Out in the middle of the country, we went in search of the middle ground of the Great American Gun Debate.
We met 29-year-old Haley Smith, of Paola, Kansas. About a year ago, a stranger knocked on Smith’s door at 2 in the morning.
It took her breath away.
In that moment, the 20-something single mom said she thought, Is someone breaking into my house? How was she going to protect herself? How would she protect her then-6-year-old daughter?
“I didn’t know who the person was,” said Smith. “And then I was like, it was time for me to purchase a gun.”
The next part shocked her a little.
She had grown up around guns and hunters. She knows a few law officers. Her fiance is in the military. She had done her research and knew what she was going to buy before she walked into the store. But still. It took all of 10 minutes to buy her Glock19 9mm handgun.
“That was just insane to me,” she said. “I mean, I have a clean background — I’ve had maybe two speeding tickets in my entire life. But I was a little appalled by how quick it was.”
Gun rights and gun control are touchy issues. Bring up firearms and expect to hear yelling. And blame. And misunderstanding.
On the end of one side of the debate, you have well-armed constitutionalists who would let loose of their firearms only from cold, dead hands. Conversely, the edge of the gun-control crowd wants a world where most (if not all) firearms are banned outright.
But what about everybody else? The ones closer to the middle, who keep guns in safes in houses and teach their children to use them for hunting?
“The middle’s not real sexy,” said a Lenexa gun owner, avid hunter and father of two.
The Kansas City Star sought out that middle ground. It heard from dozens of people. It talked with a few, including:
• A self-professed “gun nerd” and collector in Missouri who, by his own admission, owns more firearms than anyone needs.
• A couple of Kansas sisters, ages 12 and 15, who have taken up hunting because they love the outdoors and being with their dogs.
• A gun owner who tells other parents about his safe, and is OK with some saying they’d rather not have their kids hang out at his home.
• A Missouri grandmother who inherited her father’s revolver and trains regularly to stay sharp.
And Smith, the single mom, who bought her handgun for safety reasons.
“I lived at home by myself for years, and I am the protector of my child,” she said. “And in the world that we live in today, unfortunately, you just never feel safe, which is really, really sad.”
‘Just like you have ‘Star Wars’ nerds …’
William Thomas is just fine with being called a gun nerd.
“Just like you have ‘Star Wars’ nerds who can tell you everything about ‘Star Wars’ — that’s how I am,” he said. “I’m that resource for a lot of my friends who want a gun.”
Thomas owns several firearms. The other day on his coffee table/workbench, he had several weapons in various states of assembly. He laid out a few more on his kitchen floor. He showed an AR-15 he had custom painted royal blue, and later produced a bandolier with different types of ammo for shotguns.
“It’s a hobby,” the 37-year-old Gladstone, Missouri, resident said.
It wasn’t always so. Thomas said his mother wouldn’t allow him or his siblings to even play with toy guns.
“That was just her take on it,” he said. “We grew up in the 64130 ZIP code, and in that area, you go to sleep to gunshots. My father was killed with a gun, by police. That’s the way he died, so my mother didn’t allow it. Growing up we could never play with toy guns, very few water guns.”
He said the first time he saw a firearm was when an older schoolmate brought one to school.
“It was crazy times — just knowing people who had been shot and killed,” he said. “When I was in sixth grade, an eighth-grader from my school, he went over to (another school) and I think they were arguing over a girl, and he pulls out a gun and the other guy pulls out a gun and shoots and kills him. You have these two kids, 13, 14 years old, and they both have guns. That just blows my mind.”
Today, Thomas has a 15-year-old son. He said he can’t imagine his boy thinking he’d need a gun to settle a dispute.
“When we were kids, we just felt like we were adults, because a lot of times you go home and look after yourself,” he said. “My brothers and I looked after each other because my mom worked — and she worked a lot. That’s just the way things were back then.”
Thomas’ own interest in firearms was piqued after he enlisted in the Marines during his senior year in high school and took military entrance training. At a shooting range was the first time he held or fired a gun. Thomas ended up not serving, but when he turned 23, he started getting into marksmanship and collecting.
He’s now a technology architect. In his spare time, he helped start a local gun club, B.A.M.N. G.C. of K.C. The group arranges times to go to the range together, and he hopes to soon set up shooting matches. Members also share weapons — not only are guns and ammo expensive, Thomas said, but sharing different firearms helps people decide what’s right for them.
“When someone tells me they want to get a gun, the first question I ask them is, ‘Why do you think you want a gun?’” he said.
Just like with any other hobby or interest, Thomas said gun owners need to be responsible and practice their craft. He pointed to the bag of golf clubs in the corner of his apartment.
“You can’t just have a golf bag and go golf once and be Tiger Woods — it’s something you have to constantly practice so it becomes muscle memory,” he said. “Same thing with shooting. A lot of people don’t even know how to aim their gun.”
But it’s not just preparation and training that Thomas preaches; he also thinks it best to be vigilant of your surroundings.
