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Wendy Lackomar, 41, remembers vividly the first time she shot a gun. She was a 12-year-old girl and her father, a marine, was target shooting. He was using a Soviet-designed SKS rifle.
“I was trying to be all cool and stuff because I didn’t want my dad to think I was weak or anything like that,” she said. He showed her how to hold and aim the weapon. “I pulled that trigger and I thought my right shoulder was ending up underneath my left ear. Honestly, the very first time it was weird, it scared the living hell out of me. It really did because I couldn’t imagine the amount of kick or anything that it had.”
Her husband, Michael, 44, shot his first gun on a field trip to a local police station when he was in the 6th grade.
“Each class, two kids got picked to try out the shooting range,” he recalled. “It was a 9mm handgun, and I don’t even remember what kind it was, and out of the four kids that were picked, I was the only one of the four to hit the target. We got two shots. I remember having that empty shell casing on my window ledge at home for years afterwards.”
His father had a handgun, he found out later in life, but he never saw it. His mother, who was from the South, made him aware of the family’s muzzle loaders and hunting rifles.
Their friend, Bryan Ondercin, 40, shot a gun for the first time when he was 18. While he grew up in a household filled with guns, his mother had strictly prohibited him from shooting them. His father would sneak him into the basement when she was gone to show him how the guns operated.
“My first time shooting was when I bought my first hunting rifle when I turned 18,” he said. “Took it to a local outdoor range, sighted it in. I was really more excited about my first chance hunting than actually shooting the gun.”
He bought his first handgun at 21.“I always thought of the rifle as something for target shooting and hunting, where my handgun was for self defense. When I bought my first handgun, my hand was shaking when I picked it up, even before I bought it,” he said.
The three southeast Michigan residents saw their early experiences as bonding with family, they said. And that bonding, the nostalgia of it, underpins their dedication to guns now. That’s not the whole story about why they and millions of others feel so strongly about gun rights, but it is an important part of the story.
They are members of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia. Despite having a reputation as an anti-government entity hell bent on overthrowing the U.S. government, the three say their militia group is about self sufficiency and helping the community.
That reputation comes from the mid- ’90s when the militia movement gained notoriety following the Oklahoma City bombing. Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh had been involved in the Michigan Militia. Then-leader Norman Olson had spoken about his fears of a government-led conspiracy to suspend the Constitution and violate the rights of Americans. This has been viewed by experts from the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center as part of the evidence of an anti-government conspiracy.
Wendy Lackomar said she shared a similar response to holding that SKS rifle when she was an adolescent to Ondercin’s experience purchasing his first handgun.
She recalled holding the rifle, just an object in her hands. Until she fired. She could “feel the power coming from it.”
“It scared me because I had already understood the destructive potential for it,” she said. That in turn made her think about the how people could use that potential to harm others.
The three laid out their stories to me after taking me to the Island Lake Recreational Area Shooting Range near Brighton. At 47, I had never fired an actual firearm, only stage guns. Stage guns shoot blank ammunition and have a filled-in barrel preventing anything from being expelled out the front of the weapon and thus making them safer for use on stage.
Pop. The first .22 caliber rifle shot I fired hit off center.
Pop. The second hit a bullseye. “I think I hit that one in the center,” I said to Ondercin and the Lackomars.
There was an ease in firing this weapon, and others, despite my own trepidations.
The long guns I fired — an .22 caliber bolt action rifle, a Kal Tec Sub 2000, an AR-15 and a SCAR FN Herstal — became an extension of my body. They sat naturally, making their potential deadliness all the more real but also exhilarating.
The handguns I shot were different.
You have to hold your body in unnatural ways to help stabilize the weapon during shooting. The shorter barrel of the weapon also makes accuracy far more difficult.
Each shot brought with it a preceding adrenaline rush, and then a pleasure reward upon hitting the target. I naturally pushed myself to do better with each shot, pushing to make more bullseyes.
But even as I slide into the firing range area, something else was happening. These were weapons designed to maim at best. These were weapons of death. As a pacifist, I’ve always seen guns in themselves as a symbol of violence. It is a tool for which there is no other use. Until Saturday, I have never fired a gun, long or hand, loaded with actual ammunition.
After Saturday, it is unlikely I ever will fire one again.
There is an alluring aspect to these weapons.
It’s a dance of masculinity and power, fear and triumph, of constitutional rights and American taboo.
The AR-15 in particular has spurred controversy. It was the weapon used to kill 17 in a Florida high school on Valentine’s Day. And it was one of the weapons
used Oct. 1 last year in a Las Vegas mass shooting that resulted in 58 deaths. A VN Herstal I rifle was also found in the hotel room of the Las Vegas shooter.
Despite that, politicians have been mostly intractable in adopting policy responses. Part of that is the way the extremes of both sides of the gun debate are portrayed. There is a perception that it is a choice between banning all weapons or legalizing all weapons. But both gun owners and those fighting for new regulations here in Michigan actually have significantly more nuanced ideas.
Emily Durbin, the Michigan chapter leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, scoffs at the idea she and her group are hell bent on taking away every gun in America.
“Oh, no,” she said when asked if the group supported taking guns away. “We have lots of guns in America, and I think we could manage our gun violence problem through really simple policy recommendations that most Americans agree on, that we actually know from evidence work.”
