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For One Colorado Rancher, An AR-15 Is A Tool To Protect His Herd

Scott and JJ Shepherd live in a white house at the end of a dirt road in Walden, Colorado, a small town near the Wyoming border. The picture window above the sink in their kitchen frames a view: black cattle and a barn in the foreground, mountains in the distance, dark and dusted with snow.

That day, Scott had laid out some of his guns on the kitchen table. He isn’t sure how many he owns.

“I’d have to count them all,” he said with a chuckle. “Twenty-five to 30 I’m guessing. Just off the top of my head.”

Scott goes through his collection of firearms, some family heirlooms, some purchased, from hunting rifles to handguns, describing how they work and what kind of ammunition they take.

“And then, the gun that scares everybody in the world,” Scott said as he unzipped a soft black case. “This is [an] AR-15 … And it’s a semi-automatic … I’m just as proud of that gun or this AR as, say, somebody on the Front Range that owns a GTO or a Mustang, a classic car.”

The AR-15 is a widely owned, semi-automatic rifle.

For many, it has a distinctively threatening look, from the color (black), to its pistol grip. While the AR-15 has been used in recent mass shootings, it accounts for a small percentage of firearm murders.

But when Scott hears people say things like, ‘Why would anybody have one except to kill people?” he has an answer:

“This is our No.1 defense against predators for our cattle,” he explained.

Later in the morning, Scott and JJ feed hay to their cattle, under bright, high-elevation sun, typical of Colorado. JJ’s favorite cow, Big Mama, comes up close to the truck bed.

“These babies become our babies,” JJ said. “I protect them like I do my own kids.”

Scott and JJ Shepherd's cattle.Scott and JJ Shepherd's cattle.
Credit Leigh Paterson / KUNC

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The cows need to be protected from predators, especially during calving season when coyotes and mountain lions are drawn into the barn by the scent of afterbirth.

The AR-15 is what Scott grabs on a winter night when he needs to stop a coyote before it eats one of the cows or newborns.

“For me, it’s the way its held,” he explained. “I’m more accurate with it, especially at night … I can hit coyotes, especially when they’re running.”

JJ prefers a .30-06, a traditional hunting rifle, because, Scott says, it has more “knock-down power.”

‘When You Look At A Gun, What Do You See?’

“[A] tool. I don’t look at it as a gun-gun,” Scott said. “I know some people are afraid of ’em. Some people are obsessed with them. I myself, I just see ’em as a gun.”

“We use ours more towards protecting our livestock,” he said. “We do hunt as a family and harvest the meat to feed our family, but it’s more like a tool than it is a weapon.”

Compared to the U.S. as a whole, gun ownership in rural areas is particularly high. A lot of people learn to shoot at a young age like Dally, 9, and Denton, 7, Scott and JJ’s kids.

“I know living in a small community up here in the mountains, these mountain kind of block out a lot of the stuff that happens in other places,” said Scott, “but we live an older heritage here, if that makes sense. And guns have always been a part of that.”

After school, we head over to an outdoor shooting range. During the drive, talking over each other, the boys go over gun safety rules, everything from “Don’t shoot people with guns” to “Don’t shoot wildlife when you’re trying to get a coyote. Aim for the coyote.”

At the range, a wide open, dusty area, the boys put in earplugs while Scott loads their guns. The two parents do a lot of correcting and instructing:

“Okay time-out,” said Scott. “We need to get something under your barrel,” he added, then placed a bean bag under the barrel to help Denton aim at the target, instead of the ground.

“Keep your finger off your trigger ’till you’re ready to pull it,” JJ said.

I asked JJ to explain why they have introduced their kids to guns.

“Our lifestyle has lots of dangers included in it,” JJ said. “Cows, equipment, guns, all of that … My way of life requires guns. I want them to know how to use that tool correctly. And it starts at this age, when they’re young.”

Earlier that day, after feeding the cattle, Scott and I drove around in his truck.

“This is everything to us,” Scott said of their cattle.

“It’s my children’s future, it’s my future. Because this won’t end with me. Our hopes is always that we can hand this to my children. You always hope better for your kids. I hope they become doctors that own cows,” he said with a laugh.

Scott feels that if his guns were taken away or heavily restricted, his way of life would somehow change. But guns, of course, affect communities in different ways, especially in the context of gun violence.

He agrees that there should be some restrictions on guns to reduce gun violence. Instead of more regulations, he would prefer to “fine tune” existing regulations like background checks.

“The problem that we face as Americans today is too many people have just drawn the line,” said Scott. “They’re 100 percent anti-gun or 100 percent ‘Oh NRA, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I’m in the middle there. I’m not pro-rally NRA, [though] I am an NRA member. On the other hand, [they’re] saying all guns are bad. And that’s not true.”

KERA is a part of Guns & America, a new national reporting collaborative of 10 public media newsrooms focusing attention on the role of guns in American life. You can find more Guns & America coverage here, and learn more about the collaboration here.