This is the fourth installment of “First-Person Target: A six-part series on fear and safety in the era of mass shootings,” a personal-participation journalistic endeavor about three years in the making.
To better understand my own feelings on these topics, I wore a bulletproof vest everywhere I went for a week. I then interviewed people I thought would have a special perspective on these issues.
The previous installments are here:
- Day 1, Friday: “I’ve chosen not to be afraid.”
- Day 2, Saturday: “God is weeping.”
- Day 3, Sunday: “Sometimes the cards are just not in your favor.”
I can’t sleep past 5:30.
Although I attribute most of that to the time change we made for Daylight Savings, I figure a major part of my unrest comes from anxiety.
Yesterday, I emailed the police chief at UW-Oshkosh to let him know I was starting the project, just in case he heard reports of a man in a bulletproof vest on campus. I also texted my boss over the weekend to make sure she knew what I was doing. As I later explained to my friend Tim, I have come to work on more than a few occasions to find a dumpster fire of a day, so knowing in advance is something more helpful than not.
“OK, Thanks for letting me know,” she responded. “Sounds interesting.”
When it comes to getting dressed for work, it’s usually about a 30-second process of grabbing a shirt out of the closet and a pair of jeans that fit. Today feels like I am auditioning for a fashion show.
I pull three outfits out of my closet and lay them on the bed in the guest room, weighing the merits of each one in relation to how it would fit or feel when combined with the vest. I eliminate the long-sleeve shirt combo, even though it was frosty outside, figuring that I would overheat between the thickness of the vest and the adrenaline running through me.
I try pairing the vest with the shirts, looking for something that wouldn’t blend with the vest but that wouldn’t make it ridiculously obvious either. I weigh how tight or how loose each would feel as well.
As I button up the shirt I finally selected, it dawns on me this was the most thought I put into my clothing choices in years.
The drive to work is odd for a number of reasons, even though it is the same route I have followed for years. First of all, the vest makes it impossible for me to feel the shoulder strap on the seat belt, which makes me feel like I didn’t buckle up. I find myself instinctively reaching for the seat belt repeatedly, trying to put on something that was already on me.
Second, I seem to notice more “gun-related” things along the way. Trucks had pulled over to the side of the road, as early morning hunters scout their quarry on private lands. A local radio station is offering a “buy your wife some jewelry, get a shotgun for you” promotion. Even when I flip to a random playlist from my iPhone, the first song that comes up is 50 Cent and a lyric caught me:
“Been hit with a few shells but I don’t walk wit’ a limp.”
This is going to be a long day, I mutter to myself, as I pull into a parking spot behind Sage Hall, the building where my office is housed.
Harrington Hall predates all but two current buildings on the UW-Oshkosh campus, something evident in both its construction and its smell.
Wide hallways give way to smaller wooden doors throughout the varying branches of the building. Distinctions emerge in spots between the original elements of the building, like the hardwood banisters, blackened by the friction of a century of hands rubbing the varnished rails, and those newer ones, including the glossy, sparkle-flecked, off-white concrete floors that scream Mid-Century Modern.
The geology department covers parts of multiple floors, ranging from the labs to the hallways, which are dotted with samples of minerals and fossils locked away safely in display cases. In the main vestibule of the first floor, visitors are greeted by the immense skull of an Allosaurus, with its cavernous mouth agape, displaying a set of terrifying teeth.
Up the stairs and just to the left, Room 211 houses a display of modern and prehistoric elements as well as UWO’s most popular vertebrate paleontologist.
The room hearkens to a begone time before faculty offices were the size of a veal pen. At 264 square feet, it would comfortably serve as a reasonably sized one-car garage.
Framed posters of the “Jurassic Park” movies hang high on the walls, along with a replica metal sign of a vintage comic book and a “Justice League” promotional image. An older heating unit rests underneath the wooden sills of two counter-to-ceiling windows, the warbled glass intimating their age and originality to the building.
Scads of paperwork cover the top of a steel-case desk, with small bits of rock and fossils dotting its back edge, weaving around the base plate of a computer monitor. Various file cabinets and organizational systems press against the various walls in a clear but indiscernible pattern, leaving open a large space in the middle of the room with a seat for any visitor who stops by.
