firearms regulation is often presented as a battle of extremes: those who view any effort to tighten gun laws as an infringement of rights versus those who see guns as a menace to society.
But gun owners like Michael Kundu come from a largely unexplored middle ground — a place of nuance and contradiction.
Mr. Kundu is a master marksman from rural Washington who owns pistols and assault rifles for self-defense, all while claiming to detest the presence of guns in his life and in the broader American culture.
“I’d love to see all guns destroyed,” he said. “But I’m not giving up mine first.”
Mr. Kundu, 48, who works for the federal government, is a conflicted gun owner, one of many such Americans whom researchers and social scientists are just beginning to study as a potentially moderating influence in the escalating gun debate.
In Mr. Kundu’s case, the conflict is that he enjoys competitive shooting even as he perceives danger in what he describes as a local arms race that he feels powerless to escape.
Out of “common sense,” he said, he needs to be as armed as his neighbors, some of whom he describes as troublemakers with assault rifles. “It is so discouraging, so paranoia-inducing,” he said. “It makes one feel as though you’ve got to be continually vigilant and defensive instead of living your life free.”
Other gun owners interviewed for this article expressed similar reservations, citing their enjoyment of hunting or of introducing family members to the sport while expressing support for stricter gun control legislation. Mr. Kundu, for instance, supports a ban on the kind of assault weapon that he owns, a rifle manufactured by Panther Arms.
It is these voices of ambivalence that policy makers say are likely to be drowned out by the passion at the extreme ends.
“Their views don’t get represented in the debate, and it’s one of the consequences of the polarized nature of our politics,” said Patrick J. Egan, an assistant professor of politics and public policy at New York University. “If all sides had more of an incentive to moderate their arguments in a way that would be appealing to people like this, you could imagine it being a more constructive conversation than it currently is.”
Clearly, not all gun owners are Second Amendment absolutists. Many recent surveys show that majorities of gun owners do favor certain gun control proposals, like making private gun sales subject to background checks. But the extent to which gun owners feel of two minds about owning guns is something polls and surveys typically do not address.
“We’ve been struggling with this whole realm of issues — feelings about guns,” said Michael Dimock, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “And that’s because we’ve talked a lot about gun policy, but not about gun culture.”
In a survey it began conducting last month, Pew for the first time asked gun-owning respondents “whether they enjoy having guns, whether they feel uncomfortable about them, and whether they feel safer for having them,” Mr. Dimock said. Those results are expected to be published in a coming report.
“I think it’s easy for a lot of people to assume that all gun owners oppose gun control and all nonowners favor it,” he said. “But our polling data suggests that the correlation is nothing like that. Rather, most Americans appear to have mixed feelings about gun laws.”
Kay H. Wilson, a blogger in Waco, Tex., who recently wrote a post about her “love-hate relationship with guns,” said, “We need people to speak up.” Ms. Wilson describes herself as “a pretty good dang shot” when she practices her aim at a family farm in West Texas, but also said, “I’m no lover of the personal handgun.”
While she and her husband, Richard, have a gun in their suburban home for personal protection, they store it and the bullets in separate rooms. And Ms. Wilson acknowledges that she would sooner throw her cat at an intruder than shoot someone. The gun does not make her feel safer.
“I believe that if I had a gun under my pillow ‘for protection’ from intruders,” she wrote in her blog, “the intruder could be upon me before I could wake up and they could possibly overpower and kill me.”
So why do the Wilsons, who favor stricter gun control, own a pistol?
“It’s there just in case,” said Mr. Wilson, 56, a chiropractor, who also owns an inherited heirloom rifle that has not been fired since he was a boy. “I think you have to be really smart and know what situations it might be useful for. In some situations, yes, you’d be better off not going for it.”
Sonia Wolff, a novelist in Los Angeles, felt compelled to buy a pistol a few years ago for self-defense, a decision she wrote about in The Los Angeles Times. “I had never wanted a gun,” the introduction states. “Now I own a Smith & Wesson revolver. Why?”
The short answer, she said in an interview, was, “When push comes to shove, I’d rather have one.”
But she added, “If I had my way in the best of all worlds, nobody would have a gun.”
Mr. Kundu, the competitive sharpshooter, agreed. “I’ve always thought the Second Amendment is secondary to everyone being able to feel safe and secure in their lives,” he said. “Fewer guns would lead to fewer deaths, there’s no question about that.”
Still, he has trained his wife and teenage sons on his firearms. “I insisted that they be proficient,” he said. “We put out wooden blocks and bricks so they could see how devastating and damaging a bullet can be.”
John Flores and Patricia Speed, a married couple in San Francisco, own two 9-millimeter handguns and a Winchester Model 70 rifle because they have recently come to enjoy shooting at ranges. They say they enjoy the concentration it takes to be a good marksman and find the practice relaxing.
But as first-time gun owners, they say they were shocked by how easily they bought the guns and feel uncomfortable about storing them — even unloaded in a locked safe — in their home.
“It freaked me out how easy it was to buy a gun,” said Ms. Speed, 30, a graphic designer. “I think it’s harder to get an iPhone than it is a gun. Now I’m a gun owner who believes there needs to be way more regulation.”
The couple does not talk much about their guns with other people, especially since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults.
“Conversation becomes very antagonistic very quickly,” Ms. Speed said. “It’s hard to have a rational conversation when people are so emotional about it. I’ve just kept my mouth shut.”