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Legislators take a break to sling guns

State Sen. Pam Roach with her "tricked out" AR15 during a social event with other legislators Credit: Photo: Bill Lucia

The acrid smell of gun smoke seasoned the cool air as rounds popped from .22 caliber rifles, Glock pistols and AR15s. Groups of about ten shooters took turns. They sat on wooden boxes, arms steadied on tabletops, eyes trained on black paper bulls-eyes twenty-five yards downrange. At the nearby trap field, orange, saucer-sized clay discs exploded against a backdrop of fir trees, shot down by state legislators, aides and lobbyists with 12 gauge shotguns. One aide wearing four-inch patent leather high heels nailed at least three. So it went, from high noon until sundown at the 2014 Legislative Shootout.

“After working on the budget this is really nice,” says Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, after firing-off an eight shot clip of .30 caliber bullets from his World War II era, semi-automatic, M1 Garand. Hargrove says he bought the vintage rifle because his father was a decorated veteran of the war. The sound of the weapon is thunderous compared to the smaller .22 rifles. “It’s amazingly loud,” he concedes. At one point, Hargrove fires and a nearby reporter lurches.

A tradition of sorts, the shootout has happened on and off since 1987. Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, had a hand in organizing the event in those early years when she was a legislative aide for former state Sen. Kent Pullen. These days her office takes the lead orchestrating the friendly shooting competition between Democrat and Republican teams. According to her staff, 135 lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists RSVP’d this year. Participants come and go throughout the day, testing their skills at target and clay pigeon shooting.

“Everyone’s taking it pretty doggone serious,” says Roach during her opening remarks. The walls around her are lined with mounted animals heads from water buffalo, bison and goats.

The shootout is designed to bring lawmakers from across the political spectrum together to promote firearms safety and education and to highlight the contributions that sport shooting, hunting and fishing make to the state economy. Representatives from the National Rifle Association, Duck’s Unlimited, Coastal Conservation Association and several Washington-based knife, holster and fishing rod makers attended this years shootout on Tuesday at the Evergreen Sportsman’s Club. The venue is about 20 miles from the Capitol, on the outskirts of Littlerock, Washington.

Roach grew up trap and skeet shooting with her father. Trap shooting is a form of clay pigeon shooting where discs are launched from a single location. In skeet shooting, the clays can come from multiple directions. At a recent family reunion, Roach was joined by some of her 16 grandkids for some target shooting. “It’s a family thing,” she says. Asked about her prospects in Tuesday’s showdown? “I’ll certainly be in the top,” says Roach, adding “I got a pretty steady hand,” as she extends an arm, fingers stretched and unshaking.

At the rifle range, Roach uses her personal semi-automatic Colt AR15, which she described as “tricked out.” The rifle is complete with a bi-pod support in the front, a 20-inch stainless steel barrel and telescopic site. She carries her 5.56mm ammunition in a lunchbox-sized digital camouflage pouch. After she fires a few rounds, a reporter and a range safety officer tinker with Roach’s rifle site.

State Sen. Pam Roach with her "tricked out" Colt AR15. 

A National Rifle Association member patch adorns the vest she wears over her button-up shirt. The National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund, a political action committee, gave Roach an A+ rating in 2010 for her position on gun rights. Roach has endorsed Initiative 591, which prohibits any government agency from confiscating guns and would forbid background checks on recipients of guns until there is a national standard.

The initiative could appear on a ballot this November along with Initiative 594, which would require background checks for all gun sales in Washington, including those that take place at gun shows and online. Both measures are "initiatives to the legislature." This means that, if passed, state legislators will have a choice about whether to enact or change the proposed measures before they become law. 

“Do you want to shoot a real gun?” Hargrove says to Roach, referring to his M1. Roach accepts the offer. Hargrove is captain of the Senate Democrat’s shootout team. Roach saw him the night before shopping at a Cabela’s. A few minutes later, a Hargrove staffer approaches the back of the firing line and says: “Senator, we need you back at three.”

“I got pistols to do,” Hargrove replies. At one point the Senator salvages his spent shells from the concrete floor of the shed-like structure that houses the firing line. “They’re expensive enough,” he says, “I want to reload these.”

When the range was no longer “hot,” the Senator retrieved his target. One shot was two rings outside the bulls-eye. The rest fell in the outer rings. Most were peppered around the bottom of the target sheet. “I was a little low for most of my cluster,” said Hargrove, chalking it up to the short distance between him and the target. He added, “I don’t shoot enough at this range.”

The defending champ at the competition is state Sen. Donald Benton, R-Vancouver. Last year, Benton swept the tournament, winning the trap shooting event, as well as the rifle and pistol shooting contests. Benton grew up on 53-acres of land in the high desert of southern California. He learned to shoot when he was seven or eight years old, hunting quail. Nowadays he mostly target-shoots, but occasionally hunts pheasant, deer, moose and elk with his kids, sometimes in Idaho. “My kids have always had guns too,” he says, adding that they went to the gun club last weekend to brush up for the shootout.

The warm-up outing seemed to have helped. Benton hit 10 of15 traps. Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, was unimpressed and said his colleague’s title would only hold up “for a couple more hours.” Benton likes the annual event because he believes it shows people that using firearms can be fun and safe. Shooting, he says, transcends political and socioeconomic labels: “It’s not just a certain group of people that enjoy shooting sports.”

“Gorgeous,” says Benton when he checks out Roach’s 12 gauge, which has a marbled, reddish-brown stock.

“If I’d had a brother, I wouldn’t have gotten it,” Roach says of the gun, which belonged to her father.

At the rifle range Benton shoots without the sandbag under his forward hand that some of the other shooters use. His glasses sit on the table where he rests his elbow. After he finishes his .22 caliber rounds for the competition, he decides to take a few shots using a .30-30 rifle brought to the event by a house staffer.

State Sen. Donald Benton shooting straight with a House staffer's .30-30.

“Take those binoculars there, Conner, and spot for me,” Benton says to Conner Edwards, who has interned in Roach’s office for the last five weeks. Comfortable handling and discussing firearms, Edwards said he grew up shooting and is currently a gun owner.

Benton fires. The .30-30 is almost as deafening as Hargrove's M1.

“Dead on, about a half inch below,” Edwards says, looking at the target through the binoculars.

“We’re shooting straight now,” Benton says. “That’s a nice gun.”

When the range is no longer hot, Benton walks across the muddy grass to retrieve his competition target.“Sweet!" he says. "Every one in the black." That would be the inner part of the target.

Rep. Luis Moscoso (in black trenchcoat) fires a 12-guage at a clay trap. 

Not everyone who turned out for the competition was a firearms enthusiast. Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, says he hadn’t fired a gun since a rifle class he took in college. “I wouldn’t mind coming out once in a while," he says after a round of skeet. "But I don’t think it’s something I’d actively get into.”

By 4:30 p.m. the number of shooters has tapered off and the barbeque is gone from the lunch table. Roach says the results of the competition hadn’t been tallied. She wasn’t sure yet how she’d fared. She still had to take her turn in the pistol target-shooting event. She assured a reporter that if she comes out on top, she’d spread the word. After all, “I’m the one they gun for,”  says Roach of her colleague competitors.

“This is a great event,” Hargrove said earlier in the day. He believes guns can be used for protection not only against “bad guys,” but against bad animals. “I have a three and a half year old grandson and I have cougars that are right behind my house out in the woods.”

“Firearms are a tool,” he added, “and part of this whole day today is to show that you can use that tool safely and respect it.”

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