Alex Lopez was 13 the first time he fired a rifle. His uncle had taken him out to shoot in the California desert, and they were aiming at empty Coke cans.
Five years later, Lopez became the owner of the Ruger 10/22 rifle he had fired on the day he turned 18. Twenty-two years after that, he would pass the rifle down to his own son on his 18th birthday.
Today, Lopez and his father co-own Western Firearms Inc. in Bell, California. As the name suggests, Western Firearms sells, well, firearms. The shop also provides gunsmith services – everything from cleaning and repair to customizing guns.
“You know what they say,” said Lopez, sitting in his work space on the second floor of the gun shop, surrounded by guns in various states of repair and disrepair. “If you do something that you like for a living, you’re not working.”
Lopez himself owns a total of 15 firearms – four assault rifles, six Glocks, two shotguns, two M1911 pistols, and an AK-47. He was hesitant to talk to a reporter about the weapons.
“I don’t know, you guys kind of twist the truth at times,” he said, recalling past experiences with media outlets where he felt like his words had been taken out of context. He said he only talked to this reporter “to give her a chance.”
Since the pandemic, Lopez said his firearms have been flying off the shelves, with frantic customers lining up outside his doors to stock up. On March 28, the Trump administration announced that gun shops would be considered essential services, in the same category as grocery stores and pharmacies.
“I think we all have our right to defend ourselves,” said Lopez. “I do believe the people are the militia, and that amendment was put there to put the government in check, and other people don’t see it that way.” He said some people confuse it with for example, hunting, but noted that there have been examples of governments becoming radical in countries like Venezuela. “People say it couldn’t happen here,” Lopez said. “But if it’s happened in other places, it can happen here.”
Even though Lopez is a proud gun owner, gun rights advocate and National Rifle Association member today, he stumbled into the world of firearms by accident. He had been working in an automotive shop with his father, fixing cars, for 15 years. One day, the owner of the automotive shop closed his doors, realizing he could no longer compete with large online retailers. The shop also housed a tiny gun store, which Lopez and his father decided to buy overnight. In effect, they switched careers.
Lopez has never himself had a reason to use a firearm in self-defense, but said that sometimes a single mother will walk into his store and tell him someone tried to break into her house, and she needed something to defend herself with. Or, more recently, a couple of customers told him intruders had broken into their home and tied them up.
“We have a saying in the gun industry: When seconds count, the police are only minutes away,” he said.
The U.S. makes up only about 5% of the world’s population, but has about 46% of civilian-owned guns across the globe, according to a report by the Small Arms Survey. Gun violence in America is well-documented – in 2017, there were 4.43 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, a rate much higher than in comparable wealthy countries.
Lopez’s stance is that you can’t predict crazy: Don’t look at the gun as the problem. Look at the person holding the gun as the problem. Mental illness, he said, is one of the main reasons for gun violence here, and an America without guns could not solve that. China, he suggested, struggles with a different but comparable issue: stabbings.
“It's the same thing with a firearm,” said Lopez. “So at what point do we draw the line? What are we going to ban to where we feel like, okay, we took care of the whole problem? Are we going to start banning U-Haul trucks? Are we going to start banning other types of things people can use as a weapon?”
Mass shootings in the U.S. have become increasingly frequent and deadly in recent years, but Lopez says there is more to it than just the firearms.
“There’s got to be a core issue that we just haven’t really tackled,” he said. “All these gun laws have come out more as – I call them Band-Aid laws, feel-good laws where it makes people think, ‘Okay, we’re doing something.’ But what’s the root cause of these things that are happening?”
Today, Lopez is a firearms training instructor with the NRA and is trying to get the word out that they “are not all bad.”
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re an NRA member. You’re evil. You don’t care about people’s safety,’” said Lopez, getting visibly fired up. “And I’m like, ‘Whoa, that’s one of my main things. I’m an instructor.’ I train people to properly handle their firearms and be safe with it and defend themselves if they have to. I’m not a bad guy, you know.”
He said being an instructor has been a rewarding experience.
“I get those people that come in that are kind of timid, using their firearm,” he said. “And at the end of the day, they have that confidence builder because now they know how to properly use their firearm.”
When he has a chance, Lopez shoots in firearms competitions. He said he is good until the nerves kick in. Then, he said, with the pressure of people watching, it falls apart sometimes.
In February, he got a tattoo of a samurai holding a handgun to pay homage to the sport.
“It’s a samurai because, to me, my handgun is my discipline and with the samurai, they live by the Bushido code,” Lopez said, referring to the code of conduct followed by the Japanese warriors. “So in this case, instead of a sword, it’s a handgun.”