Olympic shooters thrust into gun-control debate

Kim Rhode sees the news on television or social media. Another mass shooting, in Aurora, San Bernardino, Newtown, Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge.

For the two-time Olympic gold medalist shotgun shooter, what comes next has become routine.

"I just wait for my phone to ring," Rhode said. "I know the questions are coming."

Shooting is one of the most divisive sports on the Olympic program.

Guns, always a hot-button issue, have been thrust even further to the forefront of public debate with the spate of mass killings in recent years.

Sport shooters are staunch supporters of the Second Amendment, given their chosen event. Because they are public figures, more so during Olympic years, they have become targets for anti-gun groups.

Mass shootings exacerbate the rift over gun control and often put Olympic shooters in the crosshairs of hate.

"It's unfortunate that we get lumped in with that," said Rhode, who is vying to become the first American athlete to win medals in a sixth straight Olympics at next month's Rio Games. "There has to be some kind of reality."

When Rhode won her second career gold, in skeet at the 2012 Olympics in London, one of the first questions she was asked by media was about the theater shooting at Aurora, Colorado, which occurred a few days earlier and left 12 dead.

Sometimes it goes beyond inquiries.

Several shooters have received death threats, requiring extra security.

Trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein needed extra protection after someone posted hunting videos on her Facebook page without her knowledge.

A two-time Olympian, she grew up in Alaska, where the family hunted for its food, and still hunts. Despite saying she didn't agree with the content of the videos, Cogdell-Unrein received numerous death threats before the 2012 Olympics.

After the London Games, where she won bronze, thousands of people signed a petition to strip her of the medal.

"Unfortunately, there were people who decided to hone in on me as a public figure at the time and they wanted to push their agenda of trying to stop animal cruelty and hunting," said Cogdell-Unrein, who is headed to Rio. "Hopefully that will not happen again. If it does, I will be better prepared for it this time. I definitely don't support animal cruelty and a lot of the things they were saying I was a part of."

As gun laws become stricter, the ability to obtain guns and ammunition could become much tougher for Olympic shooters.

In California, where Rhode lives, Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a law requiring background checks for anyone purchasing ammunition, among other restrictions. Rhode burns through up to 1,000 shotgun shells a day in training and is concerned how the new laws will affect her ability to properly prepare.

"I'm not sure how that's going to work out, how that's going to affect me, what that's going to entail," she said. "It could make things much more difficult for me to train."

Travel is another issue for Olympic shooters.

Shooters and their liaisons must keep up on gun laws, not only for each of the 50 states, but any country they may travel to or through for competitions. For air gun shooters, that sometimes means sending their air canisters to their destination ahead of time.

Even knowing the regulations doesn't always make things go smoothly.

Rhode once had a flight from San Marino delayed for hours after a competition because security officials were concerned she had multiple shotguns and ammunition in her luggage.

Jay Shi, an air gun and pistol shooter headed to his first Olympics, had to wait nearly four hours to get cleared into China for a competition as security hand counted every bullet. The process was repeated when he left.

Shi had to stand by another time as a security person took out his pistol to examine it because of the strange-looking handle used on competition guns.

"The rule is not to touch the gun, but they took it out and were looking at it," Shi said. "I was freaking because now they're waving a gun all around."

The issues Olympic shooters face won't subside anytime soon.

The debate over gun control is a divisive chasm that seems to grow deeper with each mass shooting.

Athletes who use guns for their sport will likely always be part of that debate — whether they want to be or not.

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