On Saturday, December 14, the residents in Newtown, Connecticut commemorated the one year anniversary of the massacre of 24 children and two adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In the days leading up to the anniversary, news reports talked about how far we have come on gun control laws and how prepared schools were – or were not – for another emergency.
Just 24 hours before the anniversary, Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado found out how ready they were.
At 12:33 p.m., Arapahoe High School senior Karl Pierson walked into his school with a bandolier of ammunition strapped to his chest, armed with a pump-action shotgun, a machete and three Molotov cocktails. As he entered the doors, he fired his shotgun and started shouting for the school’s librarian and debate coach, Tracy Morgan. A few seconds later, as Claire Davis was sitting and talking with a friend, he shot her point blank in the face. As he turned the corner towards the library, students warned Tracy Morgan that Pierson was looking for him and he ran out of the school with the hope that Pierson would follow him outside and away from the students. When Pierson entered the library, he lit one of the Molotov cocktails and started a fire in the library and fired his shotgun. Seeing that Morgan was not in the library and with officers closing in, Karl Pierson fired his shotgun one more time, killing himself.
All of this took exactly 80 seconds.
At the moment, Pierson is the only fatality. Claire Davis is currently in a coma and in stable but critical condition with a severe head injury.
There have been 24 school shootings since the Newtown massacre, in which 17 people have died, a statistic that puts the enormity of Newtown in perspective with the loss of 26 lives at once. This latest incident is not considered a mass shooting, but the same refrains and questions are being repeated, just as they do with every shooting that occurs in this country.
The question is: have we learned anything?
The emerging profile of Karl Pierson is one of a nice person, popular, though sometimes bullied for his liberal views in the conservative enclave, but able to hold his own. He came from a typical middle class family that went to Bible study meetings and were very kind. His parents had recently divorced and he spent his time split between two homes. He was outspoken about what he believed in, especially (reportedly left-leaning) politics, which made him a natural for the debate team. He finished third in a state competition in April of this year, which made him the only Arapahoe representative at a national competition held in Alabama. He was accompanied to the competition by Tracy Morgan.
Unable to place in the national competition, Pierson was the captain of the debate team when school started in September. By October, his name was no longer listed as captain and he wasn’t on the team. At this point, it is unclear as to exactly what happened, but Pierson’s friend and fellow debate team member, Joe Redmond, told the Denver Post that Pierson and Morgan appeared to have had a falling out. When they talked about why he was no longer on the team, Pierson responded, “Apparently if you threatened to kill a teacher, you get suspended.”
December 6, one week before the shooting, Pierson purchased the pump action shotgun at a local store. It is legal for an 18 year old to purchase a shotgun (though it is still illegal to purchase a handgun, something the NRA is trying to change), and it doesn’t appear there would have been anything in his background that would have prevented him from doing so. On the morning of the shooting, Pierson purchased several rounds of ammunition, enough to fill up a bandolier.
Colorado’s stricter gun laws went into effect in July of this year. The new laws require universal background checks for all gun purchases and limited the size of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. The new law only limits the size of the magazines, not the number that can be bought.
This latest shooting incident lacks many of the typical answers when trying to explain the why in a shooting. Pierson wasn’t a loner and didn’t appear to have a mental illness – just a lot of anger and a grudge. The current gun laws still proved to be inadequate, with everything done legally. For now, the descriptor used to explain the reasoning is to say Pierson’s intent was just evil.
The only refrain that is not coming from this incident is “it doesn’t happen here.” Arapaho High School is located just 12 miles from the Aurora movie theater where 12 people were killed in 2012. It is just 8 miles from the site of another famous school shooting, Columbine High School. It is the lessons learned from Columbine that is being credited for the response in Centennial. The post-Columbine protocol now requires officers to immediately identify the source of the shooting, as opposed to evacuating and setting up a perimeter as they did in 1999. Schools have regular lockdown drills, which have increased since Newtown one year ago.
Arapaho High School was prepared for this school shooting.
Still, the echoes of Columbine rang throughout the thoughts of parents and students, many of whom knew the victims of the earlier tragedy. Teresa Potvien was naturally filled with fear when she received a text from her son Blaise, a 14-year-old Arapaho freshman, saying, “I love you mom and dad. Thank you for a wonderful life.” As she walked him from the church where they were reunited, thoughts of 1999 rushed back, her eyes filled with tears.
She was pregnant with Blaise at the time of the Columbine shooting.