Sammy Parker, 70, of Johns Creek, says he learned to use military style weapons similar to the AR-15 during basic training in 1970. He said such weapons are intended for war not the general population. Gracie Bonds Staples/AJC.Com
Photo: Photo by Gracie Bonds Staples/AJ
Photo: Photo by Gracie Bonds Staples/AJ

This Life: Vietnam vet says AR-15 has no place in civilized society

In the days since the Florida school shooting, we’ve heard a lot about assault weapons and the AR-15 in particular.

It is the same semi-automatic style weapon Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old suspected shooter, is said to have used to kill 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students. It was also the choice of weapon in which 27 were killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and in mass shootings in Aurora, Colo.; Santa Monica and San Bernardino, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; and Las Vegas, Nev.

If you’re wondering why that’s significant, Sammy Parker of Johns Creek might have the answer. It involves a water barrel and the U.S. military’s M-16 infantry rifle, the equivalent of the AR-15, which he learned to use during basic training in 1970.

When he and other soldiers shot through a 50-gallon drum filled with water, the hole was the size of a dime where the bullet entered the barrel and the size of a softball where the 

Parkland Shooter Nikolas Cruz Appears At Status Hearing

bullet exited.

“These weapons were made for war, to kill people,” the 70-year-old Vietnam Air Force veteran said recently.

Think about that because besides the incredible loss of life, Sammy Parker has been unable to think of little else since he heard the news. It’s why he’s grown weary of our country’s mass shootings and a Congress that refuses to do anything to curtail the loss of innocent lives.

RELATED | Walkouts planned in March in aftermath of Parkland shooting

Parker was at home, working at his computer, when news broke about the shooting Feb. 14.

“Instantly, I was furious and thought, God, not again,” he said.

As the numbers of dead started to rise, he remembered Sandy Hook.

“That should’ve been our tipping point, but it was not,” Parker said. “All we got were thoughts of prayers, flags raised at half-staff and wringing of hands. We were horrified for a moment, then we went back to business as usual.’’

RELATED | In the wake of Las Vegas tragedy, are our prayers enough?

The Parkland shooting was particularly difficult and jarring for Parker because, although he isn’t a parent, he has stepchildren, nieces and nephews and a gaggle of high school students for whom he is tutor and writing coach.

“It just struck home,” he said. “I have nurtured a vested interest in youth. I wasn’t cut out to be a parent, but, boy, I was cut out to be a teacher. I’ve become much more sensitive to kids, the way they think, the way they talk, the way they interact.”

Demonstrators lay on the ground in a “lie-in” demonstration supporting gun control reform near the White House on Feb. 19 in Washington, D.C. According to a statement from the White House, “the President is supportive of efforts to improve the Federal background check system.” Contributed by Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Parker, who grew up in Brevard in western North Carolina, came to the classroom in 1977, teaching first at Western Carolina University and then the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, after spending four years as a spy in the U.S. Air Force Security Services.

RELATED | Out of the president’s heart, the mouth speaks

In 1987, when his wife got an administrative job at Georgia Tech, the couple moved to Atlanta. Parker’s new job was providing professional development experiences for a private organization called The National Faculty, designing and implementing programs for seasoned teachers, university scholars and administrators.

He retired in 2010, the same year a neighbor tapped him to assist her company as an English tutor, improving writing skills and helping high school seniors write essays for college applications.

And so, in the days after the shooting, Parker couldn’t help mourning the loss of so many young lives and marveling at the survivors’ response to the tragedy.

“It wasn’t abstract anymore,” he said. “They had crawled through blood.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

And Parker found himself feeling weary of screaming at the void.

“We’ve been dealing with this for far, far too long,” he said. “We can’t continue to do that.”

What would he like to see happen?

First and foremost, more gun control.

RELATED | The gun debate after the Florida school shooting is very quickly going nowhere

Specifically, Parker said, he’d like to see people in power look at and analyze data from other countries to see what works and might translate, partly if not wholly, to our culture.

“Let’s look at the laws they have been enacted and what has worked that has helped bring down deaths by firearms,” he said. “Then I’d like to see us look at what would logically, realistically work in U.S.”

Parker doesn’t believe we can prevent “every single idiot out there” from getting his hands on a gun. He does believe, however, we can control and minimize those numbers.

“It won’t go to zero. That’s not the point, but we have to do something,” he said.

And it must start with the people at the top, those who have the power to effect change, our politicians.

“We don’t need any more thoughts and prayers,” Parker said. “We need them to do something tangible to end this horror. This can’t go on. It’s unacceptable for a civilized humane society to allow this level of carnage when things can be done to at least scale it back.”

Parker believed for a time that Sandy Hook would have moved the needle. Watching the students at Douglas High School in Florida the past few days, he saw a glimmer of hope return.

“Maybe they will be the match that finally lights the fire,” he said. “Maybe they will provide the critical mass, the tipping point needed to finally bring about real change.”

Find Gracie on Facebook ( and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.