- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

GAIL, Texas (AP) - Melisa Hancock sidled up to her .22 rifle and took aim at the snake sunning in her father’s backyard.

She needed only one shot, no big deal for a native of these West Texas plains. And so she and her 83-year-old father, Buster Taylor, chuckled when he urged her to “go Rambo” on what was actually a piece of hose playing the role of the area’s ever-present rattlesnakes.

“I’m the noisemaker out here,” Taylor, a retired lawman, said jokingly to The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1NXM3P9). Earlier, he had been target shooting with small bottles of Tannerite, a compound that booms when hit.

Welcome to Borden County, population 676, perhaps the most gun-friendly locale in Texas. More than one-fifth of residents who are old enough - 21 and up - to get a license to carry a handgun have one. That far surpasses any other county - and the 1-in-20 rate for all of Texas.

This month, more than two decades after lawmakers agreed to allow the concealed carrying of handguns, Texas will cross the 1 million mark in residents with a gun carry license.

In a state with 27 million people, that might not seem remarkable. But recently passed legislation, such as a law to allow the licensed open carrying of handguns, has drawn new attention to the state’s fascination with weaponry.

In urban areas like Dallas and its suburbs, it’s a source of conflict and part of the cultural and political wars. In this county southeast of Lubbock, it’s a way of life. Pistols, rifles and shotguns are ubiquitous here, but Borden County isn’t some modern-day OK Corral.

Firearms are seen more as a tool to handle varmints or ranch security than as a conversation piece. Residents would rather talk about their top-notch schools and close-knit community. And even some fervent gun owners just shake their heads at the Legislature’s heated firearms debates.

“Everybody out here is raised with a gun,” Sheriff Benny Ray Allison said. “You never know when you are going to have to use one - running across a snake or you’re out here by yourself in the middle of nowhere.

“Pretty much everybody I know has a gun.”

Many more Texans in recent years have been getting a gun license, which is needed to carry a pistol. (Long guns can be carried without one.) The state Department of Public Safety was even forced this year to boost staffing to handle a statewide bump in gun license applications.

But Borden County isn’t an obvious epicenter - for guns or anything else.

Tucked at the base of the West Texas Caprock, the county was home to Comanche tribes and in some ways is still a vast expanse. On a recent evening, the only thing more immense than the wide-open terrain was a full moon that seemed to perch on Mushaway Peak.

Two stores line the main drag through Gail, the unincorporated town of 250 that serves as the county seat. Ranching, farming and oil drilling are king. The county is about the same square mileage as Dallas County - just with 2.3 million fewer people.

“The 7-Eleven isn’t on every corner,” deadpanned County Judge Ross Sharp.

The remote, small-town life is part of the appeal. It also hints at the area’s embrace of guns.

Joel Dennis raises sheep and cattle on a 5,000-acre spread - the Flying D Ranch - that’s been in his family since the 1940s. The 71-year-old lived for a time in DeSoto, but the heavy traffic on a recent trip to Dallas reminded him of “why I moved” back.

He started working the ranch in his early teens - around the time he got his first gun. It was a 20-gauge shotgun, gifted in a deal to grant fishing rights on the ranch to a family in the county over.

“That’s one of those things you never forget,” he said.

Tending his flock, Dennis wore a pistol on his hip and kept a shotgun in his truck. That’s part of the routine in a land where coyotes roam and snakes lurk, he explained. He needs no license to carry on his property, which can also play host to hunters tracking deer and quail.

But he has one for when he ventures away from home - just in case.

“I don’t want to go into a situation where I feel helpless,” he said.

Crime is uncommon in Borden County, according to state data. But Allison, the sheriff, is often a one-man department. And many of the ranches in the county are miles away from the highway, and even farther from his office.

Several residents said they took comfort in the knowledge that their friends and neighbors were probably packing.

Among them was Amanda Blissard, a 42-year-old Borden County native who serves up burgers and sweet tea at her Blue Paw Cafe in Gail. Asked if she had ever considered posting a “no guns” sign - as some businesses in Dallas and elsewhere have done - she just laughed.

“The thought has never crossed my mind,” said Blissard, who grew up shooting with her dad.

That view fits the conservative values in Borden County, dubbed by one local as “Second Amendment country.” But while Blissard said any talk there of the government taking away guns could “get a whole new war started,” that political battleground can seem like a distant fight.

If Borden County is to be known for anything, many would rather that attention center on its high-achieving school. Home to a still-gleaming facility built in 2012 for its 260 or so students, the school was one of 26 in Texas nominated this year for a national Blue Ribbon award.

And when it comes to guns, residents also stressed that education at home is paramount.

Taylor, the retired lawman, enjoys having people over to shoot on the range he built on his 40 acres. Quick to laugh, he’s hailed as one of the town’s more colorful characters. One sign on his property simply says, “Keep Calm and Carry.”

But when it came time to shoot, he got serious explaining the rules for his range. He recalled that when his kids took an interest in guns, he wanted to make sure they understood what a bullet could do to a person. So he had them watch a high-caliber round obliterate a gallon jug of water.

“Their eyes would get about this big,” he said, forming his hands into the shape of saucers.

Indeed, there are no easy stereotypes in Borden County.

Many enjoy hunting. Others - such as Sharp, the county judge - do not. Many have a license to carry. Many more do not. A few openly carry. Others can’t imagine doing so. Some closely watched the recent legislative debates. Others - such as Dennis, the rancher - wished lawmakers’ time was spent elsewhere.

“There are other issues that are important to Texas,” he said.

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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