Virginia shooting reiterates need for self-defense

This op-ed originally appeared June 24, 2017 in the St. Cloud Times.

In addition to giving thanks that only the shooter was killed June 14 in Alexandria, Virginia, I suggest a proper response is devoting more energy than we usually do to thinking seriously, not just about how violent ends can befall any of us anytime, but how we’re more acquiescent about such vulnerabilities than we need be or should be.

Politicians, journalists and the rest of the nation continue to speculate in fearful unison about how many members of Congress and other people likely would have been killed if two members of the Capitol Police weren’t at the baseball practice at which Rep. Steve Scalise and four other people, including two officers were wounded.

It’s entirely right to fear and ache over what might have been, and Godspeed to all who have been hurt, their families and colleagues, and the life-saving police officers.

But going forward, permit me to start personally with what might be viewed as excessive caution on my part 43 years ago.

I arrived in Minnesota in the summer of 1974 to work at the University of Minnesota as speechwriter for its new president C. Peter Magrath. I had worked for Peter for two years at Binghamton University in a different capacity, and in one of the great fortunes of my life, he asked me to join him out here.

My office in Morrill Hall was in the same suite as his, and being an extraordinarily hard worker, he often stayed in his office well after everyone nearby in the building had left for the evening.

Everyone, that is, but me, as I wasn’t at all comfortable leaving him by himself, as who knew what malcontent, perhaps a violent one, might threaten or harm, not just a brilliant leader but a very good friend.

If you have doubts about what I could have done if a intruder were in fact violent, other than call the police, you’re largely right, I suspect. But I just couldn’t see leaving him alone and vulnerable (not that he seemed to worry about it).

I went back to graduate school in 1977, and Peter left for the presidency of the University of Missouri in 1984. But a dozen years later, in 1996, a former university employee did indeed fire multiple shots outside of what was now President Nils Hasselmo’s office. Thankfully, no one was injured.

I don’t recall if Hasselmo was in his office proper, but a news story said he was “standing” at the time with the university’s general counsel. If the former employee had chosen to shoot them instead of whatever he did wind up shooting, they likely would not have had much of a chance, if any chance at all, to defend themselves, as I presume they were not armed and there weren’t any police immediately nearby.

Five years before the Hasselmo incident, in 1991, a man named George Hennard drove his pickup truck through the front window of a Luby’s restaurant in Houston and proceeded to shoot and kill 23 people and wound 27.

I remember thinking wasn’t there anyone among the approximately 140 people in the restaurant who could have shot back and stopped him, even when he reloaded at least three times?

This is not to say I would have had the courage to do so if I had been armed, which I’ve never been.

I don’t know if any of Luby’s patrons or employees were armed that day, but it would have been a very good thing if some number were, and if at least one brave man or woman did shoot back before the police arrived and killed Hennard, as some lives might have been saved.

Eight years after Luby’s, in 1999, two students at Columbine High School in Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher and injured another 21 people.

I wrote an op-ed a short time afterward arguing that if, in the future, parents and educators at a school reached consensus, a designated teacher or administrator who was skilled with firearms should be granted authority to either carry a gun, either unobtrusively or have quick access to one.

The reason, again, being that when people are being massacred, they deserve every conceivable opportunity to either save themselves or be saved by someone else. Maybe, just maybe some Columbine victims would be alive if a courageous staff member could have fired back. I recall reactions to the op-ed as polarized.

And then, in 2012, a 20-year-old named Adam Lanza shot and killed 20, 6- and 7-year-olds, plus six staff members, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It was the same hideous story all over again: a bloodbath in which no victim had anything approaching a fighting chance, except that most of the victims this time were little kids.

There have been many other such dreadful events over the decades, with killings at Virginia Tech coming quickest to mind, at least for me, perhaps because of my roots in higher education.

I’m not suggesting gun-slinging of any sorts. I simply start from the premise that people should be given every chance not to die at the hands and trigger fingers of madmen. And especially since law-abiding men and women across the country, very much including Minnesotans, have exercised their right to carry concealed guns with great responsibility, I favor an ethic in which larger numbers of citizens find the courage to step bravely into harm’s way on behalf of their neighbors when tragically need be.

This is the case as I reject the idea that anyone should be expected to die without a fight. Or at least without someone fighting to rescue them.

This is the opinion of Mitch Pearlstein, founder of Center of the American Experiment.