Elections
Freya Thoreson poses for a portrait on the sports field in between Issaquah Middle School and the Sportmen's Gun Range on Tuesday, September 11, 2018, in Issaquah. 
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Freya Thoreson poses for a portrait on the sports field in between Issaquah Middle School and the Sportmen's Gun Range on Tuesday, September 11, 2018, in Issaquah.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Why does this suburban Seattle school sound like it's in a war zone?


“G

et on the ground!” the officer ordered. 

Jacob Bernado, hit the asphalt on the Issaquah High School parking lot. Bernado, a sophomore, had unknowingly walked onto the scene of a shootout.

As he lay there, frozen, his phone buzzed as his panicked parents tried to reach him. "All I can remember is just lying there and thinking, I could die,” he said.

Hearing gunshots at school is expected in Issaquah, because of how close the school campus is to a gun range. In fact, on that day, “some kids on the sports field thought it was coming from the shooting range,” Bernado said.

There was no connection between the shooting and the gun range – the gunman was a man in his 50s who had told friends he was talking with the devil. But the proximity of the range to the school has become a source of tension here in Issaquah, a purple part of the state where larger political divides play out. 

Gunfire can be heard up to five afternoons a week at school. The gunshots are loudest on the baseball field, which is less than 200 feet as the crow flies from the gun range at the Issaquah Sportsmen's club. 

Sportsmen's Club gun range as heard from the school

Recorded on a Wednesday afternoon from the Issaquah school baseball field

On one side is Freya Thoreson, who moved here a few years ago from Montana. The first time she heard gunshots from the range she was at a soccer game with her two kids. 

“When we heard shots, I made both of my sons duck and cover in the bleachers,” Thoreson said. “They were terrified, and I was terrified.”

For Thoreson and other – often newer – residents, the gunfire recalls school shootings like Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland. She and other residents have launched a petition drive to ask the range to move.

They've collected over 500 signatures, but the effort hasn't gotten much traction with the school district or elected officials.

That's because many longtime residents don’t see the Sportsmen's Club in the same light. For them, the pop-pop-pop of gunfire is the sound of nostalgia, tradition, and old Northwest values — not gun violence that has plagued American schools in recent decades.

For one thing, the Sportsmen's Club was here first. Tom Mechler, who has been a member of the club for 50 years, says a gun range has been a part of the club since the 1920s.

The club also features a log-framed cabin that was built during the New Deal in 1937, with Works Project Administration (WPA) funding. The structure is now on the National Registry of Historic Places.

"It was a proud thing to be a member,” said Julie Watkins-Jarvies, whose family moved to Issaquah in the late 1800s. 

Board members listen to Dino Rossi campaign volunteer Chris Cardoza, not pictured, during a board meeting on Monday, September 10, 2018, at the Issaquah Sportmen's Club in Issaquah.
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Board members listen to Dino Rossi campaign volunteer Chris Cardoza, not pictured, during a board meeting on Monday, September 10, 2018, at the Issaquah Sportmen's Club in Issaquah.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

She remembers growing up here in the early 1960s, when the club was part of life in Issaquah, with frequent community get-togethers. 

In those days, fishing was a bigger part of the club, and kids went there to learn about conservation, and how to identify native plants and animals. Kids back then also learned to shoot and hunt.

Mechler says he understands why some kids might feel afraid when they hear the gunfire, but he says "from a safety standpoint, you can't get any better than what we've got here."

This clash of cultures has found its way into the battle for the 8th Congressional District.


On the gun safety side of the divide is Dr. Kim Schrier, a pediatrician based in Issaquah, a Democrat running to replace Republican Dave Reichert in the U.S. House.

Schrier said right after the Parkland school shooting in Florida earlier this year, she heard a lot about the gun range from her patients. “Teenagers who go to Issaquah high school were hearing the shooting range, and it was scaring them,” Schrier said.

Schrier has not taken a stand on the gun range, which is staying put for now. But she has made guns a top issue in her campaign and has pledged to fight the NRA.

Jacob Bernado poses for a portrait on Tuesday, September 11, 2018, next to the old bus loop at the Issaquah High School in Issaquah.
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Jacob Bernado poses for a portrait on Tuesday, September 11, 2018, next to the old bus loop at the Issaquah High School in Issaquah.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Her opponent, Republican Dino Rossi, got an “A” rating from the NRA back when he was a Washington state senator. The NRA spent $400,000 to back Rossi when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2010.

Rossi has since argued that he didn't control that independent spending. He could not be reached to comment for this story.

According to Chris Vance, a political consultant who grew up in South King County and lives in the district, the NRA's positions are less popular in the 8th than they used to be.

“The key to this district are the suburban voters," Vance said, and "suburban voters are moderate on just about everything, and that includes guns.”

Vance said voters here support gun rights, but they are also open to reforms, such as state Initiative 594 on background checks, which passed statewide a few years ago.

The 8th was redrawn in 2012 to become a more rural, more conservative, and safer seat for Republicans. But as the explosive population growth in Seattle and the surrounding suburbs continues, this district has become more liberal on a number of issues including guns.

It's still considered a Republican district. But in 2016, voters here picked Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, and when incumbent Republican Dave Reichert announced his retirement, Cook Political report changed its rating from "leans Republican" to a "toss up" for 2018.

Nationally, that means there’s a lot at stake in this race, and it goes beyond the gun issue. The winner could determine future control of the U.S. house, and, possibly, whether President Trump is impeached.

Listener Tess McMillan asked the question that prompted this story. She heard gun shots while hiking nearby.

Julie Watkins-Jarvies poses for a portrait wearing her father Walt. S. Watkin's jacket on Monday, September 10, 2018, at the Sportmen's Club in Issaquah.
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Julie Watkins-Jarvies poses for a portrait wearing her father Walt. S. Watkin's jacket on Monday, September 10, 2018, at the Sportmen's Club in Issaquah.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

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