It is with trepidation that I write this. I seem lately to have a foot in two diametrically opposed worlds, each populated by people vociferous in their positions and dismissive of those with whom they disagree. I’m disheartened by the invective hurled about in the wake of the Connecticut atrocity committed by a disturbed young man. I fear that in the justifiably horrified revulsion to the Sandy Hook massacre all pretense of civility will be abandoned, the polarization of this country will continue, and we will lose what I consider an essential right enjoyed by all Americans.
I am an NRA member (at least as of this writing), a supporter of the Second Amendment, a firearms instructor and the possessor of a permit to carry a concealed weapon. I live in a very rural area, but was raised in New York City and grew up under its restrictive gun laws. I still have a few friends back there (again at least as of this moment) and much of my family still lives there.
I am a retired FBI agent who, at 3:30 p.m. on March 21, 2005, arrived at Red Lake High School to take initial command of the charnel house left after a massacre perpetrated by a disturbed boy, aided passively by peers who knew at least that he was fascinated with school shootings and was talking about doing one, and stopped by the interdiction of my courageous compatriots in Red Lake law enforcement.
I would spend countless hours reviewing video, chat logs and interviews and later, for better or worse, would assist the U.S. Attorney’s office in taking the case through the federal courts. In 2006, shortly after the resolution of the court case, I had a heart attack, joining a growing list of people physically and emotionally impacted by the massacre. I can’t help recalling, in detail, my arrival at the scene, the obscene images I saw and the cold actions I took. I learned that even children are capable of evil, but also that among us common people are heroes. The first body I saw was that of a former compatriot, Derrick Brun, a gentle giant of a man who had recently left the Red Lake Police Department and was working as the school security guard. Though unarmed, Derek confronted the shooter and died a warrior’s death. That first shot alerted the staff and enabled many teachers to secure their pupils, reducing the number of victims available. A teacher, under fire, had calmly evacuated her children out the back door of a classroom. When the shooter tried to force his way through the door, she sat on the floor and braced her feet against the door as bullets flew above her.
My friends in Red Lake law enforcement performed a perfect “active shooter” response, exchanging fire and wounding the shooter, forcing him to retreat back to a classroom to kill himself. The surviving children in that room were crying for the officers to get into the room; the senior officer reminded himself as he entered through the narrow shot-out window panel that if he was hit he had to keep moving, so as not to block the rest of the officers. I soon learned I had lost another friend — “Dash” Lussier, or “Grandpa,” as I sometimes called him — murdered in his bed by a grandson he had tried to mentor.
On that day, I made a teacher accompany me back into her classroom to identify her dead students. An overly protective father of two daughters, I searched the bodies of young women, looking for identification. I ordered exhausted and shell-shocked officers to search the school again. I gave horrible news to a desperate family member.
I will carry these memories to my grave. When each new mass killing is announced on television, I can’t watch; I begin sweating, get sick to my stomach. My cup has runneth over.
I do not unearth these memories casually. I do so out of frustration with the things I am hearing — and with what I am not hearing.
A right paid for with blood
Despite some unbelievable comments, postings and opinions to the contrary, the NRA did not commit the Sandy Hook massacre and is not a terrorist organization equal to Al-Qaida. The NRA does much good in regards to firearms in this country, sponsoring responsible shooting events, safety training and education for thousands every year, including children.
The NRA is not composed of cowardly white rural males who drive pickup trucks and use poor English. People from all walks of life have benefited from being taught the principles of safe and responsible firearm use by the NRA.
The Second Amendment is not about hunting. It is about the history-changing idea that common people should be able to possess arms to preserve their safety and freedom.
Prior to that idea’s establishment, on the penalty of death, only the king’s soldiers could possess arms. The poor were at the mercy of tyrants who could take their sons for war, their daughters for pleasure, and their land and lives with impunity.
Those dark days seem to be ancient history. But as a young, intelligent and very liberal friend of mine pointed out, history tends to be pretty dynamic, and I cannot foresee the future. We have ample modern examples of what the inability to provide for personal defense results in — from the Warsaw Ghetto to the misery of our poor neighbors to the south living among drug gangs. I am therefore loath to surrender a right that was paid for in blood by my forefathers.
