Welcome to the “First-Person Target” series, a participatory journalism experience aimed at exploring the issues of mass shootings, the right to carry, personal safety, gun culture, fear and more.
This project started for me three years ago, as I explain below in the first installment, but the rubber really met the road for me a few months back when I realized how many mass shootings had taken place in the types of places where I worked, taught and visited. I also realized I had no good way of verbalizing or understanding the issues associated with fear and safety that drove some people to call for mass armament and others to call for a gun ban. All I knew is that I didn’t really see a lot of people discussing (as in listening as well as talking) these issues very well.
In an attempt to jar something loose in my own mind and maybe spur others to speak out, I spent a nearly a week (Nov. 2-7) wearing a bulletproof vest everywhere I went. I had no idea what it would evoke in me personally and what it would bring about in the people with whom I interacted. I didn’t even know what I wanted to accomplish at that point. I just thought it could be a starting point for something worthwhile.
After that week of participation, I sought a wide array of perspectives from people who aren’t “the usual suspects” in the debates we have in this country. Instead, I looked for people who I felt would have a unique insight, a willingness to talk honestly, the ability to avoid the standard soundbites/talking points and who had some connection to the actions I was taking while wearing the vest. I wasn’t seeking “sides,” but rather looking for the feelings of thoughtful people who I hoped might improve my understanding about the topic or teach me something unexpected.
For the daily material, I relied on notes taken after each interaction I outlined in the series, fleshing out descriptions by revisiting the scene of these interactions or taking pictures of them at the time. Additional research was used to augment observed details in the writing.
Interviews with each participant were recorded with the participant’s knowledge and agreement. Quotes from these sources were drawn from notes taken during those interviews and reviews of the recordings. Dialogue is based on notes and recall from the daily events and supported by further discussions with the individuals involved to clarify or check on the accuracy of my recall.
The interview subjects and the order in which they occur in the series tie directly to the daily experiences I had at each point and the order should not be taken as order of importance or a lean toward bias. For example, on Day Two, I attended church and thus my interview with Sister Pam Biehl runs as a part of that day’s piece. Had I attended church on Day One or Day Five, her interview would have ended up there.
One last thing: Please feel free to email me with any questions, comments or concerns you have through the contact link here. I only ask the following:
- Enter with an open mind and read the WHOLE series before you think I skipped your point of view.
- If you think I suck or I failed, fine. Tell me WHY you think that. There is always room for revision and improvement in any piece of journalism.
Special thanks are due to Tracy Everbach, Sister Pam Biehl, Chance Duenkel, Chase Cook, Joe Peterson, Nate Nelson and Kelly Furnas for their time and honesty in their interviews. Thanks to Kelly Lash, Chance Swaim and Margaret Done for their work. Thanks to Chief Kurt Leibold and Sara Steffes Hansen for their support and encouragement.
Also, there is no way this project would be half as good as is without Allison Sansone, who helped me rework major sections of this and had no fear about telling me when stuff needed to get rewritten. She is the best editor and an even better friend.
Most of all, I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the help of my wife, Amy, who never once told me I was insane for trying this. And, of course, Zoe, my favorite peanut, whose presence is a joy, whether or not I’m wearing a bulletproof vest.
And now, Day 1, Friday: “I’ve Chosen Not To Be Afraid.”
The package arrives via UPS on Friday afternoon and it looks like someone intentionally beat it with a baseball bat, making it clear that this Amazon box is a retread from a friend who wanted to save on packaging costs.
I open the box and when I empty the contents onto the table I find a note, written in a sharp printed scrawl, with them:
Try not to get any holes in it…
For two weeks I’d been trying to borrow a bulletproof vest for a story, a participatory journalism project I’d wanted to work on for almost three years. Those of you who aren’t in law enforcement or combat might not know this but it’s not the kind of thing people have extras of hanging in their closets.
I asked Chief Kurt Leibold of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh police department if he had a spare somewhere I could use for this. It turned out that each officer was responsible for his or her own vest, so there weren’t spares laying around the department. When I asked Leibold if he knew of anyone else who could loan one to me, he sent me an email that brought me back to reality:
I’m sure you could purchase a vest for yourself, however I do not know of any police outfitter that would loan out this type of equipment. In fact, if you started inquiring about borrowing a vest it could cause some concern from these vendors on your motives. As you stated people have a heightened awareness because of these mass casualty events. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help to you.