The only indicators of the educational achievements of the room’s occupant are tucked discretely into a back corner on top of a filing cabinet: A wooden “TEDx” award in the shape of Wisconsin and a framed doctoral diploma from Northern Illinois University.
If the room is unassuming, so is its occupant. Joseph Peterson is dressed in an earth-tone plaid flannel shirt with a matching T-shirt underneath, jeans and a pair of hiking boots. His hair is cut in a fashionable form and it smoothly transitions into his beard, which looks like it started as a goatee and then became something more on par with that of a lumberjack. He has the youthful passion for his area of study on par with that of Ross Gellar from “Friends,” while he maintains a James Dean level of cool that draws respect and admiration from his students.
“I had a colleague once nicely say that I have a high room in my life for play,” Peterson said. “I think that’s because I’m 37 and I still read comic books and watch scary movies and I play with dinosaurs.”
Peterson fell in love with paleontology when he saw a “Making Of” featurette for “An American Werewolf in London,” when he was a kid, and, after his first dig in Wyoming at age 14, he never looked back.
“Most kids go through a ‘When I grow up I want to be a paleontologist phase,’ and I just never got out of it…” Peterson said. “When ‘Jurassic Park’ came out, I had gone through a dinosaur phase and dinosaurs were cool. They’re like big monsters and watching the behind the scenes stuff and reading about how at the time it was very scientifically accurate, I was like the science is actually cooler than the special effects stuff, so I never got out of it.”
If the ancient worlds he unearths each summer on digs came to him as a passion of his choice, his desire to keep people safe during an active-shooter scenario imposed itself upon his life just over a decade ago. On Valentine’s Day 2008, Peterson was lecturing to an introduction to geology class for non-majors at Northern Illinois University when Steven Kazmierczak entered the classroom. As students listened to the tail end of a lecture on ocean sedimentology, Kazmierczak opened fire on them with a shotgun.
“I’ve spoken to people about what they think being in a mass shooting is like,” Peterson said. “It’s very different than what it actually is. It’s not dramatic. It’s not like an Oliver Stone movie. The Doors music isn’t playing somewhere.”
The lecture room in Cole Hall had an exterior access point that opened onto the stage. In the winter, students would frequently use those doors to cut through the building to avoid the freezing cold, so when the door opened, Peterson turned toward the doors to admonish the interloper.
“The door opens and I’m turning to say, ‘We’re not done yet,’ and this guy walks out onto the stage, wearing all black, and he lifts a sawed-off shotgun and instantly starts firing into the auditorium and into the students,” he said.
The shooter stood less than 8 feet away, firing round after round before pausing to reload as Peterson wondered why it was the school would be holding a training exercise like this without telling anyone. Although the shooting at Virginia Tech was still fresh in the minds of school administrators, no one had outlined plans for a drill and no one had expressed an interest in engaging in a role-playing incident, Peterson thought.
“It was my brain completely unwilling to accept what was happening in those first few seconds,” he said. “Then he reloaded… and that’s when it hit me: ‘This is real.’”
Peterson reached for the door behind him in an attempt to escape, but it was locked. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. He later found out the door provided access to an AV closet. He then jumped off the stage and crouched near the podium as the shooter continued to fire his shotgun at the scrambling mass of humanity in the audience.
As Peterson’s mind raced to process the situation, it eventually landed on the oddest epiphany.
“I had just gotten married the August prior to that, and it sounds silly, but the thought that actually went through my mind was, ‘If I die here, my wife is going to kill me,’” he said.
When the shooter began yet another reloading of his weapon, Peterson started crawling up the aisle, maneuvering as best he could toward the exits amid the chaos.
“Students are pouring out, they’re in the aisle, they’re crawling or running,” he said. “Everybody is climbing over each other. I’m trying to get through and I’m keeping an eye on him the whole time and we make eye contact.”
