The Rev. Jeremy Lucas brought an olive branch to a gun fight recently, hoping for a mellow outcome. It began when he won a semi-automatic rifle in a local raffle, then revealed his plan to destroy it and was mostly congratulated for his stand.
But the 44-year-old Episcopal priest’s token attempt to take another gun off the streets did little to keep the peace. In response to his gesture, Lucas got threats and demands for his arrest.
“I’ve come to learn a lot about the nature of social media,” Lucas said last week of some of the comments about his one-man, one-gun protest. “The rabid gun activists come out swinging, trying to close down any meaningful conversation and attempting to intimidate people into silence.”
Lucas, pastor of Lake Oswego Christ Church in this upscale Portland suburb, had read about a girls’ all-star softball team’s plan to raffle an AR-15 rifle to raise money for a trip to a regional playoff in Lancaster, Calif.
The news report in Willamette Week included a photo of one of the girls at home plate, swinging the weapon.
Lucas says he thought portraying the gun as a prize sent the wrong message. “I have nothing against this softball team. We’ve had good conversations,” he said. “I understand that it’s purely economics, that guns are popular and the team needed to raise a lot of money.”
Lucas grew up in Alabama owning and shooting guns. But he sees the AR-15, America’s most popular rifle, as a danger to society. It is one of the weapons of choice among today’s mass shooters, from Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 to the shooting last month of four teens, three fatally, by another teen near Seattle.
Commonly, if wrongly, called an assault rifle — a term historically reserved for fully automatic weapons — the AR-15 functions like any semi-automatic: one trigger pull to fire each bullet. But it’s lightweight, has a military feel and can be quickly reloaded with another magazine. In a minute, it can be fired 45 to 60 times.
A concerned Lucas first contacted the softball team and offered church funds to pay for the all-stars’ trip, if they’d cancel the raffle. “It’s one less gun that could be used to threaten someone or terrorize someone,” he would later explain.
But it was too late, Lucas was told. Some tickets had already been sold, and by law, the raffle would have to play out.
So the pastor came up with Plan B: Win the rifle, then destroy it — melt it down, turn it into a piece of art, perhaps a garden tool. Lucas dipped into his church’s discretionary fund for $3,000 and, at $20 apiece, bought 150 of the 500 raffle tickets.
When word spread of his plan, he acknowledged it was a mostly symbolic gesture, telling local media: “There are millions of guns, I know that.”
But if he won, he said, “this gun will never be used to kill kids in schools, kill people in a movie theater, kill people at an office party or at any other place of mass shootings. … It won’t be used by a vet with PTSD to kill himself.”
“If I had the chance for $3,000 to keep any of these things from happening — even one time — I’d do it again in a second,” he said.
Lucas says he didn’t consider it divine intervention when one of his tickets was drawn. “I’m not sure that’s exactly how God works, fixing raffles,” he said with a laugh. “I like to believe I took a faithful stance. But I think that God would have been on my side even if I didn’t win, because we helped send a girls softball team on their trip.”
When news about his win and plans to destroy the gun began to spread, Lucas got Facebook thank-yous from relatives of some of the Sandy Hook victims and encouragement from hundreds of others.
Donors replenished the $3,000 he’d used from the church coffers and then some. Bishop Michael J. Hanley, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, sent his huzzas as well. “It was a wonderful thing and actually filled me with a certain amount of glee that he could pull it off,” Hanley said in a statement. “Probably more of us need to act in this way, jumping into the unknown consequences of doing good deeds.”
But not everyone saw it that way.
Some unhappy commentators suggested Lucas had violated Oregon’s new gun law by failing to have a background check conducted on a parishioner to whom he’d given the weapon for safekeeping.
Then there were the “critics and trolls” on social media and on news websites, Lucas wrote on his blog, “lobbing their hate and vitriol.”
The Oregon State Police, acting on a tip from a local gun club official, opened an investigation into the allegation that he’d violated the background check law. A spokesperson there said the case is under review. Such a misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine that could reach more than $6,000.
The man who has taken credit for tipping authorities — Kevin Starrett, executive director of the Oregon Firearms Federation — says he doesn’t like the law, but seems to take some joy over the possibility it will be used to prosecute one of its proponents.
“If the pastor is prosecuted,” Starrett said in a statement, “it will demonstrate the idiocy of the law and the people who passed it. If the pastor is not prosecuted, it will demonstrate that anti-gun liberals are above the law and it was only intended to hurt the average gun owner, against whom it could be selectively enforced.”
Lucas, a law school graduate who worked as an attorney before turning to the church, said he supports the background check law. “Its intent is to keep someone from going out and buying a gun for someone else. I’m glad it’s getting some publicity.”
For that matter, if he did end up in court, that could generate more coverage, and perhaps keep the dialogue going, the reverend says.
“Anything that can keep us talking about this patchwork of gun laws and gaping holes that we can drive through is good,” he said. “I mean, it took me less than half an hour to pass that background check and walk out with a semi-automatic rifle. We really should be talking about that.”
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