I’ve experience one shooting in my life. I know that no one truly knows what they would do when suddenly faced with their mortality. Ben Carson had a gun pointed at him once. He should know better.
On October 1, Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer shot and killed nine people, and injured nine more, in his writing class at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Oregon. It was the 18th mass shooting since President Obama took Office.
During his remarks on the Oregon shooting, President Obama spoke with frustration about the number of times he stood before the country to address a mass shooting, and eulogized the victims, only to see it happen again and again.
Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.
We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.
Most right-wing responses to the Oregon shooting were predictably vile. Among the worst was GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, who appeared to blame the victims for somehow not doing enough to save themselves.
Carson was asked during a “Fox & Friends” interview what he would do if faced with a gunman like Harper-Mercer.:
“Not only would I probably not cooperate with him, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me,” Carson responded. “I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’”
Carson’s arrogance is exceeded only by his ignorance. That Carson admitted he was once held up at gunpoint only adds hypocrisy to his offenses. Carson told Karen Hunter during a Sirius XM Radio interview that a man once pulled a gun on him in a Popeye’s restaurant in Baltimore. “Guy comes in, put the gun in my ribs. And I just said, ‘I believe that you want the guy behind the counter,’” Carson admitted.
I don’t know if Ben Carson has experienced a shooting, but I have. Twenty-eight years later, it still affects me. I think of it every time I hear of another shooting.
It was Friday, April 10, 1987; less than a year after mail carrier Patrick Sherrill walked into his post office, killed 14 of his co-workers, and wounded 6 more, before shooting himself in the head. I had to dig up an old Augusta Chronicle article about the shooting to get the date.
It was a warm, sunny spring day. I was 18 years old and in my senior year of high school. I worked part-time in a record store, in a strip mall in North Augusta. An avid music lover, I often spent half my paycheck in the store, much to my parents consternation.
After school, I had a quick dinner and went to work. I arrived a little early. We were doing inventory. There were no major album releases that week, and the manager liked to do inventory while things were slow. Whenever a customer was ready to make a purchase, whoever was closest to the register took care of it.
My dad, from whom I inherited my love of music, was out shopping that afternoon, and stopped in to say “Hi.” I looked up from my clipboard and greeted him.
It was around 6 p.m., according to the Chronicle article. What happened next unfolded in just ten minutes. It felt much longer.
I was at the register, by the front door, with my back to the store’s plate glass window, and the shopping center parking lot. There were just a few customers in line, my dad among them, so I waved off a co-worker who asked if I needed help.
I’d just finished ringing up a customer when I was startled by a sudden loud noise. It sounded like someone was tapping very hard on the window behind me.
When I turned around, there was no one at the window. I heard screams and saw people running through the parking lot. Some took cover behind cars. Parents grabbed their children and ran into nearby stores, including ours.
Behind me, I heard my dad — an army veteran who served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars — start to say, “What in the hell…”
Then I saw it. I saw the gun pointing at me. And for a moment my vision seemed to narrow down to the tip of the barrel.
The man holding the gun was 22-year-old construction worker Jerry Wayne Taylor. He worked at the site of a bank being built right across the parking lot from the record store.
The loud noises I’d heard were the shots he fired into David Jean Odom. Police said Taylor fired 30 shots into Odom. They found 25 empty shell cartridges at the scene, along with a rifle and handgun.
According to police reports, Taylor and Odom had an altercation of some sort. Taylor approached Odom with a pistol. Odom took the pistol from Taylor and hit him with it. Taylor went to his car, got a “30-caliber carbine,” and fired several shots into Odom.
A moment later, Taylor’s gun was pointing at me, from across the parking lot. I looked up at the precise moment that Taylor finished shooting Odom, whirled around and swept his gun across the shopping center.
I didn’t know if he was aiming at me. I didn’t know if he would start shooting again. I didn’t know if he would come across the parking lot and continue shooting. I didn’t know if he would shoot through the window, and kill me or anyone else in the store. In that moment, all my 18-year-old mind could absorb was that I wanted to live, to graduate from high school, and go to college. I wanted to have a future. I was frozen with fear.
The moment I saw Taylor’s gun, I yelled, “Everybody get down. There’s a guy shooting outside!” Everyone dove for the floor. I ducked down behind the display called and 911. The operator told me they were inundated with calls, and that the police were on their way. We waited. Someone locked the front door. It might have been me, since the keys were behind the counter, but a lot of what happened in those few minutes is still a blur.
When I looked up again, the police had arrived. Both Odom and Taylor were lying on the ground. After shooting Odom, Taylor had lain down on the pavement and waited for the police.
Taylor was arrested, and found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1989. Medical testimony showed that Taylor had schizophrenia. He was sent to a state mental hospital, where he stayed until March 1991.
I went back to work, and continued through the summer. I never stood at that register again without looking over my shoulder, and jumping at every loud noise. I never looked out of that window again without half expecting to see Taylor there, pointing his gun in my direction.
Five years later, Taylor made the news again, in a Savannah Morning News article titled “Suspect In Slaying Dies of Wounds.” On, Tuesday, April 16, Taylor shot and killed 33-year-old Thomas Eugene Schweitzer outside an auto supply store. After killing Schweitzer, Taylor shot and killed himself in his car, where police found letters indicating a romantic relationship between the two may have led to the shooting.
Twenty-eight years after Taylor’s gun was briefly pointed at me, I still remember the paralyzing dread I felt, when my 18-year-old brain absorbed the realization that everything good in my life at that point could be so suddenly and randomly taken away by a crazed gunman.
When I hear news about another shooting, I remember that day. I remember my fear, my racing pulse, and my frantic thoughts. I feel a deep compassion for the victims, because I have a least an inkling of understanding about what they must have gone through. I am too humbled by all I don’t know of what their last moments were like to presume to know what I would have done, let alone what they should have done.
In 1987, it was still normal to go to work without worrying about getting shot. I could tell myself that it wouldn’t happen again. Now, every time I go to a movie with my family, for a moment when the lights go down I get the same feeling I had that day at work. But I can’t honestly tell myself that it won’t or can’t happen again. Now, it happens so often that we’re dangerously close to getting used to it. Maybe we should do something about that.