LOUISVILLE, Neb. — Thomas Howard teaches high school physics and chemistry.
Ardena Mrasek works construction and is a college student studying law enforcement.
Toby Asplin is a management consultant.
They are like most law-abiding Nebraskans, except they happen to own and shoot AR-15s, the popular semi-automatic sport weapon known for its use in high-profile mass shootings and its role in the national gun control debate.
Their passion for the rifles puts them at odds with lawmakers and others grasping at something — anything — to curb gun violence.
Neil Heslin, the father of Sandy Hook victim Jesse Heslin, 6, holds a picture of himself with his son as he testified against assault weapons last Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (AP Photo)
They understand. Military-style rifles have been used to commit horrific acts of violence, including last year at a Connecticut elementary school and in a Colorado movie theater. The rifles often are depicted on television and in movies and video games as weapons of mayhem and war.
But the AR-15 and rifles like it were popular with weekend shooters long before they gained infamy. Increasingly, they are one of America's most-wanted guns among the millions-deep private arsenals of recreational shooters.
Gun deaths sicken Asplin, Howard and Mrasek. But calls for tighter controls — including bans or limitations on one of their favorite firearms — frustrate them.
While friends and neighbors watch television or putter around the house after work and on weekends, they teach firearms safety and shooting classes, plink targets or compete in live-fire action games at shooting ranges.
Push aside the Hollywood-fed image of people owning military-style firearms as shaved-head survivalists. Most look a lot like you. They are neighbors, co-workers and friends.
Asplin, Howard and Mrasek own only a few of the estimated 2.5 million to nearly 4 million privately held AR-15-style rifles in the United States. There were about 310 million firearms — handguns, rifles and shotguns — in the United States in 2009.
A National Shooting Sports Foundation survey in 2010 found that the top reasons people own AR-15-style rifles are for recreational target shooting, home defense, collecting and hunting.
Golfer acquaintances who roll their eyes when Howard talks about firearms competitions frequently ask why he enjoys shooting.
“I ask them why they like golf,” he said.
Roughly 15 percent of Americans participate in some form of hobby or target shooting, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission estimates that at least 17 percent of Nebraskans shoot. That doesn't count the families that slip out to grandpa's pasture with a .22-caliber rifle or bolt-action shotgun to pop aluminum cans into a gully or powder a few blue rocks.
AR-15-style guns make up 99 percent of the rifles that competitors use in action-shooting games at the sprawling Heartland Public Shooting Park in Grand Island, Neb., said Bill Starkey, superintendent.
“They're easy to use, and accurate,” he said. “When you're accurate, you're having fun.”
Supporters of proposed federal restrictions on guns say it's false logic that restrictions on military-style rifles would strip Americans of their Second Amendment right to bear arms for sporting or self-defense. The chief of the Milwaukee Police Department told U.S. senators last week that military-style rifles are primarily designed for combat and to cause lethal wounds.
Defenders of gun rights fear the slow erosion of their freedoms.
Nebraska Attorney Gen. Jon Bruning, the state's top law enforcement officer, said Americans have a right to own and enjoy firearms, including AR-15-style rifles, and to keep them at home for defense.
Asplin, Howard and Mrasek graduated to AR-15-style rifles over time. Their arms buildups started modestly, with pistols, and escalated to what the industry calls modern sporting rifles.
Howard, 42 and married, is a Plattsmouth High School teacher who lives in Cedar Creek. He didn't grow up in a hunting family but had a BB rifle as a boy. About two decades ago he bought a .22-caliber pistol to teach himself how to safely handle firearms. He later upgraded to a 9 mm pistol and started competing in shooting events at gun clubs. His first was a Rock Your Glock novice competition at the Izaak Walton League shooting sports range near Lincoln.
An organizer invited Howard to an action pistol match, where competitors combine speed and accuracy with shooting at multiple targets. Howard was hooked. Then he learned about multi-gun games.
Now he's one of the area's best.
“It just looked like too much fun,” he said. “I just kept branching out.''
Wesley Dickinson of Papillion, president of the 5,000-member Nebraska Firearms Owners Association, said gun games allow friends to compete against each other and themselves. They also teach safety and marksmanship.
After a mandatory safety briefing and course tour, a gun game begins with a range safety officer standing behind the shooter at a firing line. The official asks if the shooter understands where to find the targets and where to move to subsequent firing lines. The official asks if the shooter is ready. A standby command follows.
Then a buzzer sounds behind the shooter.
“And adrenaline just dumps into your body,” Dickinson said.
In action competitions, shooters typically maneuver and shoot their way through obstacle-laden courses of bridges, car and bus bodies as well as shop and home facades with doors and windows. Courses require from six to more than 30 shots with a pistol, rifle or shotgun to complete. Competitors walk or run as they negotiate obstacles, shoot and reload through several stages as fast as their skills permit.
Targets are a few yards to several hundred yards distant. Some are in motion. Some are paper with scoring rings. Others are metal plates that fall when hit, or even bowling pins that must be swept off a table. Scoring is either by time or a system that factors points, time and the number of shots fired.
“When it's your turn to shoot, you leave everything behind,'' Howard said.
Gun range safety is militant. All guns, even if unloaded, are treated as if they are loaded. Muzzles are never pointed at another person. Fingers are kept off triggers until the gun is aimed and ready to fire. Any violation brings instant disqualification.
“No warnings. You're done for the day,” Dickinson said.