Nor is the Second Amendment the exclusive possession of those old, white, rural pickup drivers. It also belongs to Mexican-Americans in Texas; Muslim Americans in Michigan; terrified young women barricading themselves against murderous ex-husbands; African-American parents wanting to live in peace in Chicago; Native Americans living on lonely reservations, and gay Americans watching a car circling their home.
To the arguments that guns in the home are more likely to kill a family member than an intruder; that many so-called defensive uses of guns are actually criminal escalations; that guns seldom solve a problem — I agree.
But not all of us in this country live in a city where there are hundreds or thousands of police officers and you can expect to hear sirens within 30 seconds of dialing 911. Many of us live in the kinds of places I do — a county the size of Rhode Island, where at night only two deputies patrol the roads.
For rural people from Alaska to Alabama and points between, that rifle, shotgun or handgun, for better or worse, is their only real ally in a terrifying situation.
Tolerating the intolerable
All that said, the NRA and we gun owners have tolerated an intolerable situation: the profusion of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines; the ridiculous loophole of gun shows and private sales evading the instant background check; the inability of the background check to be integrated with the National Crime Information Center; the lack of due diligence in transferring firearms to those who should not have them; the lack of cooperation with law enforcement to report problematic behavior; the selfishness of our desires to have more and more lethal weapons and technology without concern for our terrified fellow citizens who do not share the belief that such weapons better secure us.
If we cherish our right to bear arms, we must be vigilant in assuring others that it is being exercised responsibly. The proliferation of weapons that are made for high-capacity magazines is out of control.
When I came out of the FBI Academy in 1984, I was issued a six-shot revolver and 18 rounds of ammunition, and I felt well-armed. To this day I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would want to own, much less carry, a weapon with a magazine holding 15 rounds and more. If you need to do that, join the Armed Forces.
I cannot imagine any reasonable use of defensive deadly force by a citizen that would require more than a couple shots.
Yet open a gun magazine or go into a gun shop, and you will see weapons being marketed to the public that mount flashlights, flash suppressors, laser beams and electronic sights and can accept magazines holding up to 100 rounds.
You can buy a pistol (the FN-Hertsal FiveSeven) that fires a cartridge designed for military use only, intended to penetrate helmets and body armor. A perfect terrorist’s or mass killer’s tool, it holds 23 rounds in its magazine and is manufactured in Belgium — which, of course, does not allow its own citizens to possess it.
My attempts to convince my elected representatives of both political parties to ban this weapon years ago fell upon deaf ears. Soon after, this same weapon was used in the Fort Hood shootings.
I say ban the assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — or put them under the National Firearms Act as Class III ATF regulated destructive devices requiring yearly, restrictive federal licensing provisions. They’ve become the tools of choice for the mass killer.
Even the Red Lake shooter tried to use one. But, praise be, while he was loading a 30-round magazine, he jammed it and left it in my poor murdered friend’s house.
A new cult of death
This conversation about what is reasonable to possess, and how to keep firearms out of the hands of unstable people, is overdue. Hopefully it will lead to constructive changes that reduce the threat of gun violence.
But unfortunately, right now, even as you are reading this essay, at least several people in this country are plotting new attacks. They may or may not have already assembled their guns, or picked out the person they will kill to get them. They may have decided on and researched their target.
We don’t know who they are. But we know what they are — members of a new cult of death that worships the monsters who came before them and has but one goal: to exceed the body count or the horror of the latest massacre and thus be remembered as the worst of them all.
They can recite from rote the statistics of past horrors: the names of the victims at Columbine and what wounds they suffered; what weapons the Red Lake shooter used, and how he shot through a reinforced glass panel; what the term “Trenchcoat Mafia” refers to; who “Reb” and “Vodka” were; how many times the Norway killer had to reload.
