I know the adage.
Guns don’t kill people; people do.
As a life-long hunter and gun owner I know there’s truth behind that oft-recited 2nd Amendment mantra. Before a firearm can turn on humanity, it needs to be held in the “cold dead hands” (Charlton Heston’s words, not mine) of a homo sapien. It’s a simple premise really, one that isn’t debatable.
Tomorrow marks the beginning of December, a month that marks two milestones for me personally and philosophically when it comes to the issue of gun violence.
Two years ago, I was presiding over a criminal trial in Grand Marais, Minnesota. A jury convicted a professional boxer of criminal sexual conduct with an underage teenage girl. I was standing in the middle of the courtroom, the jurors still in the jury box, engaged in an “after the verdict” dialogue with the jurors when the sound of a metal pan being dropped outside the courtroom startled me. I heard three or four more distinct “pops” after the clatter and I knew instantly what was happening.
“That’s a gun,” I said in unison with one of the jurors.
I directed the bailiff (a former law enforcement officer) into the hallway to deal with the shooter. Though the defendant in the rape case had behaved impeccably throughout the trial, I suspected he was behind the attack. As the bailiff scurried out of the courtroom, I locked the doors and ushered the jurors into the jury deliberation room. It was not native quick-thinking that led me to take action. I’d been trained in mass shooting protocol through the Department of Justice’s Safe Schools program, an initiative that arose after Columbine. The training is pretty simple: Flee, Hide, or Fight in that order of preference when confronted by an active shooter scenario. Not knowing where the shooter was headed, not knowing if we were dealing with a lone gunman, I chose the second option for the twelve souls under my charge. There wasn’t a lot of time to think things through. I reacted and made a choice, a choice that has haunted me every day since December 15th, 2011. At one point, as the jurors were huddled in the locked deliberation room, as I talked to the two clerks working with me that day (who were frantically trying to dial 911 but the telephone lines were all busy) I stepped into the judge’s chambers to ensure that a door to the outside was locked. It was a foolish move on my part. I mean, the door is mostly glass: nice to look out but not very good at stopping bullets. Standing next to that door, I came as close as I would that day to confronting the gunman.
As I looked through glass, I saw the young prosecutor in the rape case across a concrete portico, her hands raised in supplication. She stood forty feet away in the doorway leading to the county attorney’s offices. The door to her office was also open and I was able to hear her. I thought I she was pleading for her life. Turns out, she was pleading for the life of her boss, the county attorney who had been shot three times. I didn’t know it at the time, but as my mind stumbled around options, the bailiff was advancing behind the gunman, pistol raised, seeking to end the conflict. Like I said, I didn’t know this. What I saw was a young woman pleading, saying something to the shooter like, “Don’t do it., D_ _, you know I have children.” I later learned that she actually said, “Don’t do it, D_ _, you know he has children”. She was referencing her boss, the county attorney, who was struggling to keep the shooter out of her office.
The choices confronting me were: Do I call out to her, bringing attention to the fact that I’m still here, behind a pane of glass, along with fourteen other souls, which may well visit the wrath of the shooter upon us? Or do I leave the door open (after all, it’s only glass) as a possible escape route for the young woman? Or do I rush into the fray and try to be the hero?
Again, I chose the middle ground. Unable to connect with 911, I left the door to the chambers open in hopes the young woman could, if necessary, flee the gunman. In hindsight, my decision seems questionable. But I was determined to find a telephone, to call for help. That meant leaving the courthouse since no calls were getting out. In my panic, I was oblivious to the fact that my cell phone was in a pocket of my overcoat an arm’s length away. I left my staff and my jurors and flew down a back stairwell, out into the cold afternoon, clad in a short sleeved dress shirt, loafers, a tie, and dress slacks. I banged on the door of a nearby home. A kid gave me his cell phone. The 911 operator asked for details. I had few to give. She told me that help was on the way. I heard sirens. I hustled to the law enforcement center still uncertain as to exactly what was taking place in the courthouse.
Thankfully, no one died. Both victims of the shooting; the father of the victim in the case (shot by the defendant as a target of opportunity) and the county attorney, survived. The young lady and the bailiff? They are heroes. When the shooter made his way into the attorney’s office, a life-and-death struggle ensued over the bailiff’s handgun. But the county attorney, the young female lawyer, and the bailiff managed to subdue the gunman until a state trooper arrived.
Early reports into the law enforcement center (where I sat on a stool while hubbub swirled around me) drove me to tears. It was reported that the young lawyer standing in the doorway had been shot, was in critical condition, and was on her way to the local hospital. My heart sank. I felt the greatest shame I have ever felt in my life. I considered myself to be a man’s man, to be someone who would, if need be, sacrifice himself for others. I learned on December 15, 2011 that I’m not as stalwart a soul as I thought. My shame is the most significant lingering impact of the shooting and no amount of counseling (I’ve had plenty) or comforting words (folks have been ever so kind) can erase the psychological scars of the event. Understand: I know I am not alone in dealing with the PTSD caused by the shooting. There were fourteen other folks in the courtroom and the court offices that day who experienced the trauma with me, along with the two shooting victims, the young female attorney, and the bailiff. That’s eighteen folks permanently affected by the actions of one man with one gun on one day in NE Minnesota.
There is, however, something to be thankful for beyond the fact that no one died that day.
