By Joseph Robertia
“It’s kind of like the idea of a Tupperware party,” said Scott Hamann. Except it was all men gathered Saturday morning, rather than the more-typical women Tupperware crowd. And instead of taking home plastic food-storage containers, attendees left with their own semiautomatic AR-15 rifle.
Having a firearm to take home wasn’t even the primary purpose of the day. The event was more for educational purposes, to learn how to build the gun, how it works and how to take care of it.
“Our country was founded on the principles laid down in the Bill of Rights, but what good is the right to bear a firearm if you don’t know how to use one?” said Hamann, coordinator for an AR-15 building class at the Snowshoe Gun Club in Kenai.
The idea for the class grew from a humble beginning, according to Hamann. A longtime gun enthusiast, a little more than a year ago he decided that, rather than buying another gun, he would build his own AR-15. Due to the rifle’s popularity in this country, there are no shortage of build tutorials in books, magazines and on the Internet.
Hamann enjoyed the experience, and as he told a few of his friends about the endeavor, several mentioned that if he was interested in doing it again, they’d like to join him.
“Before you knew it, we had a whole group of people who wanted to build one, so we all got together and did it and it was a lot of fun,” he said.
They planned another build for the Fourth of July, Hamann said, since celebrating the freedom to own a firearm seemed like an important concept to remember on the Independence Day holiday. But even after that, still more people wanted to learn how to build their own rifles.
However, with the AR-15 often being at the center of controversy in the media and among anti-gun activists, Hamann said that he wanted to find a way to tie the build class into support for Second Amendment freedoms.
“The field representative from the NRA contacted me to see if there was a way we could raise funds, and this seemed like something we could do,” he said.
Hamann and a few other firearm enthusiasts formed the Alaska Defenders of Freedom, a group established to raise funds for political purposes.
“One hundred percent of all money — above the costs of the firearms and tool kits — from these classes goes to the NRA-ILA,” Hamann said, referring to the Institute for Legislative Action, which is the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association.
Hamann’s group worked with Valley Armory in Palmer and the Soldotna-based Black Dog Firearms in order to gather all the necessary parts to build an AR-15, putting them into individually packaged kits, and to comply with gun regulations.
Before the building began Saturday, Mike Misner, an employee of Black Dog Firearms, ran background checks on all participants through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System and completed all necessary paperwork to transfer to the participants the receivers of the rifles, which house the operating parts of the gun and are, by law, considered the actual firearm and thus are strictly controlled.
“You gotta make sure all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted with this kind of thing,” Misner said.
Once everyone checked out, they began building, which took only about two hours since there is no welding, riveting or shop-pressing of parts required, as is common with the construction of many other rifles.
“In a lot of ways, ARs are like Legos — you kind of just snap them together. It’s one of the things that makes them so popular, their versatility. With just a few parts swapped out, an AR could be built in .22 caliber, which is great for women and kids, or it could be made up to a .50 caliber, which is really almost more power than anyone needs,” Hamann said. The rifles Saturday were chambered in the common .223.
“It takes awhile on the first one, but you get quicker as you go. I can put one together in about 20 minutes now,” Hamann said.
There was no rushing the class, though. Hamann said that instruction was the biggest point of the event — not just for participants to have an affordable rifle, but to learn all about it in the process of putting it together.
“People learn not just how to build one. They also learn how it works, how to service it and modify it. And, when we’re done, we go out and test fire them to make sure they all cycle properly,” Hamann said. He also is an NRA-certified range safety officer.
The class participants were an eclectic bunch, ranging in age and firearm interest level. At 15, Bailey Horne, of Soldotna, there with parental permission, was the youngest participant, but his age hasn’t stopped his experience. He is an award-winning member of the Peninsula Shooting Stars trap and skeet team.
“I like to shoot guns, and so I thought I should learn how they work and go together. Gunsmithing seems to be a dying art, but I’ve thought about becoming one when I get older, so I thought this would be a good way to see a little of what that is like,” he said.
Jeff Epperheimer, of Nikiski, has been shooting for more years than Horne has been alive, but he is a hunter and said most of his experience is with bolt-action rifles and shotguns, so he wanted to learn about something different.
“I’ve hunted for 20 years, but just never had much experience with this platform of rifle, so I thought it would be nice to come and learn about it without trying to build one from a book. It’s better learning firsthand and you get to meet other people with a similar interest,” he said.
More build events are being scheduled at the gun club, including one for women only Oct. 22. There also might be other classes for 1911 pistols in the future, as requests have been made for build tutorials with this firearm.
“It’s another popular gun that people want to own,” Hamann said.