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What the post-Parkland debate on guns means, from six Americans

Jessa Lewis in Spokane, Wash.; Curtis Kelly in Washington and Mike Laymon in Boulder City, Nev. (Alyson McGuire; Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post; Bridget Bennet for The Washingon Post)

In the month since a gunman killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida, the country has grappled with its relationship with guns.

There has been a sustained intensity as teenage survivors sparked an activist movement, demanding reform and calling for an assault-weapon ban. Students from thousands of schools across the country marched out of class Wednesday in solidarity. Under pressure, the Republican-controlled Florida legislature this month voted to increase the minimum age to buy a firearm to 21, among other changes — defying the National Rifle Association.

And public opinion is shifting. A Gallup poll released Wednesday found that 67 percent of adults say there should be “more strict” laws covering the sale of firearms, up seven 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.

As part of a new, occasional series of stories, The Washington Post dispatched reporters across the country to talk with six Americans about assault weapons.

In the Florida Panhandle, we met a veteran who fought in Iraq and said most people shouldn’t have weapons of war.

In Dallas, we talked with a police detective who has worked with assault weapons for years and said that maybe it is time for a ban.

And in the Las Vegas suburbs, we went to a shooting range with a lifetime member of the NRA, who said that it sends a shiver down his back whenever liberals talk about banning things.

High school students in the St. Louis, Mo., area have held planning meetings to organize a walkout, protesting gun violence in schools. (Video: Joyce Koh, Fritz Faerber/The Washington Post)

Ladue, Mo.

Nearly a month ago, Sunny Lu first heard Emma González’s passionate, tear-filled 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 School in the St. Louis suburbs, has been repeatedly moved to tears as she listens to González, who survived the Feb. 14 shooting and has quickly gained a following.

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

Lu 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 Trump — a decision that she doesn’t understand.

In eighth grade, Lu said, she suddenly saw the world differently from 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, minorities and women.

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 in the St. Louis area who felt the same way.

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

The group hopes several hundred students will leave class and gather outside the office of Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican running for a U.S. Senate seat that may be key to the GOP’s hopes of holding onto their majority.

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, a device that attaches to a semiautomatic weapon so that it will fire like a fully automatic one. 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. “A ban is theoretically a great idea, I think, but I just don’t think there’s any realistic way.”


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

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 police officers. Gordon tried to negotiate with Johnson for hours, but police eventually killed him using a bomb-carrying robot.

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.

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

Yet, Gordon said, people can’t buy numerous boxes of Sudafed (a key ingredient in meth) or bags of fertilizer (a key ingredient in some homemade bombs) without being flagged.

“Try to put $10,000 in a bank, the bank notifies the Treasury Department,” Gordon said. “Shouldn’t there be a flag if you buy 15 assault rifles? It should be a flag. We have the technology to do this. What would somebody need that many guns for?”

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 had already been 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. I’m thinking of the people who can’t go to the movies in Aurora, Colorado,” after a gunman killed 12 people in 2012, Gordon said. “If they wanted to lower the speed limit to 50 miles per hour, because we’ve had a significant increase in traffic deaths, maybe I wouldn’t be too happy about it, but I’d do it. That’s what we do in America. We adjust.”

— Reporting by Justin Glawe

Las Vegas

Despite what the media and gun-control activists say, Mike 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 sporting rifle, he says, they function the same way.

“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 at an outdoor country music concert on the Las Vegas Strip in October 2017, Laymon immediately worried that 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.”

“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 Wednesday night, during a visit to the Boulder Rifle and Pistol Club near Las Vegas. He owns about 100 guns and brought three along with him: two AR-15s, including one with a bump stock, and an M1 Garand, a World War II-era rifle that he said was a forerunner of the AR-15.

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 additional training for those who want to handle bigger guns, such as an AR-15. Laymon said 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 of the group. “I’d like to take a little more practical approach. If it makes sense, then, yeah, I’m all for it.”

— Reporting by Dan Michalski


For years, Curtis Kelly has tried to keep his children away from the gun violence that has inflicted Southeast Washington since he was a child.

