Mother of Thousand Oaks victim calls for gun control after he survived the Las Vegas shooting only to die a year later in another mass shooting. USA TODAY
The Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, site of the nation's latest major deadly mass shooting, rests just north of a residential neighborhood in this normally placid California enclave.
The horror that erupted there late Wednesday night brought out Brandon Simone and his neighbor, Molly, who live in apartments down the street from the bar.
Molly, who asked that her last name not be used for her own safety, opened up her apartment and meager first-aid kit to survivors suffering broken bones, open gashes and mental anguish while they awaited medical treatment.
Following that sleepless night, Simone and Molly drove together three miles down the road to VC Defense, the only brick-and-mortar gun store in town.
Simone, 35, is a single father who previously vowed never to have a gun in the same home as his kid. But while his teenage son Ethan skateboarded outside, he asked the shop's owner what he needed to do to buy a 9-millimeter pistol.
Molly filmed VC Defense’s handgun display with her phone and sent the video to her boyfriend, insisting that he immediately buy one.
For John Von Colln, VC Defense’s proprietor, the duo were among an unusually steady stream of customers that day. Many of them expressed the same sentiment: they had come to the gun store because no place feels safe anymore, and they felt ill-equipped to confront the next mass shooter or armed home invader.
There’s a documented phenomenon in America following mass shootings in which gun enthusiasts stream to dealers to buy up contested accessories like bump stocks before they are made illegal. Von Colln’s customers on Thursday didn't appear to be those types, at least not during the couple of hours he allowed a reporter to hang out in his store and speak with customers.
They weren’t driven by a collector’s desire to hoard guns and accessories, but by raw fear.
Some were small business-owners suddenly feeling vulnerable. Many were first-time buyers suddenly seeking weapons for self-defense. Von Colln had to turn at least one customer away because he didn’t have proper paperwork fulfilling California’s stringent identification requirements.
A banker wearing business casual, designer glasses and a gold Rolex inquired about concealing a sidearm under a tucked-in dress shirt.
“I need more holsters because I am not going anywhere without my piece now,” he announced.
3 minutes of terror: How the Thousand Oaks shooting unfolded
Asking only to be identified as John for his safety, the banker said his son was outside the bar during the shooting, and that two of his son’s friends were killed. His own fear, he said, is being caught unprepared at a mall targeted by another madman with a gun.
Von Colln’s salesman, a burly long-haired man in a black beanie who stood before a wall of rifles, counseled him on an ankle holster. If he ever found himself in a shoot-out at the mall, the banker could quickly unholster and unload while lying on his back.
Von Colln said he knew he was in for an unusual day at the office when he threw on his work outfit of a “Don’t Tread on Me” t-shirt and cargo shorts Thursday morning, less than twelve hours after gunman Ian Long opened fire on the crowded bar. The crime scene just up the 101 Highway was still a chaotic carnival of law enforcement and media as several helicopters buzzed overhead.
A television reporter called to ask whether he had sold Long his weapon of mass murder. Von Colln found, to his relief, that a check of his database showed the former Marine had never been a customer.
Von Colln allows customers into his small gun shop by pushing a button which releases a heavy front gate. By noon Thursday, he could barely finish paperwork on a previous sale or bring out a new gun for a customer to handle before having to return to the button to let somebody else in.
As new customers cycled through the store, the constant chatter—besides general expressions of hatred for the shooter—was about the six unarmed, off-duty law enforcement officers who were reportedly at the bar during the shooting. Their lack of weapons was a presumed consequence of a California law barring firearms in bars.
“At least there could’ve been a chance” of preventing the shooting if they were armed, said Von Colln.
A former engineer who turned his gun hobby into a livelihood, Von Colln described California’s ever-tightening gun laws as the work of out-of-touch politicians creating a labyrinth of irrational rules so complicated even his clients in law enforcement can’t follow them.
A relative of police officers, he teared up while describing his cousin’s shooting death on duty. “I take this very seriously, what we do,” said Von Colln. “Some people would love to have all gun shops done, but without a legal way people are going to be doing it illegally.”
Residents have long regarded this city as a serene little community forty miles away from the crime and blight of Los Angeles. But the shooting this week drove home a creeping feeling that the outside world is encroaching on Thousand Oaks.
Mike Rowan, a former corrections officer who teaches gun handling courses at nearby Trigger Burst Training Center, said he fielded calls all Thursday from potential clients motivated to get gun permits following the bar shooting.
Some of his teaching focuses on fending off an active shooter, and Rowan said he expected an uptick in business similar to the one he experienced after the Las Vegas concert massacre last year.
“They’re just frightened,” Rowan said of this new client base. “Unfortunately these mass shootings are good for business, and I say that very solemnly.”
Rowan described a discreet, and distinctly Californian, clientele. They pull up to his range in Priuses and Teslas and never tell their friends they own a gun.
“I get a lot of closet liberals, people who normally would never want anything to do with a firearm, and I train them and they secretly own firearms,” Rowan said.
Simone, who drove with his neighbor to VC Defense following the shooting, would have previously counted himself among the anti-gun crowd. He used to believe that the danger of having a gun in his home with his son outweighed any protective value, but the shooting shifted his thinking.
Residents near Thousand Oaks, California already reeling from the shock of a mass shooting were confronting wildfire dangers Friday as a fast-moving blaze swept through the area - threatening homes and forcing evacuations. (Nov. 9) AP
His neighbor Molly was less equivocal. She openly questioned her boyfriend’s manhood if he continued to hesitate to buy a gun. She was ready to buy one herself.
“Thirteen people would have not died” if people who were trained with firearms were armed on Wednesday night, she said.
Simone described gun-opposing friends and family who were also “coming around” to this line of thinking, asking him to keep them posted on the process of buying a firearm in California.
He believes that the real issue behind gun violence isn’t the ease of buying firearms but the lack of ready treatment for mental health problems.
Simone used himself as an example. He said he has recently sought counseling following the deaths of several loved ones, but has been stymied in receiving help by delays and bureaucracy.
“What if I was that guy?” Simone said of Long, the shooter. “I’m the farthest from those guys. But I empathize with them.”
For his teenage son Ethan, who skated around in the parking lot, it had been a surreal and frightening twelve hours in Thousand Oaks. He had been awoken by gunshots and then evacuated from school following a gun threat there, while just northward huge smoke clouds billowed from a raging brush fire in the hills.
He chimed in with his opinion on gun control. “No matter how hard they make it to get a gun, they’re going to get one,” Ethan said. “I’m a kid and I don’t know anything but I know that.”
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