Imagine, if you will, the same scenario but with a different weapon in the shooter’s hands. A man bent on dealing death armed, not as the attacker was that day with a .25 caliber pistol, but with a Bushmaster assault rifle, the gun depicted in the advertisements at the top and the bottom of this essay. A weapon capable of accepting magazines holding thirty rounds. Thirty bullets instead of six. Imagine that same man turning his rage and upset not on the county attorney, but on the peers of his community that convicted him and the judge who let it happen. He opens the door to the courtroom. The judge, his back to the door, the bailiff sitting in a chair off to the side, twelve innocent citizens trapped by the wooden rails of the jury box, are his targets. There is no escape. It’d be like shooting ducks in a swimming pool or pigs in a pen. Imagine the shooter having not one, but five magazines as depicted in the advertisements. One hundred and fifty rounds at his disposal. Imagine.
You don’t have to. On December 16, 2012, a year and a day after my experience in Grand Marais, twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut faced that horror, that destruction, that evil. One mentally unbalanced young man. One Bushmaster. Multiple magazines. A tragedy of unspeakable proportions in a place, a building, established to educate our babies, our future.
In the aftermath of the Cook County shooting, panels regarding courthouse security were convened. Security became a topic of conversation. But with every proposal for increased police presence or metal detection equipment or single point-of-entry into our state courthouses, came the inevitable response from government: “We don’t have the money to do what they do at the federal courthouses. We don’t have money to pay for security at every door manning metal detection equipment.” Despite such responses, things have changed. There is more, if imperfect, security at our local state courthouses. However, there was, after the Cook County shooting, no real discussion of the shooter’s easy access to weapons or gun control. The circumstances of that particular episode didn’t seem to merit it.
In contrast, following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary there was a flurry of activity seeking to reinvigorate a debate regarding the availability of assault weapons. On the heels of the carnage wrecked with a Bushmaster in Newtown, I sent a letter to President Obama and Vice President Biden offering my experience as part of the discussion. I heard from the Vice President’s office via email and contributed what I could. I had a lengthy discussion with Senator Klobuchar’s Chief of Staff. I received a letter from Senator Franken. I wrote a blog focusing on the bravery of the teachers and aides who died at Sandy Hook. But in the end, the federal initiative to curb the sales and marketing of assault weapons and expanded magazines, including modest proposals requiring background checks on private firearms sales and gun show purchases, went nowhere. There was no political will, in the face of the NRA’s vitriolic belief in the right of every American to arm himself or herself with whatever firearm suits a citizen’s fancy, to do anything at all with respect to gun violence in America. So, when the dust settled and nothing had changed, I went about my life figuring I’d done what I could to make my voice heard.
Then I saw the advertisements at the top and the bottom of this page in the Duluth News Tribune. They were both published less than a month before the anniversary of the Newtown massacre.
Now, I understand you may find fault with me linking these two completely unrelated events. On the surface, you might argue that the actions of a disgruntled litigant in Grand Marais (using a cheap pistol to shoot two people in anger) really doesn’t have a whole hell of lot to do with a madman wielding an assault rifle and executing children and staff in an elementary school. But I disagree. As we’ve seen time and time again, in Littleton, Paducah, Blacksburg, Red Lake, DeKalb, Oakland, Huntsville, Sparks, and a host of other places there is a societal need to try and address the underlying reasons and motivations behind mass shootings in public spaces, places where all of us go to do business with the hope of safety and security. Some of the folks who’ve done terrible things (like the killer in Newtown) were mentally ill. Others were simply alienated, angry young men with chips on their shoulders and axes to grind. In this way, the perpetrators of mass school violence, or theater violence, or mall violence have much in common with the Cook County shooter. They were all angry men, feeling aggrieved, with ready access to firearms. How many hours of violent video games did each of them watch? How many times were they (at least in their own minds) humiliated, disrespected, or bullied by peers? How much did the culture of violence depicted in our theaters and on television fuel their desire to “even the score”? We’ll never know.
But I do know this. I’ve owned rifles and shotguns all my life. I’ve hunted from the moment I completed gun safety at the age twelve. I have four sons. Three of them are hunters. My dad is a hunter. My grandfathers were both hunters. One was a game warden. I’ve served in the United States Army Reserve. With all that background and experience around firearms I can tell you this with a certainty; the rifles depicted at the top and the bottom of this page were designed for one purpose and one purpose only: combat. They are not weapons of personal defense. A loaded semi-automatic handgun, wielded by someone who’s spent time on the firing range, will do that job just fine. You don’t need a Bushmaster for target practice. A .22 pump or semi-automatic is more than adequate to keep your shooting eye keen. Assault weapons are impractical for hunting. A Winchester or Marlin lever action 30-30 is a far better choice. If you can’t hit a deer with the first five rounds, you shouldn’t be hunting. We require duck and goose hunters to plug their shotguns: They only get three chances to down a bird. Why do we protect migratory waterfowl better than we do our children? Bushmasters with multiple thirty round clips sold at a discount to the general public by big box retailers aren’t sporting weapons. They have no practical use. They’re nothing but tragedies in the making, pure and simple. And it won’t harm your or my 2nd Amendment rights one iota if Congress imposes some modest, adult restrictions on assault weapons, just like it once did through legislation that was inexplicably allowed to expire.
What can one person do about the corporate greed and insensitivity displayed by retailers running ads that shout discount pricing for weapons of personal mass destruction? Well, he or she can stop spending his or her hard-earned money at those stores. That’s just what I intend to do. You can join me if you want, or not. It’s your choice. But something’s gotta give.