For the first time, Kazmierczak stopped his indiscriminate assault on the room. He dropped his shotgun, pulled a Glock 9 mm and drew a bead on Peterson. The single shot sliced through all three shirts Peterson wore, tearing into his shoulder and then glancing off his wedding ring with a resounding “ping.”
“I realized I had been shot but I also realized I wasn’t dead, and so I kept going.”
Peterson made it out of the building to a computer lab next door, where he called out to anyone who would listen that “’There has been a shooting at Cole Hall, call 9-1-1,’ and they just stared at me.” He ended up in an office in what he believed was the history department, at which point he grabbed some paper, handed it to a befuddled student and said, “Write down everything I’m about to tell you.”
“I just poured it out, everything I could remember,” he said. “I didn’t know all the terminology for weapons and stuff. I knew pistols and a shotgun. I kept saying ‘tactical shotgun.’ I didn’t realize it was a sawed-off at the time.”
The entire event took between five and 10 minutes, Peterson said.
“It all happened really quickly,” he said. “Police were in the building within 30 seconds of the first 9-1-1 call. By that time, it was all over.”
The police herded all the survivors into an auditorium at the student center as they started to put the pieces of what had happened into some sort of logical order. Peterson said reports were bouncing around the campus at this time because of the way the students scattered. An injured student was found several buildings away, leading to a story that multiple shootings had occurred. One of his students ended up on a bus and she didn’t get off until she got to the next county.
“People literally ran out of their shoes,” he said. “There were shoes everywhere. It was bizarre.”
The police got Peterson to the hospital, where medical personnel cared for his injuries and officials interviewed him further.
“Then I went home, where I dealt with everything after that, (including) the press being at my house until 4 a.m. for days,” he said. “I went and hid in Chicago with family and friends for a couple days… just coming to terms with what all that meant and then the healing afterward, which took a while.”
Two of the things students dislike most about my classes are a) they’re required so students have to take them whether they want to or not and b) they always start at 8 a.m., so it puts a crimp in their late-night revelry. My Monday “Writing for the Media” class is the exception to the rule when it comes to active engagement. This class is filled with students who ask a ton of questions and chatter among themselves constantly.
I walk into the room and I can feel the sweat dripping down the middle of my back between my shoulder blades. The vein in my left temple is throbbing.
What are they going to think?
Will they freak out?
One kid kind of does a double take of me but nobody else seems to look up from their phones. They’re yammering about something or other in each corner of the room: The next Titan TV broadcast they have to produce, the football game last night, if they’re going to vote tomorrow…
One student isn’t saying much so I strike up a conversation to try to feel normal as the minutes seem to crawl along until I can begin class. She’s wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Alcatraz Swimming Club” printed on it, so we start talking about how she got it and why she likes it. This whole thing feels like the theater of the absurd: I’m talking about what my student is wearing but none of them seem to notice what I’m wearing.
I talk about the lesson of the day, which is how to write for advertising. Nobody says anything or asks any questions.
Just like the last 100 classes I taught, I ask “Does anyone have any questions before we get started?”
Nobody does, so I start teaching.
About 20 minutes into the class, one of the chronically late students shows up late. He looks disheveled and half asleep as I open the door for him. It was set up to be locked at all times unless you had a key or a digital pass to get in. This safety measure was intended to limit access to the rooms in case of theft, but also to prevent a shooter from gaining access to an inadvertently unlocked lab.
As I push the door open for him, he kind of bumps right into me, looks right at me and then just walks to his seat. I literally can’t believe he didn’t notice this monstrosity welded to my chest.
Of all the sights, sounds and smells that whirled together in the shooting at Cole Hall on Feb. 14, 2008, it’s the unremarkable sound of a spent 12-gauge casing bouncing off of a carpeted floor that remains with Peterson to this day.
“It’s amazing what subtle little senses stick with me,” Peterson said. “It’s actually the one sound that I hear the most vividly in my mind.”
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Peterson said safety became paramount for him. He said he spoke to NIU Police Chief Donald Grady about getting additional protection for himself and his class. Grady told him that everyone wanted police around them at all times on the campus, but it was likely to have very little impact. To emphasize that point, Grady explained that when President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, he was surrounded by the best protective service in the country.