They have desensitized themselves and trained by playing violent video games, by visiting jihadist beheading sites and by watching over and over again such disgusting “productions” as “Elephant” and “Zero Day” — essentially training videos on how to commit school shootings and glorifications of them.
Avidly they watch the news and troll and lurk on violent websites, attempting to recruit fellow students and dropping hints or “leakage” as they do so. For it is all about their ego. We cannot tell when they will act or what will trigger their rampage: the next day the temperature goes below zero, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, or a mother’s refusal to give them gas money that morning.
When these monsters finally arrive at their chosen target, they are on suicide missions, generally unstoppable. They have researched, learned and trained in some cases for years and act without hesitation.
Unpopular as Wayne LaPierre of the NRA is today — and regardless of how much I disagree with him on many issues — on one point, he is right: The only way to stop these terrorists is a trained officer with a gun. Had Derrick Brun had a gun, chances are the shooter would have not made it into Red Lake High School alive.
I have read all the objections to having an armed police officer in a school: It makes our schools into armed camps; it’s not the way we want to live; the officer may be unavailable; it’s too expensive, and the officer may miss or be killed. All true.
But here we are, and somewhere out there, our next mass shooter waits. I feel that if we can force the issue, make constructive changes, put the sentinels in place for a year or two, we may be able to break the cycle that now seems to have gripped us.
Hunting them down
What is missing in all of the current discussions is what we can do to preempt an attack. Many of our faceless monsters share one significant vulnerability — their own obsessions. The FBI for years has had squads devoted to tracking people attempting to sexually exploit children: the “Innocent Images” initiative, in which agents work on a task force to lure molesters and exploiters by pretending to be innocent minors surfing on websites.
The school shooters are also surfing: There are websites devoted to such evil. The Red Lake shooter spent two years researching on the computer, and though I know little of the Newtown, Conn., shooter, I am struck that he destroyed his computer before carrying out his spree.
It is time to treat these people for what they are — terrorists — and to hunt them down using the very medium through which they gather their bloody statistics, plan and recruit fellow travelers.
It may not seem like much at first: a self-isolated young male researching the Aurora massacre, ordering military surplus vests and large-capacity magazines, visiting gun sites, playing “Halo” and “Call to Duty,” ordering “Elephant.” But a knock on his door and the questioning it produces might avert another Sandy Hook.
The same for psychopaths who ambush our first responders. Background check records need to be integrated with law enforcement records, so a local police department will be alerted when a person undergoing the check to purchase a firearm is the same person who a month before was reported to have threatened to kill a neighbor. Law enforcement needs access to past instant background checks, which it currently does not have.
We as a community need to be reminded of our own responsibility to call law enforcement when we become aware that an unstable or criminal family member, neighbor or friend, who has not yet drawn a disqualifying conviction or adjudication, has obtained or has tried to obtain a firearm.
Law enforcement must start treating improper firearms possession with the same seriousness it now applies to drunken driving. Because, all the rhetoric aside, without access to a firearm, the potential lethality of these people is exponentially lowered.
Time to talk, and to act
We need to talk, to really listen to each other, to compromise. It is perfectly understandable to react with horror and lash out with frustration at the atrocities committed in Sandy Hook and Webster, N.Y. But if we are to solve this problem, we must work together: both parts of the country, and all the various factions that are part of this situation.
We must recall that we live in a complicated, diverse society. If we persist in lashing out in our emotion, demonizing and accusing each other, we will feed the false perceptions on either side.
We must ignore the agenda-driven extremists on either side, whether it’s the NRA’s vice president or the ban-and-confiscate-all-guns advocates. It is pointless to look for blame. Too many guns, too few restrictions, inadequate laws to deal with the mentally ill, violent video games and an amoral film industry. All true. But again, here we are. We must act.
Recently I heard a wonderful program on National Public Radio about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I was struck by one of his quotes: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
I pray for the victims and families in Newtown and Aurora and Virginia Tech and Red Lake and Columbine and Minneapolis and Norway and Webster and all the other lesser known atrocities — and for my country.
John Patrick Egelhof, of Bemidji, Minn., is a private investigator and retired FBI agent.
This was originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune