What my gun means to me

Gun rights and gun control are touchy issues. Bring up firearms and expect to hear yelling. And blame. And misunderstanding.

Nationally, the mass shootings get the big headlines. In November, a man killed 26 worshippers at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. That tragedy came only weeks after 58 people were murdered and another 500 were injured at a concert in Las Vegas. USA Today declared 2017 the deadliest year for mass killings in at least a decade.

But the 208 victims killed in mass shootings are but a fraction of the 33,000 gun deaths in the U.S. Two-thirds are suicides. Another third are single homicides. Then there are accidents, shootings by police, domestic violence.

We talked with a dozens of people, and will feature four:

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• A self-professed “gun nerd” and collector who, by his own admission, owns more firearms than anyone needs.

• 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 grandmother who inherited her father’s revolver and trains regularly to stay sharp.

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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 Central 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.”

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.

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.”

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For these young Kansas sisters, hunting with guns means dinner, bonding with dogs

Drive off the blacktop in McLouth, Kansas, 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 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.

“Like our dad said, if you like killing animals — there’s something wrong with you,” added Elizabeth Funk, 15, a sophomore at McLouth High School.

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.”

Elizabeth was not really into hunting at first.

“But then I got a dog,” she said.

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.”

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.”

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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 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 Lenexa 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.”

———

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, 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.

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