“If you’re at a nightclub and you notice guys are arguing and stuff, why walk over there and see what’s going on?” he said. “Maybe it’s time to leave. Maybe it’s time to say, ‘I’ve enjoyed my night, I’m going to leave before things escalate.’ It’s better to avoid a situation than be in a situation.”
For two sisters, hunting means bonding and dinner
Drive off the blacktop, down a gravel road, turn onto a long lane that winds — watch the little goats that scurry along — to a house on a wooded ridge.
That’s where you find two young sisters who would rather be bundled up in the cold woods than sleeping in on a Saturday morning.
They hunt. And they love all that means. The early rise, solitude, the song of birds, nature’s colors, breath in the air. Their dogs.
“Killing the animal isn’t the fun part,” said Madeline Funk, 12, a seventh-grader in McLouth, Kansas.
“Like our dad said, if you like killing animals — there’s something wrong with you,” added Elizabeth Funk, 15, a sophomore.
These two know guns, but don’t spend a lot of time talking about them. They like their dogs more. Long guns get heavy when you lug them 10 miles a day over rough terrain.
For them, a gun is merely a tool. They hunt for purpose. Parents Jason and Christine Funk say 90 percent of the meat consumed in the home comes from hunting. It’s a tradition for a family that has been in this rural area of Leavenworth County three generations.
“A lot of boys in my class hunt, but not many girls,” Elizabeth said.
Madeline nodded in agreement. “Some don’t understand because they’ve never done it. With us, it’s probably how we were raised. We grew up in the woods.”
For fowl, Elizabeth uses a Remington 870 pump .20 gauge shotgun.
Madeline has a side-by-side .28 gauge. When reminded it was her grandmother’s, she nodded that it’s kind of cool that it’s been handed down generations.
But for them, again, it’s what the gun puts in the freezer, and the joy of time in the woods.
“You’re out there all alone,” Elizabeth said. “I like sitting out there, thinking about things, listening to birds, no telling what will walk by.”
“A possum walks by or an owl might land 10 yards away,” Madeline said.
Elizabeth was not really into it at first.
“But then I got a dog,” she said.
In a contest essay on hunting she wrote: “There are no cars, no talking, just the hunter, his dog, and his prey. No distractions, no other people telling you what to do, just you and nature. The hunter uses his dog, and can sense what his dog is trying to tell him, if a bird is about to pop up or if it’s already gone. Hunting is a magical experience between dog and man, as they communicate to each other without words. You never feel closer to your dog than you do when you are hunting.”
Elizabeth and Madeline both credit their dad for the passion of hunting. Elizabeth said he pushed his daughters because he didn’t have any boys to push.
Jason Funk took exception to “push.” He doesn’t even like “encourage.”
“I exposed them to hunting,” he said. “They liked it. They were always outside girls anyway. They took to it and they do it right.”
“Like never shoot a bird the dog hasn’t pointed,” Elizabeth said.
Jason nodded. “That’s not the law, but it is family law.”
The family, which includes another daughter, Sarah, lives on 53 acres. They have goats, horses and dogs. Those are the tame animals.
“No telling what kind of wild life might come down a trail,” Christine said.
The girls make good grades. It’s expected. Both are involved in lots of extracurricular activities. And they’ve both taken several gun safety courses.
And they think maybe the country could do with a refresher course.
As for gun violence, Elizabeth thinks people should respect guns more, particularly the damage and pain they can cause.
“And I think the government should monitor who should be allowed to buy a gun,” she said. “Some people shouldn’t have a gun.”
Madeline agreed. “Like the guy in Las Vegas. He should not have owned a gun. It should be regulated — not just who can buy one but what kind of gun.”
Firearm-wise beyond their years, but only recently has Jason allowed them to go hunting alone.
“We respect guns,” Elizabeth said. “Safety on, finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.”
Madeline gets the final word: “We don’t do anything stupid. It’s a gun.”
‘The middle’s not real sexy’
Aaron Young is pretty certain he knows why we only hear the extremes in the gun debate.
“The middle’s not real sexy,” he said. “Nobody wants to tune in to Fox News to hear, ‘Reasonable man talks gun control.’ Not a lot of red meat there.”
Meat, however, is the main reason Aaron, of Lenexa, Kansas, is a gun owner. He hunts. And what he hunts, his family eats.
“If we needed me to kill all our food, we’d all weigh a lot less than we do,” he said, laughing. “It’s a good fallback position.”
He shot his first gun when he was around 10 years old. He now owns six shotguns and a .22 rifle. They’re locked up in a massive gun safe with a couple of handguns, owned — ostensibly — for his wife, Anne Kobbermann, and him to defend their home if necessary.
“I mostly just use it to shoot targets,” Anne said. “I’m pretty confident I would never actually defend our house with it.”
Anne is a physician who, as a surgery resident, saw firsthand what guns can do when turned on human beings. Aaron is a former construction manager who recently completed his law degree.
The Youngs have two children, Lincoln and Reagan. Aaron says a few neighbors have looked at him like he’s the worst parent in the world when he mentions both kiddos have held and, under supervision, fired firearms.
