Nation & World

In wake of Parkland shooting, Six Americans have their say on gun laws

Public opinion shifts, for now, on assault weapons

Mike Laymon with one of his AR-15s at in Boulder City, Nev. (Bridget Bennett/Washington Post.
Mike Laymon with one of his AR-15s at in Boulder City, Nev. (Bridget Bennett/Washington Post.
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In the month since a gunman killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the country has grappled with its relationship with guns.

Public opinion is shifting, for now. A Gallup poll released Wednesday found that 67 percent of adults say there should be “more strict” laws covering the sale of firearms, up 7 points since October and 20 points since 2014. It’s the highest level of support since 1993, the year before Congress banned assault weapons for a decade.

The Washington Post dispatched reporters across the country to talk with six Americans about assault weapons.

Sunny Lue

Ladue, Mo.

Nearly a month ago, Lu first heard Emma González’s passionate speech begging lawmakers to make it more difficult for mass shooters to obtain weapons.

Lu, a 15-year-old sophomore at Ladue Horton Watkins High, has been repeatedly moved to tears as she listens to González, who survived the Feb. 14 shooting.

“It was so inspiring seeing these students who were so articulate and who just represented our generation so well,” Lu said before a chemistry tutoring session.

She describes her parents, who immigrated to the United States from China for graduate school, as conservative and deeply religious. She said they usually vote for Republicans and supported President Donald Trump — a decision she doesn’t understand.

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In eighth grade, Lu said, she suddenly saw the world differently than her parents. She realized that she supported abortion rights and was deeply bothered by the socioeconomic inequality in the St. Louis area. And she has been alarmed by the president’s comments about immigrants.

As Lu listened to González talk about the threat of gun violence, she wanted to get involved. Soon, she was meeting with students from other schools.

Last Sunday, the group gathered for its third meeting to plan a walkout on April 20, the anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High in Colorado in 1999 — before they were born.

The students plan to call for raising the age for buying an assault rifle to 21, closing loopholes that allow purchases without background checks at gun shows, not allowing those on the no-fly list to buy weapons, and outlawing bump stocks. Unlike the student activists in Florida, these Missouri students decided not to call for a ban on assault rifles.

“It’s just too partisan to really actually implement. It wouldn’t get any votes,” Lu said.

Larry Gordon

Dallas

During his 13 years on the Dallas Police Department’s SWAT team, Gordon carried an AR-15. He was comfortable with it. He liked it. He owns one.

It’s similar to the AK-74 that was used by Micah Xavier Johnson, who went to a Black Lives Matter rally in July 2016 and killed five officers. Gordon tried to negotiate with Johnson for hours, but police eventually killed him with a bomb.

People don’t use assault weapons for hunting, Gordon said, and the weapons shouldn’t be used for home defense, as a pistol is preferred for close-range situations. When someone buys a bunch of AR-15s, he said, that should be a red flag.

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“They’re too easy to get,” said Gordon, who is in his 40s, has worked for the department for 23 years and is a detective. “They’re just too easily accessed with people that intend to do harm. It’s a weapon of war.”

People can’t buy numerous boxes of Sudafed (a key ingredient in meth) or bags of fertilizer (an ingredient in some homemade bombs) without being flagged, he noted. “Try to put $10,000 in a bank, the bank notifies the Treasury Department. Shouldn’t there be a flag if you buy 15 assault rifles?”

So maybe it is time to once again ban assault weapons, Gordon said. Of course, he quickly added, law enforcement and members of the military would still have them and the government shouldn’t take away guns that were already purchased legally.

“I had kids that were afraid to go to school after Parkland. I like the weapon, but if the government wants to ban it, I’m for it because I’m not just thinking of me.”

Mike Laymon

Boulder City, Nev.

Despite what the media and gun-control activists say, Laymon says assault rifles like the AR-15 have great utility and can be used for deer hunting and protecting your home from intruders. Although they look more imposing than a typical rifle, he says, they function the same.

“It’s the same bullet, same caliber, same action, same everything. It just looks different,” said Laymon, 61, a registered Republican who by day is the director of the School of Physical Therapy at Touro University Nevada and in his off time is a certified law enforcement armorer, which means he cleans and repairs police and military weaponry.

When a gunman opened fire on a country music concert on the Las Vegas Strip in 2017, Laymon worried some of his students might be there. His second thought: “We’re gonna get this barrage of stupidity.”

After every mass shooting, he said, there’s always a rush to ban things — and a rush of fear-driven misconceptions about guns that the media seems more than happy to circulate.

First off, he said, AR-15s and other such guns are not “evil.”

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“It’s become a weapon of choice for people that do evil things. So the evil person, the evilness of the deed of the person, is being attributed to the firearm, which I think is inappropriate,” Laymon said during a visit to the Boulder Rifle and Pistol Club near Las Vegas. He owns about 100 guns and brought three with him.