Even after that tactful admonition, I kept asking around and eventually a former student agreed to lend me his.
The student said he wore it when he covered the 2012 Republican National Convention because some people thought “things were going to get rowdy.”
The vest is black with four Velcro straps that criss-cross the midsection. It is thick and pliable and feels like the lead apron the dentist uses on patients while doing X-Rays.
The student told me that it was rated IIIa, which meant it would stop most handgun fire, but nothing heavier, like a rifle round. According to the National Institute of Justice ratings, IIIa vests would stop any firearm projectile up to a .44 magnum round. A IIIa is “soft” vest, so it moves with you and is usually worn under clothing. Some vests allow you to upgrade them to “hard” vests, which means they contain compartments for damage-resistant plates that can stop larger rounds and prevent injuries from explosive devices.
With my wife, daughter and dog all watching me like I’m about to attempt a dangerous stunt, I slip the vest over my head and secure the straps around my torso to see how it feels.
“Are you really going to do this?” my wife, Amy, asks.
For months, I’d been asking myself the same question.
“I guess so.”
I started thinking about this project three years ago after reading a Facebook post from a grad school friend. Tracy Everbach, a professor at the University of North Texas, noted her concerns that the state was allowing “campus carry” for concealed firearms. According to the new Texas law, students who possessed a concealed-carry permit were allowed to carry a gun any time they were on university grounds, which included any time they attended class.
Everbach teaches a variety of topics, including a course on race, gender and the media, which can become heated at times. She also has a distaste for guns. She said she worried that firearms in the classroom would cause contentious debates to turn deadly.
Friends all chimed in with potential solutions:
- Could she tell students they can’t carry in her class? No.
- Could she ask students if they are carrying? No.
- Could she force the class to go entirely online? No
Others offered more difficult suggestions:
- Could she quit or change schools? Not really an option.
- How about a sabbatical until maybe this thing changes? It’s not going to change
- Did she think about carrying a gun herself?
“I don’t like guns,” she said in an interview for this project. “I never had one. While I was a police reporter, officers offered me a chance to go on the range and such, but I’ve declined to fire a gun. One time, the FBI tried recruit me and I said no because I would have to be armed. It just isn’t my thing.”
After all the other “Facebook friend” options were exhausted, I offered a suggestion that was a bit less aggressive, but just as bold:
My theory was that if you can’t play offense, play defense. Wearing a bulletproof vest would essentially say to her students, “If you need a gun to feel safe in here, I need protection from you to feel safe in here.”
Everbach never did this, but the thought rattled around in my head for years, mostly because, despite being a self-described “average white guy,” many places I frequented had been the site of a mass shooting.
Colleges? I teach there every week.
High Schools? I go there about once a month to work with student media and AP classes.
Newsrooms? I spent half my adult life in them.
Houses of worship? Saturday Mass is a tradition.
It also occurred to me that there’s never a good time to do something like this. I could talk myself into it as easily as I could talk myself out of it. I had no idea what the risks or rewards would be in trying this, how it would affect me and how it would affect those around me.
The main problem aside from getting a vest was in the area of writing a first-person story. As one of those classically trained, inverted-pyramid journalists, I loathe those stories by nature and I spent the better part of my life browbeating my students out of using “I” and “me” in their writing.
I’m also putting myself out there as a target for everybody and anybody with an interest in guns, shootings and safety who wants to scream that I “just don’t get it.” That’s not my idea of a good time, to say the least.
The idea was simple: “Wear Kevlar.”
After that, I had no idea what to do, so I started sketching out some rules for myself so that I would get the most out of this experience without overdoing it or under-doing it.
To get used to the straps and mobility, I decide to wear it around the house for about an hour or so at a time. It turns out to be surprisingly easy to wear and it doesn’t impede my ability to move around. However, I feel a huge rush of anxiety about the project overall and this physical manifestation of it.
It also doesn’t help that I get this note from a retired journalist I admire in response to my announcement that I am doing this project:
This has all kinds of T-for-Trouble attached. Kind of like wearing a cup. Someone is going to want to hit you in the balls just to see if it works.
I hang it on the back of a chair in the kitchen and retreat to the basement for the rest of the day. Just the thought of the vest sitting in my house gets my heart pounding a bit faster.
I honestly don’t know why.
Tracy Everbach graduated from Boston University in 1984 with a degree in journalism and concentrations in history and political science. After a brief turn as a proofreader for a state trooper magazine, she got a job as an editorial assistant at the Boston Herald, where she worked on everything from breaking news stories to obituaries.