“No amount of police or security will ever absolutely prevent somebody from doing something they’re set on doing to harm others,” Peterson said. “And that was a scary realization, but I couldn’t argue with it.”
Another scary realization was the mental history of the shooter and how many red flags people missed, Peterson said.
“In the research that I’ve done in working with investigators and the FBI, I’ve learned quite a lot about this individual,” he said. “The original media reports that came out about him were like ‘star student,’ ‘good guy…’ such a good boy and then here come the follow-ups about, ‘He had a lot of problems.’”
The university examined the incident at length over the next several years, including taking a deep dive into Kazmierczak’s mental-health history. A 300-page report, released in 2010 revealed how the shooter was diagnosed as having schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness that expresses itself through patterns associated with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Interviews with people who knew Kazmierczak painted a wide array of conflicting pictures, with some saying he was kind, polite, generous and likeable, while others spoke to a more secretive, combative and paranoid side of him.
Between the ages of 16 and 18, he required hospitalization for multiple suicide attempts or suicidal gestures, the report stated. A month after he graduated from high school, his family committed him to the Mary Hill Residence Home after another suicide attempt. Documents state he was heavily medicated at that point, although in subsequent months, he showed increased self-destructive and aggressive tendencies along with patterns of violence and abuse.
After enrolling at NIU in 2003, Kazmierczak found ways to hide his past as well as his “quirks and socially damning qualities,” the report stated. He became a “model student,” according to the report, graduating with a 3.88 GPA and summa cum laude recognition. He received a Dean’s Award and had served as the vice president for the university’s chapter of the American Correctional Association.
Even as he kept his problems behind a tenuous firewall, Kazmierczak occasionally provided glimpses into his darker side.
“He exploited loopholes in the system,” Peterson said. “He wrote a paper called ‘Giving Guns to Crazies.’”
The gist of the paper, Peterson explained, was that the state of Illinois had a law at the time that prohibited people who had been institutionalized within the past five years from buying a gun. Kazmierczak was able to purchase his firearms because it had been seven years since his time at Mary Hill Residence Home and Thresholds Group Home Residency program.
“There were red flags everywhere,” Peterson said. “They were all over the place. Going all the way down to a history of harming animals in his youth, I mean it was all there. But it slipped through the cracks.”
Kazmierczak was one of many mass shooters known to have significant and dangerous mental health issues. Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho had previously been diagnosed with a severe depression disorder and an anxiety disorder. Media reports noted that Thousand Oaks gunman Ian David Long had a history of violent outbursts and aggressively anti-social behavior that forced police and a mental health evaluator to seek him out.
Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza had frequent contacts with mental health professionals, whose diagnoses included everything from depression and anxiety to Asperger’s Syndrome. His father also stated he believed his son had a case of undiagnosed schizophrenia. Other cases involved individuals who were thought to have undiagnosed cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other volatile mental illnesses.
Although most mentally ill people present no danger to the public the way these individuals did, the stigma attached to mental illness has often prevented people from seeking help.
“If we’re going to keep hearing people repeat the mantra of ‘Oh, this is a mental health issue,’ OK, then, what are we going to do about that?” Peterson said. “How do you prepare a better system for addressing mental health issues with firearms without stigmatizing people? That’s got to be a cultural shift and people need to start working on doing that rather than just saying we need to do that.”
It’s a two-hour lecture, so I always give them a break at the one-hour mark. They’ve been remarkably quiet to this point, but when I let them go for the break, the kid who showed up late pipes up:
“Maybe I missed this when I was late, but what’s up with that vest? Is that bulletproof?”
Before I can say anything, another student breaks his silence: “Yeah, I was gonna ask about that but I didn’t wanna disrupt the class…”
I laugh. What a bunch of bullshit. This is a kid who would interrupt a eulogy to ask a question, so his “fear of disruption” defense doesn’t pass muster with me. A couple others gather around the podium, now realizing that once someone said something, they can be nosy, too.
“Go take your break,” I say. “We’ll talk a bit about this when you get back.”