He was trained to use semiautomatic 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 in Anacostia — had excelled in track and were both planning to attend college.

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

“It’s hard sometimes,” said Kelly, 45, who runs a company that designs and installs fire sprinklers. “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.”

A few weeks ago, Kelly was invited to the White House for a listening session on school violence with President Trump. Although the conversation focused on assault weapons and mass shootings at schools in suburban communities, Kelly said it was “very thoughtful” for the president to include D.C. families who regularly face violence in their communities.

Toward the end of the session, Kelly stood and shared his son’s story. He said students need to be protected not just on school grounds but also in their neighborhoods. He said that 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 on arming some teachers. Instead, he simply asked for help.

“The students are crying,” Kelly said. “The same incidents keep happening — not just in our schools, in our communities, as well — to upstanding citizens, to those . . . doing the right thing.”

Trump thanked Kelly for sharing his son’s story, calling it “incredible, very sad.”

Overall, Kelly favors having fewer guns in his community, and he wants the use of assault weapons — he calls them “weapons of mass destruction” — limited to professionals. Kelly said he feels like the narrative on gun violence is finally changing after the mass shooting in Florida.

“We’ve been experiencing this for so long,” he said, “and sometimes it just takes something like that, the straw that breaks the camel’s back, to really bring about change.”

— Reporting by Debra Bruno

Spokane, Wash.

Growing up in Eastern Washington, guns were always a part of Jessa Lewis’s life. She was taught by her parents, both park rangers, to respect and fear the rifles and shotguns the family used for hunting. She learned marksmanship at a 4-H Club and was 11 when she shot her first doe.

“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 in Spokane who was a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 and is seeking a seat in the state Senate. “It’s literally in line with our values.”

Lewis owns a rifle and a shotgun, and she has a concealed carry permit for a Glock 17 handgun, although it’s so bulky that she rarely carries it with her. She has never belonged to the NRA.

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

“Unless you have experience or understanding, it’s hard to effectively regulate it,” she said. “In this hyper-polarized political landscape, if it doesn’t fit in with the narrative, then it’s not something people talk about.”

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 on assault weapons until the issue has been fully studied and discussed, she doesn’t understand why anyone needs to own what she calls a “weapon of war.”

She worries about her 16-year-old daughter, Olive, and a generation that has become much too accustomed to mass shootings. When Lewis was a freshman in high school in 1996, there was a shooting at a middle school about 100 miles from where she lived. A 14-year-old armed with a hunting rifle and two handguns killed his algebra 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 High School in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and many others. Last fall, a 15-year-old student at a high school in the Spokane suburbs showed up with an AR-15. When the weapon jammed, he used a handgun to kill a fellow student, police said.

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,” Lewis said. “They’ve become numbed.”

— Reporting by Lornet Turnbull

Pensacola, Fla.

When Chris Meyer enlisted in the U.S. 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, and his main weapon was an M4 carbine, similar to the AR-15.

“I felt really patriotic at the time,” he said.

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 as he thought about the pain of losing a child. He has cheered on the students who are pushing lawmakers to change the laws.

Meyer supports what he calls “common sense” gun control measures, including many of the provisions contained in the legislation recently signed into law by Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) that is now being challenged by the NRA. And he supports a statewide ban on the sale and transfer of semiautomatic 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 semiautomatic with that caliber of bullet,” said Meyer, 41, on Wednesday evening as he sat in his office at Cokesbury United Methodist, where his wife is the associate pastor and he is the communications director. “A weapon like that should be reserved for military and police. They serve no place in a civil society.”

Meyer has changed his party registration to independent from Republican. He was an early supporter of Sanders and voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election because he didn’t think Trump was qualified to be president. He said 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,” Meyer said. “They kind of think I’ve sold out to some sort of liberal brainwash. They question my patriotism at times — just because I think there should be rules and regulations as to who should have and who should not have an AR-15 in the streets of America.”

— Reporting by T.S. Strickland

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.