Second, Laymon said, it’s not true that gun owners are not open to “reasonable regulation.” He would like to see new gun owners take a safety course and demonstrate proficiency — and he has no problem requiring more training for those who want bigger guns. Laymon says he even would reluctantly let go of his bump stocks.

“The NRA’s position is anything that affects guns is negative, and they’re not gonna to support that,” said Laymon, a lifetime member. “I’d like to take a little more practical approach.”

CURTIS KELLY

Washington, D.C.

For years, Kelly has tried to keep his children away from the gun violence that has inflicted their neighborhood.

He was trained to use semi-automatic weapons while in the Army but has never had a desire to own a gun. Instead, Kelly got his family involved with combating gun violence through a nonprofit started by his cousin, who survived a shooting years ago.

It seemed like it was working. Two of his six children — twins and seniors at Thurgood Marshall Academy — excelled in track and were planning on college.

Then, on Sept. 20, 16-year-old Zaire Kelly was walking home from school when he was robbed and fatally shot.

“It’s hard sometimes,” said Kelly, 45, who runs a fire sprinkler company. “Sometimes you feel beaten. You want to sit alone and pray. You can’t sit in a stupor and wallow in your sorrow. My kids need strength. My family needs strength.”

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A few weeks ago, he was invited to the White House for a listening session on school violence with Trump. Toward the end, Kelly shared his son’s story. He said students need to be protected not just on school grounds but also in their neighborhoods. He said he’s pushing local politicians to pass legislation to make streets safer.

Kelly didn’t weigh in on increasing the age at which people can buy assault weapons or arming some teachers. Instead, he simply asked for help.

“The students are crying,” Kelly said.

JessA Lewis

Spokane, Wash

Growing up in eastern Washington, guns were a part of Lewis’s life. She was taught by her parents, both park rangers, to respect the rifles and shotguns the family used for hunting.

“If you’re a good shot, this is cruelty-free, free-range, low-carbon, hormone-free food,” said Lewis, a 37-year-old community organizer who was a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention and is seeking a seat in her state senate. “It’s literally in line with our values.”

Lewis owns a rifle and a shotgun and has a concealed carry permit for a handgun, though it’s so bulky she seldom carries it. She has never belonged to the NRA.

It bothers her that the gun-control debate is largely driven by those who have never handled weapons, while many gun owners refuse to engage in any discussion.

“In this hyper-polarized political landscape, if it doesn’t fit in with the narrative, then it’s not something people talk about,” she said.

But something does have to change, she said, and she would like to see reforms that mandate gun-safety training and close loopholes. While she’s not ready to call for a ban in assault weapons until the issue has been studied and discussed more, she doesn’t understand why anyone needs to own what she calls a “weapon of war.”

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When Lewis was a high school freshman in 1996, there was a shooting at a school about 100 miles away. A 14-year-old with a rifle and two handguns killed a teacher and two students.

She was shocked. She hadn’t even imagined that these weapons could be used like that by someone her age.

Then came shootings at Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook in 2012 and many others.

Lewis can’t help but compare her daughter’s reaction to that shooting with hers from two decades earlier.

“For me, it was such a shock. For her it was just another shooting.”

CHRIS MEYER

Pensacola, Fla.

When Meyer enlisted in the Army in 2004, he was a “staunch young Republican” who had voted for George W. Bush and supported the war on terror. He was trained to shoot just about every weapon in the Army’s arsenal.

In 2006, Meyer deployed to Iraq for a year, during which he did 350 combat patrols. He left the Army after seven years and purchased a handgun. But his post-traumatic stress disorder gave him a heightened awareness of his surroundings, and he felt like he couldn’t relax while carrying the gun. Soon, he sold it.

Meyer, the father of a 2-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy, cried after Parkland. He has cheered on the students who are pushing lawmakers to change.

Meyer supports what he calls “common sense” measures. And he supports a statewide ban on the sale and transfer of semi-automatic weapons.

“My feeling is that there’s really no purpose in today’s society for a weapon with any more than 20 rounds or that can fire semi-automatic with that caliber of bullet,” said Meyer, 41, as he sat in his office at Cokesbury United Methodist, where his wife is the associate pastor. “A weapon like that should be reserved for military and police. They serve no place in a civil society.”

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Meyer has changed his party registration from Republican to independent. He was an early supporter of Sanders and voted for Hillary Clinton because he didn’t think Trump was qualified. He does not consider himself a Democrat or a liberal, as many of his other beliefs fall center-right.

“A lot of my conservative friends who I know from the military don’t understand how I feel,” he said. “They kind of think I’ve sold out to some sort of liberal brainwash.”

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