Gun owner relives the horror of his friend's injury

Gun owner relives the horror of his friend's injury

Bill Leep can't stop his mind from replaying images of his friend, state Sen. Jason Atkinson, writhing in pain, blood gushing from a gunshot wound to his right leg.

"I wake up a lot. I relive the moment over and over," says Leep, a Jacksonville City Council member. "I live in regret. It's a very hard thing to process."

It was Leep's concealed derringer that seriously injured Atkinson after the 37-year-old senator removed a tool bag from Leep's bike and tossed the bag onto his garage floor. A derringer in the bag discharged, sending a bullet into Atkinson's leg just above the knee.

"Nothing justifies the accident," Leep says. "Yes. I am responsible for this event. I violated the first rule of gun ownership. I let the weapon leave my person still armed."

On July 29, Leep arrived at Atkinson's house in the early evening. Atkinson took Leep's bike into his garage for repairs and Leep stayed outside, playing with Atkinson's 5-year-old son, Perry. In those initial moments of greeting, Leep simply didn't stop to think about the loaded derringer inside his bike bag, he says.

"I dismounted the bike, and Jason took it into the garage. I didn't realize Jason was going to start working on my bike right away," Leep says.

The moment Leep forgot about keeping control of his gun was the moment he failed his friend, he says.

"Never ever turn off that awareness. You don't let (a loaded weapon) leave your side. The gun left my person," he says.

Leep says Atkinson is familiar with guns, and if he had known there was a gun in Leep's bag, he would have protected himself.

"Firearms are a part of our lives. But they warrant the highest respect at all times," Leep says.

Unaware of the weapon inside the bag, Atkinson tossed it to the hard floor. The loaded derringer landed upside down, the hammer struck the firing pin — and the gun went off.

Leep thought the loud noise was an exploding shock absorber on his mountain bike. But one glance brought the sickening realization that a bullet from his gun had just torn through his friend's right leg.

"I saw my tool bag had been dislodged," he says. "And there was a hole blown away in the corner of the bag."

The bullet entered above Atkinson's knee, damaging the femur and striking an artery. Atkinson's wife, Stephanie, who has medical training, rushed to the garage when she heard the sound. When she found her husband lying on the floor, she put her finger in the hole and wrapped a bicycle tube around Atkinson's leg.

"I was immediately at Jason's side with his wife. It was 9-1-1 time," Leep says.

In that moment, and ever since, another more tragic scenario has played out in Leep's psyche.

"What if little Perry had been in there?" Leep says. "He loves his dad so much. He's always hanging onto Jason's leg. The horror of that just doesn't wash out of my head."

Atkinson is recovering from surgery to repair blood vessels and rebuild the leg with two plates that help support his damaged femur. Doctors still aren't sure how his leg will heal. Leep says he talks daily with Atkinson, and he says the senator is not bitter about the accident.

"The entire family has been incredibly supportive," he says.

Leep says he carried the derringer on his bike for safety because he regularly rides long distances at night and in the mountains. His concealed handgun license had expired, he says.

"And I didn't have (the license) with the gun. Another mistake. But permit on hand or not, it wouldn't have changed the accident," Leep says.

Since the incident took place on private property, Central Point police did not file charges against Leep. He says he is speaking about the accident in the hope that people can learn from his mistakes.

"The nightmare is vivid, vulgar and tough to be in. If there's a lesson to be learned, I'd like to have it out there. People can go ahead and kick me. I just want Jason to heal," he says.

The mishap was not the first gun accident to affect Leep's family. On July 4, 1929, his grandfather, Dr. Roland Leep, was killed when his gun accidentally discharged while being passed from a boat. The bullet entered his chest, killing the Bandon surgeon, Leep says.

"It impacted my family. It impacted my father. He was 11 at the time," Leep says, adding this accident "pulls it all forward."

Atkinson had said he plans to get on a stationary bicycle to build up muscle tone in his leg as soon as the doctors allow.

"Jason takes this on like the athlete he is. He takes this as a challenge," Leep says.

Leep himself has been recovered from a broken leg he suffered in a fall from a ladder. He credits cycling for helping heal his fractures, and he's eager to ride with his friend again on the open road. While he waits for Atkinson to heal, Leep logs as many miles as he can.

The intense exercise helps with the stress, he says. "The bike is the only good squirrel cage there is."

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