Washington (AFP) – Dave Baril has served in the US Marine Corps for over 18 years, deployed twice to Iraq, and is a gun owner.
But after a teenager killed 17 people in Florida last month — the deadliest school shooting to hit the country over five years — he took his personal AR-15 rifle to a local police station and turned it in for destruction.
Baril is one of a group of US military veterans calling for tighter firearms regulations in an effort to reduce gun violence in America, bringing their knowledge of weapons and war — and accompanying credibility — to the contentious debate.
Shootings at a Las Vegas concert last year and at the Parkland, Florida high school “really woke me up the most,” he said.
The 42-year-old said he is “all for the 2nd Amendment” to the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms.
“But that doesn’t mean that… we should all be driving around in tanks just because… the military has tanks,” he said.
And without changes to current gun laws, Baril believes the current pattern of mass shootings will continue — or get worse.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” he said.
Both the Las Vegas and Parkland shootings were carried out with AR-15-style rifles, which are similar to military-issue M4s but lack a burst-fire mode.
“If I’m gonna say that… we shouldn’t have these things out there, I can’t have one myself and say, ‘Well, I’m special,’” said Baril.
So he decided to turn in his rifle.
– ‘Amplifying’ survivors’ voices –
After the Parkland shooting, Baril started the Twitter hashtag #VetsForGunReform and asked a few other veterans if it was something they would support.
They said yes, and it has since taken off, becoming a rallying point for like-minded veterans on social media.
“This has really coalesced the group, and the reach that it’s gotten has been incredible,” Kyleanne Hunter, one of the primary Vets for Gun Reform organizers, said of the hashtag.
“Right now, we’re just sort of a little bit of a ragtag group of volunteers who also all have other jobs, and so we’re getting this going as we can,” said Hunter, a former Cobra helicopter pilot who served in the Marines for nearly 12 years, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and is a gun owner.
“What we really want to focus on right now is amplifying the voices of these students who are driving the movement,” she said, referring to survivors of the Parkland shooting, some of whom have become prominent advocates for tighter firearms laws.
“We volunteered to go into harm’s way, they didn’t, and they shouldn’t have to experience this,” said Hunter.
She and fellow veterans aim to be “a voice of reason” in the debate on gun regulations and “bridge the gap between the left and the right,” she said.
“We’re keeping a close eye on the policy debates that are happening right now and being very deliberate as to how we want to proceed.”
Pete Lucier, who served in the Marines from 2008 to 2013, deployed to Afghanistan and was a marksmanship instructor, said he was once a “pretty strong believer” in the idea of a “good guy with a gun” countering those who would do harm in the US.
Gun violence in America played a role in changing his views, but so did his time at war.
“Seeing the chaos of a real combat environment and the difficulties involved in gunplay and in real combat hedged a lot of my views about what was possible with a gun,” said Lucier.
He no longer owns a gun but still shoots periodically, and said that veterans’ knowledge of firearms is something important they bring to the conversation.
“A lot of us come from homes or backgrounds where we appreciate firearms. We don’t necessarily villainize or demonize people who own guns. We understand guns,” Lucier said.
“Our identity as veterans… informs our position,” he said. “But it’s not in any way trying to be a shield from criticism… or represent veterans as a monolith.”
– ‘They didn’t sign up’ –
For Dennis Magnasco, who served in the US Army from 2006 to 2015, deployed to Afghanistan and is a gun owner, the shooting in Las Vegas — where the gunman used a “bump stock” device to drastically increase the rate at which he could rain bullets down on concert-goers — encouraged him to speak out.
“I saw the video of the shooting. When I heard the fire from that rifle with the bump stock on it, it sounded very similar to a machine gun. It sounded like combat,” he said.
“I had this feeling of just, this isn’t right, we’ve gotta make some changes.”
As a medic in an infantry unit, Magnasco treated a wide variety of injuries, which is “something that I carry with me, and something that I remember.”
“When I think about middle school students and high school students in the United States seeing these types of injuries in their schools to their friends, they didn’t sign up for that,” he said.
“That shouldn’t be the way things are.”