BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Talk of stricter gun control has stirred up a lot of unease here, a place where hunters vie for top prize (a 26-inch LED television) in the Big Buck Photo Contest, and ads for a gun-simulator game ask, "Feel like shooting something today?"
But before Sen. Joe Manchin III invited a group of 15 businessmen and community leaders to lunch last week to discuss the topic, he had only a vague idea of how anxious many of his supporters were.
"How many of you all believe that there is a movement to take away the Second Amendment?" he asked.
About half the hands in the room went up.
Despite his best attempts to reassure them -- "I see no movement, no talk, no bills, no nothing" -- they remained skeptical. "We give up our rights one piece at a time," a banker named Charlie Houck told the senator.
If there is a path to new gun laws, it has to come through West Virginia and a dozen other states with Democratic senators like Mr. Manchin who are confronting galvanized constituencies that view any effort to tighten gun laws as an infringement.
As Congress considers what, if any, laws to change, Mr. Manchin has become a barometer among his colleagues, testing just how far they might be able to go without angering voters.
A group of Democratic senators led by Dianne Feinstein of California on Thursday introduced a bill that would outlaw more than 100 assault weapons, setting up what promises to be a fraught and divisive debate over gun control in Congress in the coming weeks. But a number of centrist lawmakers such as Mr. Manchin have already thrown the measure's fate into question, saying all they are willing to support for now is a stronger background check system.
As a hunter with an A-rating from the National Rifle Association, Mr. Manchin gave advocates for new weapons laws reason for optimism after he said last month that gun firepower and magazine capacity might need to be limited.
But now, Mr. Manchin, who affirmed his support for gun rights by running a campaign commercial in 2010 showing him firing a rifle at an environmental bill, says he is not so sure. One of his local offices has been picketed, and even some of his most thoughtful supporters are cautioning him that stronger background checks are about all the gun control they can stomach.
And on the afternoon the 15 residents met with Mr. Manchin in the conference room of a local arts center, they told him that going after guns and ammunition capacity would be much like banning box cutters after the Sept. 11 attacks, or limiting whiskey and six-pack sales to cure alcoholism.
"It takes about a second and a half to change a clip," said Frank Jezioro, a former special agent with the Office of Naval Intelligence and now director of the state Division of Natural Resources. Mr. Jezioro likened gunmen in mass shootings to suicide bombers: they will always find a way. "A guy can walk through this door right here with your Beretta five-shot automatic, and cut the barrel off at 16 inches, and put five double-ought buck shots in there and kill everybody in here in a matter of seconds," he said. "And you don't have to aim it."
As it happened, there were at least two guns in the room. One was on the hip of a Beckley police detective who was invited to the lunch, the other at the side of the West Virginia state trooper who stood guard at the door.
Others at the lunch said that laws did little to help even the most violent societies. "Mexico, for instance, has got some of the strictest gun control laws in North America," said Rick Johnson, the owner of a river expedition company. "They'll put you in jail for a bullet in Mexico. And look how well it's worked."
"I can take my AR," Mr. Johnson said, referring to his assault rifle, "load it, put one in the chamber and throw it up on this table, and the only way it's going to hurt anybody is if I miss and hit someone in the head. The gun doesn't hurt anybody. It's the person pulling the trigger."
After talking with the group for nearly two hours, Mr. Manchin left the meeting saying he was not at all comfortable with supporting the assault weapons ban favored by many of his colleagues in Congress.
"I'm not there," he said, adding that he was leaning toward strengthening screening gun purchases instead. "I'm definitely more inclined to be very supportive of background checks."
Mr. Manchin is just the beginning of gun control advocates' worries. Of far greater concern are Democrats who are up for re-election in 2014. Those include senators like Max Baucus of Montana, who was awarded an A+ rating from the NRA. Mr. Baucus has worded his comments on the subject carefully, bracketing them with gun rights-friendly language, like saying the "culture of violence" needs to be seriously examined along with any changes to the law.
There is Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who has said flatly that he would not support a new assault weapons ban, and Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, who initially came out in support of the ban but has been more circumspect recently, saying in an interview last week that he would want to see the language of any such legislation first. "I think for some of my colleagues, that's a tougher debate," Mr. Udall said of outlawing individual weapons.
Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, one of the Senate's most reliable liberals, has not said definitively whether he would vote for the ban, instead signaling only his support for "the principle" of one.
For some, there is something else to consider in addition to voters who are fervently supportive of Second Amendment rights: jobs. North Carolina is where the rifle-maker Remington has its headquarters. One of the state's senators, Kay Hagan, is a Democrat also up for re-election next year.
Another is Sen. Jean Shaheen of New Hampshire, who said she had been hearing from all corners of the state on the issue, including police chiefs, mothers with young children and people whose jobs are tied to local gunmakers like Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Sig Sauer.
"Clearly they're going to be concerned about restrictions, because it's going to affect the sales they do," Ms. Shaheen said. "But it seems to me there are places where we can come to an agreement."
Those areas of agreement, she said, are the need for stronger background checks and better mental health care, not weapons bans.
Even before people on opposite sides of the gun control question start debating the merits of new laws, there are vast cultural divides that threaten to stand in the way of any compromise. In West Virginia, Mr. Manchin's constituents shook their heads at the mere mention of the term assault weapon, which they consider pejorative.
"Do you know where that phrase came from?" said Roger Wilson, a river tour operator and an amateur gun historian. Its origin, he said, came from Hitler, who named a new German weapon Sturmgewehr, literally "storm rifle," which in English became "assault rifle."
During the lunch, Mr. Manchin shared a recent conversation he had with Vice President Joe Biden, the Obama administration's point person on gun control.
"I said, 'Mr. Vice President, with all due respect, I don't know how many people who truly believe that you would fight to protect their rights.'" The senator added, "That's what we're dealing with."nation