After the most recent school shooting, Chris Purdy, a former National Guardsman who served a tour of duty in Iraq, went on to discuss ways to destroy his AR 15, a weapon he bought after leaving the service. Soon, Purdy was advised to contact artist Corrina Sephora, who operates in metal artistry and has previously disposed of a couple guns in original manners. (Bill Torpy/AJC)

Torpy at Large: Swords to plowshares, AR-15 to flowers

Maybe he simply outgrew the weapon. Or his politics shifted. Perhaps it was “things gotta change and it must start with me.”

Whatever the case, an Atlanta man and war veteran named Chris Purdy went on his neighborhood Nextdoor site recently to say he was disposing of his AR-15 and wanted to make a statement doing it.

There was something captivating about the guy on Facebook, he said, the somber fellow from New York with a fading Second Amendment tattooed on his arm who sat on his back porch and calmly sawed his AR-15 in half. That quiet sign of protest after the slaughter of students last month in Parkland, Fla., became an Internet and media sensation.

Soon, Purdy was in touch with Atlanta artist Corrina Sephora, a modern-day blacksmith performing all sorts of innovations with metals.

This time her medium would be with an AR-15, America’s most hated — and, conversely, loved — symbol in the culture war rocking our nation.

On Sunday, I arrived at Sephora’s studio at the Goat Farm, the assemblage of crumbling mill buildings in Atlanta that houses a colony of artists, to see where they were headed with this project.

I asked: Why are you doing this?

“I saw that video of that guy, someone I don’t agree with politically, but if he had the courage to do that, then I decided I had to do something emotional,” said Purdy, a young-looking 32-year-old Atlanta Public Schools employee and a former Army National Guard sergeant who served a tour in Iraq in 2011.

He knows emotions now carry the day in American discourse. Facts are a faint second.

“This was the weapon of choice with all these mass shootings,” Purdy continued. “How many first-graders in math class, or high school kids in the hallways, or concertgoers have to die?”

He didn’t want to turn in his gun to the cops because Georgia law requires police to auction off such guns. It turns out our lawmakers don’t want to punish non-offending firearms. They just want orphan weapons to find loving foster homes.

Purdy bought his weapon out of a sense of camaraderie: “I had just gotten out of the Army and all my friends had one. I wanted to go to the range with them. It was a bonding agent; you feel you’re still part of the club.”

Chris Purdy bought an AR-15 after getting out of the Army, saying he wanted to stay bonded with his friends and do some range shooting. Photo by Bill Torpy

He leans left in the era of Trump but voted for George W. Bush. “I was one of the people who thought the Second Amendment was to protect people from their government.”

Now he thinks it’s more important to protect, and perhaps inspire, those in society who are most vulnerable — especially children.

Purdy liked the heck out of his AR. He fired thousands of bullets out of it.

“It’s soothing, even hypnotic,” he said. “I know it sounds crazy to someone who doesn’t shoot. But it’s almost a Zen-like feeling.”

He bought the gun when Barack Obama was president and overpaid, at $1,600. “People thought they were going to take their guns away,” he said. Demand drove prices.

Many of his former Army comrades lean libertarian or conservative and will disagree with him on the AR-15 surrender.

“I think they’re wrong,” he said. “But I still love them.”

Artist Corrina Sephora pounds out the heated metal of an AR-15 barrel to create flower buds. Photo by Bill Torpy

Sephora, the artist, had transformed a couple of guns into garden tools before, including once doing it in concert with a church. It was connected to the Bible verse about beating swords into plowshares. (Isaiah 2:4)

The AR-15 — especially at this point of time — was a tantalizing project, she said. Sephora wants to make a statement “transferring the energy around this gun, creating something beautiful out of an object of destruction.”

“It’s turning a tool of destruction into a symbol of beauty and love,” she said, adding, “Of course, I have my own agenda.”

Yes, everybody does.

I called Chris Waltz, a retired Army sergeant, for a contrasting view. I figured that was a safe bet because the Warner Robins resident is CEO of AR-15 Gun Owners of America. A few years ago, he started a Facebook site to discuss the merits of the weapon and now has 583,000 followers. He also sells parts for AR-15s.

“We like our weapons,” he said.

When I told Waltz of Purdy’s effort, he sighed.

Cutting into the barrel of Chris Purdy’s AR-15 revealed thick steel and a small bore and a hard canvas. Photo by Bill Torpy

“These (cases of people publicly destroying their weapons) are popping up all over the place,” he said. “I think it’s a political statement. Or you’re getting your two minutes of fame.”

Waltz noted that many of these folks say they don’t want their gun to become part of anything terrible. “But if you’re a responsible gun owner, then how is that going to happen?” he said.

Waltz, in a familiar argument, says guns are simply inanimate objects. The AR-15 has been around for 50 years, decades before mass shootings occurred, he said. “What’s changed?” Waltz asked. “Society has changed.”

I’d venture there are more mean, sociopathic nuts out there and it’s too easy to afford them firepower. But I oversimplify.

Back at the artist’s studio, Sephora decided that the barrel of Purdy’s AR-15 — if sawed, blow-torched, heated, flayed, bent and pounded — might make fine flower petals.

“Part of my goal is to cut it down to a bare piece of metal to work with,” Sephora said. “In the end, this is just a piece of metal.”

The barrel of Purdy’s weapon was very thick steel with a small bore, which led to lots more sawing, heating, torching and pounding than originally expected.

The finished product: An AR-15 as flowers in a vase. Photo by Bill Torpy

Sephora bounded around her studio, aided by artist Merritt Mitchell, thinking out loud about which combination of tools would be most effective. In the end, just about everything was used — saws, sanders, regular hammers, a power hammer, a blow torch and an anvil.

Purdy said the lower receiver — the metal contraption surrounding the trigger (the part the feds regulate) — needed to be cut early in the process so they didn’t saw off the barrel and inadvertently make it an illegal weapon.

After Sephora did that, Purdy had a vision: The stock and the attached lower receiver could act as a vase for the flowers. After nearly four hours, his AR-15 became just that.

Both were quite pleased.

“It’s raw, it’s visceral — out of the stock comes a flame with flowers,” he said. “It’s a powerful piece.”

And in a nation with more than 12 million AR-15s, there’s a lot of raw material.

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