Among the “El Paso Strong” and “Trump is a racist” signs, the poster board held high by Bill Vogt said something different.
“El Paso: buy back my assault rifle.”
The 60-year-old army veteran had been around guns his entire life. He enjoyed taking his expensive AR-series rifle to the range with his buddies and “blowing up things with it”. But after Saturday’s mass shooting, one of the deadliest in recent US history, the El Paso resident found himself so angry that he wanted to destroy it.
“You see all this happening around the nation, all these senseless killings, and it doesn’t start hitting home until it’s here in your own city,” Vogt said. “It really made me back up and wonder: why in the world do I even have this weapon? And how do I get this weapon out of other people’s hands so we can get them off the street?”
Around the country, voluntary gun buyback programs, in which individuals turn in their firearms to authorities in exchange for some form of compensation, have been implemented with varying degrees of success. The former vice-president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders and the former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke have all come out in support of a national gun buyback program for assault weapons.
“At the end of the day, if it’s going to save lives, if it’s going to prevent the kinds of tragedies that we saw in El Paso or Gilroy or Dayton or this weekend in Chicago or all over this country on a daily basis, then let’s move forward and do it,” O’Rourke recently told the podcast Pod Save America when asked about mandatory gun buyback programs.
To the best of her recollection, Cassandra Hernandez, an El Paso city representative, can’t remember El Paso ever having employed a gun buyback program. “I’ve heard about [buybacks for] medicines, prescription drugs, but never for weapons,” she said.
But if many El Pasoans are interested in selling back their assault rifles, then it’s something that local government should explore, she said. “This is something that the majority of Americans want to see, some sort of new or maybe untraditional way of stopping gun violence.”
For Vogt and others like him who have grown up with guns, just starting the conversation around high-powered assault rifles and gun control can be a radical act. “I grew up on farms, I grew up in the military, and we were around weapons all the time,” he said. “It develops that kind of mindset that if we don’t have weapons to protect ourselves, we are doing something wrong.”
But starting the conversation is necessary, Vogt said, especially when it comes to high-powered semiautomatic rifles. Vogt worked in the medical field during his 20 years in the army, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he knows exactly what these kind of weapons can do to a human body.
The past few days have afforded him some time for introspection on why he sought out an assault rifle as a civilian.
“To be absolutely honest, it’s a toy,” he said. “I have lots of friends that have them. We go out to the range, we blow up things on the range with it. It has limited use as a hunting weapon. It’s literally just a toy and most people that have them, that’s exactly what it is. And why wouldn’t you be willing to get rid of a toy in order to make sure this does not happen again?”
He and his wife have already reached out to local politicians and the sheriff’s department to see if they can start a voluntary buyback program in the area.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Vogt said, of the shooting. “It’s been traumatizing for lots of us. It’ll take a while for all of us to heal from this, but I don’t want us to forget it. I don’t want the trauma of what happened to just settle down and for us to just walk away and say we did the best we can. I want it to spark a continued push.”