Reflecting on Texas, Buffalo mass shootings, Port Orchard man surrenders his AR-15
Like many Americans, Jeff and Mary Jane Gearhart of Port Orchard were reflecting on the massacre Tuesday in Ulvade, Texas, where 19 schoolchildren and two teachers were murdered, when the subject of the killer’s gun came up.
Mary Jane had wondered why anybody would need an AR-15-type rifle, similar to the weapon used in a racist massacre 10 days before in Buffalo, New York, that killed 13 people. She turned to her husband with a question:
“Do you have one?”
“Yes,” Jeff said. “I do.”
“I bought it when I was in Alaska,” Jeff said, recalling the conversation. “And I haven’t used it pretty much since.”
“So, can you get rid of it?”
Jeff, 57, had been thinking of divesting himself of the gun — a Bushmaster AR-15-type rifle purchased when he was on active duty with the Coast Guard — citing the lack of nearby ranges and the ever-increasing cost of ammunition. He has other firearms in his safe and has not shot the Bushmaster in about 15 years.
“This just pushed me to get rid of it,” Jeff said, thinking of the couple’s school-aged grandchildren and their daughter-in-law, a school teacher in Eastern Washington.
He didn’t want to go through the procedures to sell the rifle. Mostly, if he sold it, he was worried about how it might be used by its next owner, if it could be used in a murder.
“I don’t want that on my conscience,” said Jeff, who now works as a civilian employee of the Coast Guard coordinating search and rescue efforts.
"I don't want to take it somewhere, sell it to someone who passed the background check, then they go somewhere and shoot up a school," he continued.
On Thursday, he surrendered the rifle and five 30-round magazines to the Washington State Patrol for destruction.
Semiautomatic guns like AR-15s — sometimes called “assault rifles” — are popular, and rifle and pistol versions can start at around $600.
Few end up used in mass murders and other types of firearms have been used in mass shootings. However, the efficiency with which AR-15-type rifles can fire and the role they have played in some of the worst national firearm tragedies — like the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut — have made them a point of contention in the debate over gun control.
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Chris Loftus, a spokesperson for the State Patrol, said the agency has procedures in place to first render firearms inoperable, then a procedure to make them unrecognizable, either by chopping, cutting or melting them down.
“Whatever is necessary to make sure it is literally destroyed,” Loftus said.
To avoid any misunderstandings, Loftus recommended those who would like law enforcement to destroy their firearms to call ahead first and follow officers’ instructions rather than bringing them to a police station unannounced. He did not know how often the request is made of the State Patrol.
“It does happen, but it happens so infrequently it’s not something we keep records on,” Loftus said.
Whether the latest mass murder of schoolchildren will lead to a national reckoning remains to be seen. Jeff is upfront that he doesn't know the answer, but he knows he is heartbroken for the people in Buffalo and Uvalde and he knows he is frustrated by the status quo.
“Very frustrated,” he said.
For his part, Jeff sees strengthening background checks as one step to try, saying they could be modeled on the security clearance investigations members of the military go through, along with increasing free or low-cost access to mental health treatment. As of now, he sees inaction.
"There has to be more than one solution to stem the problem," Jeff said. "We should not do a knee-jerk reaction, but sit down and think about it, come up with a plan, and execute the plan. If that doesn't work, go to the next plan."
He noted that New York and Texas may seem like faraway places to the people of Kitsap County, but he recalled gun massacres of children have struck even closer, and farther away.
He cited the 2014 massacre at a high school in Marysville, where a teen murdered five other students, and the 2011 right-wing terrorist attack in Norway, where 69 of the 77 people murdered were shot with a firearm, many of them children.
“It’s everywhere,” Jeff said. “It’s around the country; it’s around the world.”