In the mid-1980s, she took a nights and weekends position as a police reporter at the Dallas Morning News.
“My parents moved to Dallas in the ‘80s because of my dad’s job and I was visiting them one Christmas and decided to try to get an interview at the Dallas Morning News,” she said. “So I got the interview and then they called and got me a job. I was really reluctant to move but my dad was kind of like ‘Hey, this is a good job, you can do it for a year and leave if you want.’ Well I ended up staying at the Dallas Morning News for 12 years.”
Everbach joked that she went back to grad school because, “What else do you do when you don’t know what else you’re going to do with your life?” However, in going to the University of Texas for her master’s degree, she found a passion for teaching and strong interest in researching gender studies.
While working on her Ph.D. at Mizzou, her dissertation examined the only major newspaper that had women in each of the primary management positions to ascertain if it would be in some way different from all the others.
Her published journal articles cover everything from women’s roles in and around sports to sex-based associations with where men and women receive information on sexual violence. Her first book, “Mediating Mysogyny,” examines the intersection of technology, gender and harassment in the digital age.
Words like “strident” would apply to her in the same way they applied to feminist pioneers like Billie Jean King and Gloria Steinem, in that she always felt it necessary to point out inequity in a factual and straightforward fashion.
When she felt an absolute certainty about her position, which was most of the time, she would state her case firmly, increasing in volume as she felt was necessary. Her voice never was out of control, nor did it waver, but it got louder with each round of discussion or debate and its tonality could frighten an arrogant man through a locked solid steel door.
When the issue of campus carry emerged at North Texas, she found herself asking more questions and demanding more clarity than she did fearing for her safety or security.
“They actually had some public forums about it for faculty staff and students,” she said. “I actually went to them where they had the police chief, a committee that was assigned to figure out how to roll it out and dean of students was there. They would let people get up and ask questions. I did stand up and express my objections to it, but the answers that we got from them was ‘OK, but this is the LAW so we have to find a way to implement and we have to respect the law but also keep people safe.’”
Although she understood the law, one class in particular, however, concerned her the most: Race, Gender and The Media: A Methods Approach.
In the nine years she has taught the course, Everbach said she dealt with heated discussions and upset students. In most cases, she noted, content on domestic violence and sexual assault led some students to feel the need to leave her class to gather themselves, but it was one discussion about race that led her to fear violence in her classroom.
A white student had been intentionally “egging on” a black student, she said, throughout the course of the semester. The black student had shared personal information in the term, including the fact he had once been homeless. The white student used this information to poke at him further, noting that homeless people “are just being lazy and don’t want to get a job.”
“The black guy stood up and said, ‘Y’know, man, I’ve been listening to you all semester and I’ve about had it,’” Everbach said. “I saw him clenching his fists and so I walked over to (the black student) and put my hands on his shoulders and I said, ‘Let’s go outside.’”
In the hallway, Everbach said she spoke with the student about how she understood that the white student was attempting to “goad” him into a fight of some kind, but that she wanted to make sure things didn’t escalate. The student said he was fine, but took a few minutes in the hall.
Once he returned to the classroom, the white student apologized to him, she said.
In the two years since the state campus-carry law took effect, Everbach said her campus feels no more or less safe than it did in years past.
“I don’t see people walking around with guns,” she said. “The cops and that’s it. I mean there could be kids walking around with guns but I don’t see them. I don’t spend a lot of time wondering if someone in my classroom is carrying a gun anymore or thinking, ‘Are they going to pull it out and shoot you with that?’”
“It’s just a personal thing to me,” she added. “I’ve chosen not to be afraid of it. I figure I’m as likely to have that happen as a car accident or whatever. Anything can happen to anyone at any time.”
I am the last person to go to bed in my house tonight, a fact I realize only after finishing the last load of laundry for the night and climbing the basement stairs. I round the corner into the kitchen, where the last light in the house is on.
The vest is hanging over one of the chairs there, right where I left it.
I stop and stare at it for a moment.
What if I scare the kids in school so badly they’ll never trust me again?
What if some concealed-carry cowboy takes a shot at me for fear of what I might do?
What happens when the people I need to interview won’t understand me or won’t want anything to do with me?
Will this really help me understand anything?
Every question I pondered about this project at intermittent points over the past three years congeals into one simple thought.
What the hell am I doing?