U.S. biathletes, who shoot guns to compete, speak out on gun control for America

Lowell Bailey of the United States looks at the targets before shooting during the men's 10-kilometer biathlon sprint at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Feb. 11, 2018. [Andrew Medichini | Associated Press]
Lowell Bailey of the United States looks at the targets before shooting during the men's 10-kilometer biathlon sprint at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Feb. 11, 2018. [Andrew Medichini | Associated Press]
Published Feb. 20, 2018

DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — For his profession, Lowell Bailey wears a .22 caliber rifle strapped to his back. It has taken him across the world and to four Olympic Games, most recently to the biathlon mixed relay Tuesday night at Alpensia Biathlon Centre, where he skied the anchor leg for a United States team that finished 15th. His sport and his livelihood revolve around shooting. His competitors from other countries often wonder about his country's relationship with guns.

At the Pyeongchang Olympics, the U.S. biathlon team woke up last Thursday morning to alerts on their phones about terrible news from the other side of the world. Seventeen students, teachers and staff had been murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland by a 19-year-old with an AR-15. It was both tragedy and data point, another in a ceaseless succession of mass shootings in America.

Biathlon and mass murder of innocent people share no connective tissue, other than the broadest definition of the tool used. Even understanding that intellectual fact, Bailey and his teammates often experience a visceral need to reconcile the shooting portion of their sport and the destruction guns have caused in their country. They are shooting rifles while representing a country where debates over gun control have once again become a central issue.

Tuesday night, under the lights and in front of a packed grandstand, Bailey spoke out.

"I support an assault weapons ban," Bailey said. "I really do. Our county needs to wake up. Our country needs to change. There's just no excuse. I compete against all of these other World Cup nations — Germany, Norway. How good are they on the range? They're great at rifle marksmanship. Do you know how strict their gun controls law are? It's a travesty America hasn't changed and continues to go down this path. It just makes me want to cry."

American biathlete Susan Dunklee, a three-time Olympian who skied the first leg Tuesday, has struggled in the past with competing after mass shootings. She can focus on her skiing and marksmanship during competition, but the connection between the uses of guns saps her enthusiasm and creates internal conflict.

"Every time something like that happens, it does make me sick to my stomach to think about," Dunklee said. "This is so far removed from that type of shooting. This is precision shooting. We're using a .22. We're working on emotional control. But there is still that association of it being a firearm. And it really takes a lot of the joy I have out of pursuing a sport like this."

Joanne Firesteel Reid, the second leg of the U.S. relay team, switched from cross-country skiing to biathlon two years and three months ago. Her grandfather owned a biathlon rifle, and when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it was no longer legal for him to possess it. It passed to Firesteel Reid's mother. She knew the U.S. team was always looking for potential biathletes, so the rifle — an Anschutz .22 — became hers.

"We're really aware we are a firearm sport, that we are a shooting sport," Firesteel Reid said. "A lot of us have pretty strong opinions about this. I think we get grouped into a certain type of person, and I don't think any of us are that type of person. That has been quite fascinating."

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The U.S. biathletes, from their words, are not gun enthusiasts. The great challenge of biathlon is regulating nerves and a heartbeat rattled by the extreme cardiovascular demands of cross-country challenge. They are not in it for the thrill of pulling a trigger, but for the test of their physical calm and mental discipline.

"Not only am I a biathlete, but I'm also an avid hunter," U.S. biathlete Tim Burke said. "If locking up all of my sports rifles and my hunting rifles meant saving one life, I would do it."

Biathlon competitions are held across the globe, and so the U.S. biathletes have seen up close how international gun laws differ from those at home. South Korea had some of the strictest laws they had seen.

When they arrived at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, the biathletes handed over their rifles at customs. Government officials delivered them to the biathlon center here and placed them in lockers roughly the size of a rifle. Biathletes had to match their name to a serial number and scan them out, even for the purpose of "dry fire," - going through the motion of aiming and shooting, without ammunition. Typically, biathletes can do the 15-minute exercise in a hotel room. In Korea, they had to jog to the center, scan their rifle out, then scan it back in.

The strict rules applied to ammunition, too. When a biathlete took his gun to the practice range, a South Korean official counted out 100 rounds. When the biathlete returned from target practice, the official counted how many bullets remained. "It would be like if you were a runner and someone locked up your running shoes," Firesteel Reid said.

While the rules here are extreme, U.S. gun laws confound biathletes from other countries. Bailey said he has discussed the U.S. laws with rivals, and mostly they are left at a loss.

"They're absolutely baffled," Bailey said. "They're baffled at the political landscape of the United States and how we can continue to put assault weapons in the hands of anyone who wants to walk into a gun store and buy one."

Bailey, also an advocate for clean sport and a father, became emotional when discussing the kind of guns available in the United States compared with the guns available elsewhere in the world.

"We're a sport that uses a .22 caliber rifle," Bailey said. "A .22 caliber rifle with a bolt action that shoots a single round is a much different thing than an AR-15. In my opinion, there's just no reason for assault rifles to be in the hands of ordinary citizens. I understand the Second Amendment. I appreciate hunting. I appreciate rifle marksmanship. You're talking about rifles. You're talking about targets. You're not talking about weapons that are designed to kill people.

"It's important people understand the vast, vast difference between a .22 caliber 50-meter target rifle and an AR-15. I have no interest in owning an assault rifle. I have no interest in owning another weapon that can kill another human being, that's designed to kill another human being, and to do it an expeditious way. Why is that allowed? It's maddening."

Bailey, 36, is almost certainly in his final Olympics. He has one more event here, the men's relay, before he fires his last round as an Olympian, trying to hit a small target from 50 meters away while his heart pounds. He will put down his gun and return to the United States, to a country grappling with its relationship with firearms, trying amid chaos to find the target.