Those policy solutions, she said, include stronger background checks, refusal to provide domestic abusers access to weapons, raising the age limit for purchasing a rifle from 18 to 21 and so-called red flag laws which would allow a person deemed a threat to themselves or others to have their weapons removed for a period.
Durbin, a psychology professor at MSU, said the background checks have to include an expansion of the definition of domestic violence to include dating violence.
“Domestic abuse is a big predictor of people engaging in gun violence, and our laws aren’t sufficiently strong enough to make sure those people who we know are at high risk don’t have access to those,” she said.
Michael Lackomar concurred with the need to more stringently enforce laws banning the purchase of guns. He said there should be prosecution “for those who know they shouldn’t have a gun, but try to buy one.”
Durbin’s view of guns has been colored by gun incidents. She grew up in the shadow the Paducah, Kentucky, shooting some 20 years ago when three high schoolers were killed. But she didn’t engage in activism to address gun violence until she saw the aftermath of a family destroyed by a family member shooting other family members. The family was part of a study she was conducting at MSU.
“I was involved, doing a research study, and we had a family, like tons of other families in our study, that we got to know fairly well,” she said. “I got a call from a grandparent that the family could no longer be in our study because they were dead. The husband in the family shot and killed his wife and his stepson and then himself, leaving behind two very small children.”
She called that experience “shocking.” “When you had just seen these people, and these beautiful young children, and to know that this is how they’re gonna grow up, and this is what happened to their family,” she said, “I just thought, we have to do more than feel badly about it, to get educated and try to change things.”
The idea to raise the minimum age to purchase a rifle is driven in part by high school survivors of the Florida shooting on Valentine’s Day. The suspect allegedly purchased an AR-15 legally, 18, Durbin said there is science to support the increase in the minimum age. Florida has since passed a law raising the age at which you can buy guns to 21, but the NRA is suing.
In Michigan, you can buy most guns at 18.
In the wake of that shooting, President Donald Trump voiced support for raising the age limit for purchasing rifles. But this week, after meeting with the NRA, he backed off that proposal, despite popular support for it. He said it should be left up to individual states to determine if the age limit should be lifted.
“Eighteen to 20-year-olds commit something like four times more violent crime than people who are 21 and above,” she said. “So just shifting from 18 to 21 would result in a big reduction in violent crime, because we know that that’s an age in which people are at risk for engaging in not just violence against others, but suicide. And so that’s a smart policy, because we know that it actually works.”
Wendy Lackomar and Ondercin concurred with that assessment, at least logically. Ondercin, though, said he would not support such a move.
“If you’re 18, you’re an adult,” Ondercin said.
Michael Lackomar pushed back the hardest on that policy recommendation.
“We’ve gotten into a cycle where we’re telling people that you’re not responsible for your actions, you’re not an adult yet,” he said. “There’s no consequences for what you do, and we keep pushing off that age of enlightenment, that age of maturity, to the point where, when people can’t do things until 21, then they’re gonna go batshit once they turn 21 and 22. So, we’ll push it off to 24 now. OK, well then they’re gonna cut loose at 24.”
Legislation introduced in Michigan, and similar to what Trump has proposed, would extend law enforcement the latitude to seize weapons, but it would be strictly regulated by access to courts to assure that the civil rights of those being deprived of their guns were not violated. Durbin said she supports that move, See Guns, because it gets to the very small minority of people living with mental health issues who actually pose a threat to themselves or others.
The three militia members also supported such legislation, as long as due process was ensured. Durbin, the Lackomars and Ondercin all agree there is a violence issue in America. Wendy Lackomar argued that a lack of social connection, violent and desensitizing video games and films are all combining to cause the issues underlying mass shootings. “We have a violence problem,” said her husband. “I wouldn’t necessarily classify it strictly as a gun violence problem, but we do have in our entertainment, in our activities, in our histories, in our entertainment, a serious issue of violence.”
Ondercin also brought up what he thought was an issue being missed by many: 24-hour cyber bullying. The alleged shooter in Florida was allegedly subjected to bullying and ostracized at his school, and that appears to have been the case in many of the mass shootings involving young people since the 1999 Columbine shooting.
“Everyone gets picked on as a kid at some point,” Ondercin said. “If you have to deal with it 24 hours a day, and either nobody does anything about it or they can’t, I could see where that would lead someone to snap.”
I mentioned the correlation between cyber-bullying and teen suicide. Ondercin nodded. “There’s one form of snapping, you know, you kill yourself or you kill other people and yourself,” he said. “Still, if someone just snaps and can’t take it, that’s something that they might do. Like I said, when we were growing up, if we were bullied, we only had to deal with it a couple hours per day. I’m not blaming the Internet, I’m just saying that I think this is a factor in some people just losing it.”
After I turned off the recorder, I asked the three militia members if they would be open to sitting down and having a conversation with those who are advocating for tighter gun laws. They all agreed, acknowledging that dialog is the way that solutions are going to be found. Durbin said she’s quite willing to have those conversations as well.
Meanwhile, Michael Lackomar has educated the next generation in his family on guns. When his now 20-year-old daughter, Xena, was 9, he began discussing gun safety with her. He taught her about the weapons, showing her how to handle them.
“I wanted her to know how to handle it, and render it safe if she ever found a gun on the way to school,” he said. “That is to keep her safe, but other kids as well.”