Nonetheless, before the kids bring a friend over to the house for the first time, Aaron lets their parents know there are firearms locked up in a safe in the home.
“There have been a couple of parents, after their kids have come over for the first time, who have contacted me and said, ‘So-and-so had a lot of fun, but we’re uncomfortable with the fact that there are firearms in the house, so we just won’t do that anymore,’” Aaron said. “Totally OK with that. Everybody has their own perspective.”
Aaron is contemplating a run for the Kansas legislature as a Republican, and his views on gun ownership are slightly more nuanced than the current crop of GOP legislators. He’s not a fan of the statehouse saying it’s OK to carry on campus and in hospitals.
“Anymore in Kansas, you don’t need to get a concealed carry permit because we’ve decided apparently that it’s OK for people to carry firearms everywhere,” he said.
And he doesn’t buy some of the National Rifle Association rhetoric. Stuff like “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” That’s exactly what a lot of folks trotted out a few weeks ago when an off-duty Kansas City, Kansas, lawman shot and killed a man brandishing a weapon in a nearby Costco.
“That ‘good guy with a gun’ was a police officer, trained and licensed to carry that weapon and intimately familiar, one would assume, with the legal ramifications of killing a human being,” he said. “You can’t really conflate ‘bad guy with a gun/good guy with a gun’ on to that scenario because it’s not the same thing.”
For Aaron, it’s about responsibility, first and foremost.
“If I own a gun, it’s my job to secure that weapon,” he said. “It’s my job to ensure that whoever uses that weapon uses it responsibly and for the right reasons.”
To that end, owning certain kinds of firearms and apparatus such as bump stocks and high capacity magazines doesn’t make sense to him. Neither does the idea of using a firearm to kill someone.
“Being in that place psychologically where it’s OK to take a human life seems obscenely foreign to me,” he said. “I have never thought that the issue that we face in our country is a gun issue. We’ve got to do something with the way we deal with mental health, because it is not a natural progression of any emotion to feel like killing another human being is an appropriate response. That’s never OK.”
A grandmother’s pistol (and more) for protection
She’s a widow, a grandmother, and she likes to talk about her flowers. Daisies stand out.
Sherry Sherrow also says if anyone tries to break into her bedroom in the middle of the night, “They won’t get far unless they have a gun, too.”
Hers is within reach.
Listening to this retired para-educator go on about firearms, you get the impression she must be a longtime gun owner. She talks about balance, trigger pull resistance and says things like, “Take the mag out, but might still have one in the pipe.”
But, nope. She got her first gun not all that long ago when her father died at age 90 — it was the .38-caliber revolver he carried as a volunteer police officer in their small town in rural Texas.
“I’m kind of a come-lately on this gun thing,” Sherrow said.
But, she come big. She liked that old gun. Liked how it made her feel. So she bought another one. One that fit her hand better — a .380 Sig Sauer semi-automatic pistol. She’s since added a few more — handguns, long guns, assault rifle — making this spry senior citizen, who laughs easily and has 16 grandchildren, pretty much loaded for bear.
Somebody pounding on the front door in the middle of the night spurred this push for security. It scared her. Turned out to be pranksters, but she got to thinking — what if it was something else? What if they’d banged all the way inside?
“It made me wary,” she said.
So for Sherrow, the decision on gun ownership wasn’t due to one of the big news stories or national trends that often provide the common reference points for discussions on guns — a mass shooting, spike in violent crime, gangs, drugs, car jackings, terrorist threats, etc.
It was personal. Her house, her door and, now, it’s her gun.
She took lessons. She target shoots regularly at Frontier Justice in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, where she keeps most of her guns in a locker. Shooting is her hobby, though she admits she’s not particularly good at it. During a simulator drill that puts students in robbery scenarios, she shot a (digital) store clerk.
“Sometimes it’s best to be a good witness,” the instructor told her.
She chuckles at that story.
Quick bio: Sherrow grew up in rural Texas north of San Antonio — so rural, in fact, her father used to be encouraged to shoot lots of critters to keep them off a small runway near her family’s place northwest of San Antonio. She grew up eating a lot of chicken-fried venison “backstrap.”
Her father was a volunteer police officer and her mother served as police commissioner.
“She didn’t want the job, but there was nobody else in town to do it,” Sherrow said.
She did two years of college — thought she wanted teach. But that didn’t work out so she got a job as a hostess for an airline. Kind of a way to get out of rural Texas. She did that for a few years until she married then later worked as a para-educator in Missouri.
Like most people, Sherrow knows well the mantras of America’s gun debate and thinks too much of the shouting comes from the edges. She belongs to the NRA, strongly believes in the Second Amendment and gun ownership, but not carte blanche.
“I don’t think everybody should own a gun,” she said. “I think everybody who does make a decision to buy a gun should be required to take a safety class. Personally I think you should take more than one.”
As for countries with few guns and low crime rates, she said: “Whatever works for them.”
But in the country, she said, the gun culture is too engrained. There is no going back. The bad guys will always have guns, she said.
And if they try to come into her house in the middle of the night? “I may not get them, but with me having a gun — at least I have a chance.”