The Eastern Nebraska Gun Club near Louisville hosted six multi-gun action shooting competitions last year. Participants fired more than 20,000 rounds, Howard said. Action pistol competitors fired more than 200,000 rounds. Howard shot more than 20,000 rounds last year, mostly with his semi-automatic pistol.
“And nobody got hurt,” he said.
The Eastern Nebraska Practical Shooters hosts a six-stage Steel Challenge match five times a year. Below are clips of Thomas Howard shooting at the season-ending competition.
On each stage, there are five strings of fire. In the video, you'll see Thomas' worst run, and then his best run. For match results, the slowest run is thrown out and the other four are added for the score on the stage. The "Stage Average" shown is the average time of the other four runs. The lowest score wins.
Howard is safety coordinator for Eastern Nebraska Practical Shooters' matches. Nearly 20 years ago he started teaching people martial arts and self-defense, then evolved into firearms training. He calls his company Precision Response Training. His wife, Julie, helps him and is a member of the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association board.
Too many of Thomas Howard's clients come to him for help after they're victims of crime. People, he said, should be prepared.
“If they stay away from doing stupid things with stupid people, don't do drugs, don't hang out with gangs, the chance (of needing to defend themselves) is small,” he said. “But small is not zero.”
Mrasek, 22, a University of Nebraska at Omaha student who lives in Plattsmouth and works on a construction crew, wanted to be prepared.
“We all say we hope we never have a fire in our home. Most people never do, but we have a fire extinguisher,” she said. “I hope I never have to come to my self-defense in any way, let alone with a gun. But I'd rather have a gun and not need it than need it and not have it.”
Mrasek was the first in her family to take up firearms as a hobby. Her first gun was a semi-automatic Glock 19 pistol, one of the most popular handguns in the United States. She now owns an AR-15 and shotguns.
“Our sport is like any other sport,” she said. “You start small. You think you only need one gun. Then you end up with a menagerie of firearms because you like something specific about each one.”
A big part of the popularity of AR-15-style rifles is that they are easily customized. The stock, barrel and everything else can be substituted to make the gun better fit the shooter or perform a certain task. Basic models weigh as little as 6 pounds. Recoil is minimal.
Asplin, 48, an Omahan and president of Bluestem Corp., first bought a pistol for self-defense, a semi-automatic Beretta 92, after a client threatened him.
“It was a specific threat,” he said. “When that happens, it changes your mindset.”
His pistol was a twin to the military model he carried in the Army. Familiarity with the military's M-16 rifle and M-4 carbine led him to the AR-15 when he was shopping for a target-shooting gun. He'd used firearms since boyhood.
The cost of an out-of-the-box AR-15-style rifle was about $900 before talk of tougher gun laws created a buying rush and pushed up prices.
Mrasek said the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding, responsible and educated, not criminals or movie action heroes. She said no responsible gun owner wants the nation to suffer more violence.
“Nobody wants people to get shot. Nobody wants more people to die,” she said. “We just disagree about the best way to go about saving lives. We want the same thing. We just disagree on how to get there.”
There are no recent federal government studies on gun violence and prevention to help. The National Rifle Association successfully lobbied Congress in 1996 to halt Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding that may be used to advocate or promote gun control. President Barack Obama is seeking $10 million from Congress for new research.
A decade ago, the CDC looked at more than 50 studies of gun-control measures, including the federal assault weapons ban of 1994 to 2004, and found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any firearms laws on reducing violent crime.
Howard bought his first AR-15-style rifle during the assault weapons ban. Despite popular belief, the ban prohibited only certain cosmetic variations of the gun.
For example, it could not have a collapsing stock or a pistol-style handle grip. The legal and illegal versions fired the same-size bullets and appeared at a glance to be nearly identical.
Although semi-automatic guns show up too often as the weapons of choice for gang members, drug dealers and the mentally ill, not all law enforcement officials are tuned to the same frequency in how to attack the problem.
The Washington, D.C.-based International Association of Chiefs of Police says military-style rifles pose a grave risk to its officers and communities and should be banned.
Blair (Neb.) Police Chief Joseph Lager said more stringent and thorough background and mental health checks would be more effective than banning a legal weapon or accessory.
“But no matter what safeguards we put up, criminals will steal weapons, and even background checks do no good in those cases,'' said Lager, who also is president of the Police Chiefs Association of Nebraska.
His group has no policy position on the guns commonly called assault weapons.
Lager said law enforcement officers don't fear the potential threat of criminals using semi-automatic guns. Bruning, the attorney general, agreed.
“The inanimate object isn't the problem,” he said. “The problem is the bad guy.”
Bruning said all Americans mourn gun victims, but the solution to massacres is not adding regulations to law-abiding gun owners. He said the nation needs to do a better job keeping guns away from the mentally ill.
“It becomes a question of resources,'' he said. “Or do we use that money to feed hungry kids or help the elderly pay for their medicine? There's a finite amount of government money out there and lots of problems we need to solve.”
Omaha Police Department officials declined to discuss AR-15-style rifles. A Nebraska State Patrol spokeswoman said the agency had no comment, but that it enforces state laws.
Asplin says he enjoys opportunities to teach non-shooters about America's firearms tradition, gun safety and how to shoot and hunt. He takes friends who are unfamiliar with guns to his family farm near Stanton to shoot targets.
“They go in thinking guns are an evil because they've seen them used in evil ways,” Asplin said. “Then they shoot and you can't wipe the grin off their face.”
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