A week has passed since J.J. Vicari huddled underneath a desk while gunshots exploded in the classroom next door. Now he is thinking about guns. Not about tightening gun laws, as President Barack Obama urged after nine people were killed at the community college here. But about buying one for himself.
“It’s opened my eyes,” said Vicari, 19. “I want to have a gun in the house to protect myself, to protect the people I’m with. I’m sure I'll have a normal life and never have to go through anything like this, but I want to be sure.”
Obama plans to visit Roseburg on Friday to meet the grieving families of the gun rampage, but many people here are bristling at his renewed call for stricter gun laws. In some ways, the rampage at the college by a 26-year-old student, Christopher Harper-Mercer, has actually tightened the embrace of guns in a rural town where shots at rifle ranges echo off the hills and hunters bag deer and elk through the fall.
Some families touched by the violence and students who fled gunfire said they now feared that the kind of bloodshed seen inside Classroom 15 at Snyder Hall, Umpqua Community College, could happen anywhere. Some said they were planning to buy guns. Others said they would seek permits for concealed weapons. Others, echoing gun advocates’ calls for more weapons on campus, said the college should allow its security guard to carry guns. A few said they thought that stricter gun control laws could have averted the massacre.
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Even Obama’s visit has stirred fiercely polarized responses. Some residents and the publisher of a weekly conservative newspaper said he was not welcome, and accused him of using the town’s anguish to advance a gun control agenda.
The language got so angry that on Tuesday the mayor and other city officials put out a statement saying they welcomed Obama and “will extend him every courtesy.”
And while the Roseburg shooting has pushed some people toward wanting to arm themselves, it has also pushed others in the opposite direction. Students like Devon Paasch, 36, whose writing teacher, Lawrence Levine, was among the victims, said the murders had intensified her belief that the country needed stricter gun laws. Paasch was not on campus that morning because she slept through her alarm. She has spent the past week tilting between grief, guilt and a fear of returning to school.
“No kind of gun control is going to stop everything,” Paasch said. “But in a situation like this, it could have saved 10 lives.”
The debate has rolled across a conservative, timber-producing region where flags are at half-staff and roadside signs beseech prayers for the victims. From a wooded gun range south of town to City Hall to KC’s Exchange, where Carolyn Kellim sells handguns and ammunition out of her home, people insisted that the actions of Harper-Mercer, who was armed with six guns and spare ammunition magazines, would not displace guns from their place in local life.
“That’s why we have guns. We don’t have the government dictating when to get on our knees,” said Kellim, who is 86.
After the shooting, gun control groups and national news media skewered Sheriff John Hanlin of Douglas County, which includes Roseburg, for a letter he wrote to Vice President Joe Biden after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut. In it he said, “Gun control is NOT the answer to preventing heinous crimes like school shootings.” But in church pews and coffee shops, many residents said they still believed he was right. Online, some are using #supportforHanlin to back him.
A community college student has started a petition to allow concealed weapons on all campuses, echoing hotly disputed arguments from national gun groups that mass shootings could be stopped by more “good guys with guns.” In 2011, an Oregon court said public colleges could not ban guns from campus.
Umpqua Community College only banned guns “without written authorization,” and students said many of their classmates carried concealed weapons. One of them, John Parker Jr., an Air Force veteran, told MSNBC that he was armed when the attack happened but did not intervene. He said SWAT officers might have mistaken him for a killer.
Jamie Skinner, 34, a former girlfriend of Chris Mintz, the Army veteran who blocked the door to a classroom at Umpqua Community College and was shot by Harper-Mercer, said in an interview last week that the massacre in Roseburg would not change her opinion that owning guns was important. Skinner has worked as an armed security guard and said she and Mintz went to shooting ranges for recreation.
“We are a weapons family,” Skinner said.
She and Mintz have a 6-year-old son, Tyrik, who has autism and who also influenced her attitude toward guns.
“I like to have the ability to protect myself and my child,” she said.
But Ashley Schmidt, 28, said the horror she heard through the walls of the classrooms had nudged her toward supporting rules that would regulate guns the way cars are. She was in Classroom 14 in Snyder Hall when the shooting started and ran out amid a storm of gunfire, yelling “Gun! Gun! Gun!” at a girl in the hallway whose earbuds had blocked out the noise.
Schmidt said she opposes “taking guns away” and lamented that there is no foolproof way to keep guns away from criminals or would-be mass murderers.
“I’ve always felt like there is nothing I can do,” she said, about school shootings. “But I see this country falling apart.”