EUGENE, Ore. ― Shane Hooper, a 31-year-old Army veteran, doesn’t call himself pro-gun anymore. But he still owns firearms, including the handgun he keeps for home protection, a semiautomatic .40 caliber pistol with a Superman shield emblazoned on the slide.
“Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” explained Hooper.
A few months ago, Hooper moved to Eugene from Las Vegas, hoping the eclectic college town would provide a change of pace. He now lives in a duplex apartment with his dog, Bear, a fluffy 5-year-old Schipperke mix and licensed emotional support animal.
The handgun is among the few things Hooper brought with him to Eugene so far. He stores it unloaded in a case beside the air mattress he’s been sleeping on while he waits for the rest of his things to arrive from Las Vegas. Needing a gun for protection “sucks,” said Hooper, and wouldn’t be necessary if “everyone was just a decent human being.”
Up until last year, Hooper had never doubted his pro-gun stance. He was raised in a gun-owning household, and back in Las Vegas he’d hit up the local shooting range for target practice or head out to the desert to plink targets with friends on the weekends. Sometimes his crew would wear tactical gear and “clan patches,” mostly related to “nerdy Star Wars and zombie” stuff, Hooper said.
Then, on Oct. 1, 2017, Hooper attended the Route 91 country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip and narrowly survived the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
By the time Hooper even knew he was in danger, the first flurries of gunfire had already rung out over Jason Aldean’s song “When She Says Baby,” shooting down many of the 58 people killed in the massacre.
Hooper walked away physically unscathed, but the emotional scars are ongoing. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder plague him daily: anxiety in large crowds and fear around tall buildings. There are occasional night terrors, too.
Now he questions his relationship with his guns, and gun ownership in general.
Hooper, who owned an AR-15 before the Vegas massacre, says he’s concerned about the widespread availability of this sort of firepower. The Route 91 gunman was equipped with more than a dozen semiautomatic, military-style rifles, which have become the weapon of choice for many mass shooters. Hooper says he knows banning guns is a “touchy” subject and admits he isn’t exactly sure what the right answer is.
Hooper also now says he believes there’s an “overabundance of firearms in the world.” Among them is a shotgun he left in Las Vegas and would like to see destroyed in hopes of getting a “little piece of mental clarity.”
Those new views have already sparked tense conversations with his pro-gun friends, he said. He feels like he’s shifted into a “gray zone,” somewhere in between people who proudly “cling” to their guns and those who don’t own firearms and know nothing about guns or gun culture.
‘Nobody Is Being Forced To Get Rid Of A Gun’
Hooper isn’t alone in this category of gun owners who are introspective and perhaps even reluctant. Earlier this year, dozens of people, including Hooper, reached out to HuffPost saying they wanted to get rid of their guns.
Many were moderate gun owners who said they were considering giving up some or all of their firearms. A few even described themselves as gun enthusiasts who’d been moved by the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and subsequent student-led activism.
But Hooper and others have found that it isn’t so easy to have a gun destroyed in the U.S.
“It’s actually harder to get rid of a gun than it is to get one,” said Hooper.
There are 393 million civilian-held firearms in the U.S., according to an estimate published in June. That includes both legal and illicit guns of all sorts, ranging from typical handguns and long guns to bona fide bazookas, machine guns and corroded hunks of metal no longer capable of firing. Each year, that stockpile continues to grow as Americans buy more and more firearms at a rate far above replacement, because most guns will remain in circulation for decades or longer.
Many of these firearms belong to responsible gun owners who use and store them properly. But millions of those weapons are unwanted or neglected and, in some cases, kept unsecured, making them a risk for accidental shootings or theft, according to David Chipman, senior policy adviser at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and former special agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
When Hooper has talked with pro-gun friends about destroying his shotgun, they’ve treated it like a betrayal and sided with the firearm.
“They would rather just take it off my hands for me, and that’s not really what I’m trying to accomplish,” Hooper said.
He doesn’t see why it should be controversial for people to give up firearms for destruction. Making the process simpler would help ensure that people aren’t stuck with guns they don’t want, which should be a goal everywhere, he said.
That may not be a standard pro-gun position, but it’s something that people on all sides should be able to consider, Hooper said.
“Nobody is being forced to get rid of a gun,” he said. “People are willingly giving them up, wanting them to be destroyed. It’s completely, 100 percent voluntary.”
‘Stuck With It’
Somewhere in a Las Vegas garage, a black pump-action shotgun is gathering dust along with the rest of Hooper’s stuff. Hooper acquired the firearm a few years ago in a trade for a beat-up Chrysler. He didn’t need it but thought it was probably better off with him than the buyers.
“I didn’t want them to have it because they seemed really sketchy, definitely on some kind of drugs,” Hooper said.
Under federal law, private firearm transactions can be conducted without a background check, meaning those sorts of informal deals are common in Nevada and most other states. Of course, guns can also go to the sketchy party, not away from it, in those exchanges.
When Hooper decided he wanted to get rid of his shotgun earlier this year, he resolved to be more cautious about offloading it. Beyond a private sale, Hooper also could have sold it through a federally licensed dealer, who would be required to conduct a background check for any future sale. But no matter how he sold it, Hooper knew he wouldn’t be able to guarantee it wouldn’t be used for harm.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable knowing that it could go into somebody’s hands and eventually end up on the street,” he said.
