On March 24, they took to the streets.
Officials estimated 5,000 people in Eugene. They joined the thousands of others in Salem and Portland. D.C. and New York. They marched with signs that read “Protect kids, not guns,” “If you need a machine gun to hunt, you suck at it,” and “Enough is enough.” They marched with their kids, they marched across the country. On March 24, they marched for their lives.
On March 25, two journalists and a radio station owner followed a mayor and two of his friends into the woods carrying more than a dozen guns.
“If you’re going to be a journalist and give your opinion, it should be informed. You should be educated.” Cottage Grove Mayor Jeff Gowing had never been to the place he was going other than to scope it out to ensure it would make a good shooting range. Lumber giant Weyerhaeuser owns most of the empty land in the area and has banned open shooting. Gowing says it’s because of the trash left behind by target practice—washing machines, televisions, old furniture. The only option now is Bureau of Land Management land—or the empty spaces that butt against it— a patch of which sits approximately 700 feet above Cottage Grove where Gowing eased his vehicle onto a dirt road, snow still on the ground.
There is no shooting range inside Cottage Grove’s city limits. The school district does not currently have a sponsored program that utilizes firearms such as JROTC or hunter safety classes though the latter existed at some point in the community’s history dating back to the 1970s and there was an effort in the 1980s to resurrect the former. There’s never been a school shooting in Cottage Grove but nearly 20 years ago and 27 miles away, a gunman killed two students at Thurston High School in Springfield. The killer was a gun owner. So was the shooter responsible for the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut that killed 26 including 20 kindergarteners. Both boys were familiar with firearms and had been to shooting ranges, learning how to handle the tools. It only added to the pile of questions left behind after the shooting in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14 where the shooter, who killed 17 people, was also a gun owner. Is it the guns? Is it the kids? Is it us?
Cottage Grove City Councilor Mike Fleck moved to Oregon from California when he was 16. While his parents are both “adamantly against guns” Fleck, who attended McKenzie High School, began going hunting because it was the thing to do. That thing to do has become a lifelong hobby that he has passed down to his two sons.
“It’s so engrained in what we do. We go over east, we camp, we go target shooting. It’s just you know, part of that way of life. But I’m at the point where you know if it’s going to save lives, I’m willing to consider,” Fleck said about the possibility of reducing clip sizes in guns. With any law changes, he is just looking to find a place where the two sides of the debate can see eye-to-eye.
“On any subject you’re going to have people on both extremes and so I think the core here though is to find out what in the middle can we all live with. Consensus being not that we all love a solution but we can all live with it.”
In February of this year, Governor Kate Brown signed a law that banned individuals convicted of domestic abuse from buying or owning guns. The legislation closed what had been dubbed “the boyfriend loophole” after it closed a gap in the existing state law that allowed individuals not living with their partner, but still convicted of domestic abuse, to purchase and own firearms. It was the first gun control legislation in the country to be signed after the Parkland shooting. Since then, further legislation has been proposed that would ban assault-style rifles in the state including the AR-15, the weapon of choice in Parkland and Sandy Hook as well as the Las Vegas concert shooting in 2017 that killed 58 people and the 2016 Florida nightclub shooting that killed 49.
“A lot of hunters are moving to the AR,” Gowing said. Why? Because according to Gowing, it’s lighter, more comfortable. “If you’re hunting elk, that’s a 700, 800-pound animal and you have to carry it out of the woods, you don’t want a 12-pound gun you have to carry out too,” he said.
After every shot, there’s a puff of smoke and a tinge of gun powder in the air. The four clay pigeons Gowing set out are still standing after two shooters. It takes about 30 minutes and four different guns for three of the four to fall. In between shots there’s reminders to keep the gun pointed away from people and assurances that every gun that’s handed to a new shooter is unloaded. Safety first, Gowing says.
“There’s a misconception about the AR because it looks meaner but it’s the same gun,” he said, pointing out a benign-looking rifle that shoots the same ammunition as the AR. “It’s not a high-powered rifle,” he said.
He has the same gun used at Thurston, the gun he killed his first deer with, a handgun that his wife shot so well with, he bought her one just like it—but purple instead the same NRA emblazoned gray his is. In the stockpile that made it up into the woods, at least two of the firearms would be banned under the proposed legislation in Oregon.
There’s talk of how that would interfere with generations of tradition. One of the would-be banned rifles is something “almost everyone” starts on. The conversation is the same one that happens around kitchen tables and in between re-loads during target practices every time another school shooting is reported. It’s not the guns, it’s the people. But we’re the same people we’ve always been. But it’s the video games. But they have video games in London. They have video games in Australia and Asia has video games too. It’s a lack of respect for the guns, a lack of respect for people. Drunk driving kills people but we don’t ban alcohol. We continue to regulate cars as society and technology change, why not firearms? My guns are locked up. It’s tradition to learn to shoot and survival to learn to hunt. But the kids responsible for these shootings aren’t hunting; animals. It’s the mental health. There’s not one solution.
“I think there are reasonable gun laws, absolutely I support. I think background checks should be everywhere. Gun shows should not be exempt; I think there should be background checks everywhere. I think that the state, if they’re going to require somebody pass it, makes sure that it actually is done in the timeframe. I don’t necessarily like wait periods but I suppose if that was necessary to make sure that everybody was checked then I’m okay with that,” Fleck said.
There are currently 35 laws in Oregon that govern gun ownership, possession, sales and use. There are no regulations surrounding ammunition. To buy a gun, residents must submit to a background check.
“If there’s something that should prohibit them from getting a gun, it will come up based on that form,” Gowing said of the paperwork potential gun owners must fill out.
Reports noted that the Parkland shooter was the subject of multiple 911 calls related to violent behavior and had posted his intentions on social media. He legally purchased the firearm the year before the shooting when he was 18-years-old.
Valeria Clarke is a counselor at South Lane Mental Health and has helped developed a program that sees counselors in every facility in the South Lane School District. She has never worked with a child who expressed the intention of carrying out a school shooting.
“If I had a concern that they were a danger to themselves or were planning to harm someone or someones, I’m mandated to report that to the proper authorities,” she said. That authority could range from the local police to the Department of Health and Human Resources. What happens to that report after it’s made and how it’s entered into the system responsible for providing information for background checks is out of Clarke’s hands.
Since the latest shooting, South Lane Mental Health hasn’t launched specialized treatment but continues to be a constant presence in the school where Clarke says she’s seen a difference in her years as a counselor.
“When, as adults, if a spree of crime is happening in a community, all of us feel a lot more scared about going places, of being places,” she said. “It’s a bit simplistic thinking but that’s how our brains work. The place they thought was safe, isn’t safe. Kids get killed at school so school isn’t safe anymore.”
“Let’s go back to the high school scenario when Jeff (Gowing) and I were young, there were rifles in the backs of our cars and we would never, it was never even conceivable back then that somebody would shoot people,” Fleck said. “How did we get there? Where did this change? And what can we do to solve it?”
Gowing, like so many others, doesn’t know the answer either but is an advocate of educating people about firearms and cultivating the understanding that it’s not the gun, it’s the people.
“Cain killed Abel with a rock. It’s something mankind’s always been good at, killing people.”