IOWA CITY, Iowa (KWWL) – Nile Heefner was surprised last December when his son Gabe told the family he wanted to be a Marine.
“He came home one day and he said, ‘I’m joining the Marines.’ And we said, ‘What?'” Heefner said. “He gave three good reasons: I want to be a leader, I want to serve my country and I want to train my body.”
Gabe was born in Iowa City but the family moved to the St. Louis area when he was eight years old. Last month, Gabe was on leave visiting family before getting deployed to Okinawa, Japan. He decided to drive up and see his grandparents in Iowa City on Oct. 17.
“It was kind of his first visit on his own,” Heefner said.
The unthinkable happened. Gabe was driving on Highway 6 in South Iowa City when a lead pellet from an air rifle went through his left temple and into his brain. He was transported to the University of Iowa Hospital and his family hastened to Iowa City to see him.
“At first we were shocked…we were just happy he was alive,” Heefner said.
What followed was 3.5 weeks in the hospital, the first part in a medically-induced coma. Gabe was having fevers and suffering from brain injuries.
His complete stay, he started communicating better and carrying conversation.
“I told him his brother was having his homecoming and then a few days later he asked, ‘How was homecoming for Seth?'” Heefner said.
Gabe was eventually discharged from UIHC on Nov. 10 and transported by ambulance to a transitional rehab hospital in Chicago called the Shirley Ryan Abilitylab. His friends and family lined the streets of Iowa City to send him off as they drove towards the interstate.
“Emotions of joy and just thankfulness to Iowa City and Iowans who came out to wave the red white and blue,” Heefner said.
Doctors and the family have decided not to attempt brain surgery to remove the pellet, and believe the brain will seal off the pellet and stop any further damage.
While the family prays for Gabe’s full recovery, they’re also hoping Iowa law is changed to treat air rifles as more serious weapons. Under current law, they are not differentiated from BB guns, “toy guns” or slingshots.
Gabe was shot with a .22 caliber lead pellet traveling 1,020 feet per second. The ammo used was a H&N Terminator Hollowpoint Airgun Pellet. One ad for the pellets says they have “deadly force for hunting”.
“BB guns, toy guns and slingshots don’t do the same type of that an air rifle does. damage especially the air rifles they make today –which are tremendously powerful; as powerful as a .22 caliber rifle. And if it’s that powerful, it should be in the same category,” Heefner said.
Nile has told the Johnson County attorney he’s willing to help them get the law changed.
69-year-old Philip Olson voluntarily went to the Iowa City Police station in October after hearing of Heefner’s accident. He admitted he was shooting a Gamo 6 Whisper Fusion Mach 1 Air Rifle at a squirrel in the area on October 17.
He is being charged with a simple misdemeanor for firing the gun within city limits. Olson admitted to police he had shot 38 squirrels in or outside of his yard in the last month. Under Iowa law, simple misdemeanors have a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a max fine of $855.