Hooper briefly looked into gun buybacks, events often organized by charities or other nongovernmental organizations that offer modest compensation for surrendered weapons. He also explored the possibility of turning over the shotgun to law enforcement to be disposed of. There were no upcoming buybacks in the area ― they’re relatively rare in most parts of the country ― and police didn’t respond to his inquiry. Hooper was also unsure if he trusted the police department to actually destroy the gun, wondering if it might instead end up with an officer or even being resold to the public, as some departments have done.
With no clear path forward, Hooper gave up.
“I came to accept the fact that I was stuck with it,” he said.
Las Vegas police later told HuffPost that people can hand in guns to the department for destruction. But information on the program isn’t posted anywhere publicly, and officers didn’t seem totally familiar with how it worked.
No Easy Way Out
Law enforcement policies on surrendering guns vary widely depending on the department. A number of states have passed laws prohibiting law enforcement from destroying firearms, which has forced some departments to sell seized and surrendered firearms back to the public.
Police do run gun amnesty or disposal programs in a handful of larger cities, including Albuquerque, New York City, Seattle and Washington, but there isn’t a uniform process for turning over firearms or for destroying them. The National Rifle Association has pushed back on those sorts of policies in the past, calling them an “unnecessary and wasteful” anti-gun initiative that eliminates a potential revenue source.
The lack of options for disposing of guns is more evident in less urban areas, some gun owners told HuffPost.
Gregory Bloom, 50, has owned guns for most of his life, and he still keeps a handful of them, including an AR-15, locked up in his house.
Bloom recently came across a pistol he’d inherited and noticed that its serial number had been altered, a federal crime. He said he reached out to at least three local police departments hoping they’d take it, but came up empty. With no clear way to dispose of it, the gun “still sits in my safe,” Bloom said.
The experience led Bloom to think he’d have no choice but to hang on to his other firearms as well. He said he’d been considering getting rid of his AR-15, which makes him feel “sick” and “embarrassed” every time there’s a mass shooting. It’s “fun to shoot, but the danger of it outweighs my own interest and my own hobbies,” Bloom said.
But reselling the rifle to someone “without knowing what they’re capable of” would weigh on Bloom’s conscience, he said, while noting it would be legal in his home state of Missouri to pawn it off “out of the back of my pickup.”
If more Americans were willing to grasp the true gravity of the gun issue, perhaps we’d treat firearm disposal as a necessity, Bloom said.
“Guns are dangerous. It comes down to that,” he said. “I wish people would take a real solid look at what their gun can do and treat it like the tool that it is and not the sort of political ideology that it’s become.”
Neil Capper, 36, said he also felt conflicted about his AR-15, which he called a “toy” that “nobody needs.” Although he’s invested about $3,000 in the rifle, Capper said he recently started to feel like a “hypocrite” for keeping it despite having deep concerns about gun violence and the “fetishization of guns in our society.”
But Capper also found it difficult to give up the gun.
“If you sell it to a gun shop, they’re going to sell it to someone else, and is that really achieving the goal?” he said. “I don’t have it anymore, but somebody else does.”
Then there was the issue of the money.
“I’m not a rich man,” Capper said. “It’s hard to balance the idea that I probably shouldn’t have bought this with whether I can really afford to throw three grand in the trash can for a moral victory.”
‘We Each Have To Be Held Accountable’
Gun violence explodes across the U.S. each year in more than 11,000 homicides, 22,000 suicides and tens of thousands of other nonfatal shootings. Removing one shotgun, or even a handful of AR-15s, from circulation likely won’t make a dent in those numbers ― but that doesn’t seem to be the point for the gun owners HuffPost spoke with.
“At some point, we each have to be held accountable for our individual actions,” Bloom said. “If I drive slower, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop car accidents, but I don’t have to perpetuate and be a part of it.”
Providing additional resources for firearm disposal is ultimately a question of responsibility, not of opposing guns entirely, he added.
“There’s not a limited number of guns ― they’re not diamonds,” he said. “You could destroy guns all day long and it would not impact the guns in society, so why can’t we have this discussion?”
Hooper attributes some of that resistance to a strain of fanaticism in pro-gun circles, which he says can end up silencing the sort of tempered views necessary to begin breaking the longstanding deadlock on the issue of firearms in the U.S.
“There’s tons of people that just don’t speak up because they don’t want to be controversial,” he said. “Talking about giving up guns voluntarily might be something that could actually start the conversation, even if it does get heated.”
After feeling the effects of gun violence firsthand, Hooper says he’s also been disappointed to find that many pro-gun voices seem to have little sympathy for survivors. In some cases, that’s meant denying people’s victimhood altogether, including by claiming the Las Vegas shooting was staged or part of a conspiracy by politicians to push gun control. Hooper sees the lack of sensitivity as part of a broader refusal to acknowledge the real-world consequences of a society in which people have nearly unfettered access to firearms of all types.
“They can’t put themselves in people’s shoes and understand why we feel that way ― why I’m no longer a gun enthusiast the way I used to be,” Hooper said.
Earlier this month, Hooper said he found himself typing out a response to a dismissive comment on a video about the Las Vegas shooting. He wanted to correct misinformation and push back against another effort to delegitimize the trauma he and other Route 91 attendees continue to cope with. He felt the need to share the perspective of someone who’d proudly considered himself to be pro-gun, up until the moment he found himself on the wrong end of a semiautomatic rifle.
Hooper wrote a few paragraphs, and then deleted his reply.
“I can talk to you about it, I can tell you about my experience as much as I can, but there’s no way you’re going to understand unless you’ve been a part of that. Obviously, I would never wish that on my worst enemy, but maybe that’s just how it is.”
Do you own guns you don’t want anymore? Tell us about your situation. Send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out on Twitter at @nickpwing.