When we get back, I outline the whole situation and explain what I am trying to do. They seem to relax a bit and want to discuss this more, so we chat a bit. For about 20 minutes, they talk about the way in which they had “gotten used to” life where mass shootings happen as a matter of course.
One student mentions that her roommate came home from class the other day early. When she asked the roommate why, it turned out that two people next to her were discussing something controversial and it was starting to get heated. The student says her roommate was visibly shaken and felt a strong need to get out of there because she was really scared that the situation might get violent.
Another student raises the issue of how her old high school wouldn’t let her in past the main entrance when she had to drop stuff off for her brother, who is still in the school.
“I said to the person at the entrance, ‘I used to go here, can’t I just get in?’ and they said, no, I had to leave the stuff here for him,” she says.
Another student says his former high school has all of its doors locked and that people are now routed to a single entrance with police officers at the doors and cameras everywhere.
“Did any of those things in your school make you feel safer?” I ask.
“No. I felt trapped,” one of them replies.
Everyone gets quiet and several of them nod somberly.
The cameras and the checkpoints installed to give them a sense of safety just made the students feel more scared and trapped.
It is the first time I could pinpoint how I feel in this vest: Scared and trapped.
Another student breaks the silence.
“Talking about this is actually what’s making me anxious right now,” she says. “I try not to think about these things.”
Peterson takes a deep breath and exhales, pausing to find the right words. He starts and then stops.
“I want to get this right,” he said.
For the past 20 minutes, he has explained in mesmerizing detail an event that took place a decade ago, when a man with three guns entered his classroom at Northern Illinois University and opened fire on a class of nearly 200 of his students. He outlined the information in an educator’s speed and tone, engaging his audience of one to see how clear he was in explaining himself or if he needed to change his approach. He never had to stop or restate something in a different fashion.
However, the question of “How safe do you feel?” has him pondering. He shifts in his chair a bit and then begins his answer in a measured pace.
“I think (the shooting) has made me realize that safety, well, you can do a lot to feel safe but ultimately there are some things out of your control,” he said. “That’s a hard reality to accept. I think that’s where a lot of the very pro-gun people are fixated on, and by pro-gun I mean the extreme side, that we’re never safe. We’re never safe. To some degree we’re not.”
“You can walk outside and a tree can randomly fall on you, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he added. “This is about being able to sleep at night, about being able to say, ‘I’ve done what I can to my personal comfort level.’ And those things do change over time.”
Peterson said things were difficult at NIU in the wake of the attack. The university cancelled classes for a week, but with almost a full semester to go, officials met frequently to find a way to balance respect for the dead with the pragmatism necessary for the living. Students taking the course needed to finish up so they could graduate. Others needed the class to continue in their program.
Peterson said departmental colleagues offered him the opportunity to beg out of the course. He agreed the course needed to finish, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about continuing with those students or how they would feel being back with him.
He emailed the class and asked for the students’ opinions on what should happen.
Unequivocally, they wanted him back.
“Class kind of turned into a group therapy session…,” he said. “We did the work but some days you could just sense something, so it was, ‘That’s enough talking about salinity today. How is everybody doing?’ We got back into it and finished it.”
Beyond finishing a single class as an instructor, Peterson had other, larger issues at hand. He was in the middle of his Ph.D. program at a university that would serve as a constant reminder of the most traumatic moment of his life.
Doctoral programs require extreme concentration, focus and self-discipline, as students seek to become experts within a field of choice. People who pursue them often sacrifice family time, careers and their own sanity to grasp the golden ring. Even the best and brightest, with a clean slate and plenty of stability fail from time to time.
Peterson was a million miles from those ideal conditions.
In the days and weeks after the shooting, he found himself needing to face a door at all times while eating at restaurant, looking for exits in public buildings and panicking at movies when the lights went down.
“The first year I was going to counseling a lot,” he said. “I would talk about (the shooting) at times that were not the most appropriate. I would always bring it up because it was always on my mind. And I’ve since learned that’s a common thing. It’s part of the healing process.”
“I think going to counseling helped a lot and I was never somebody who was big on counseling but I was glad that I went because I did not want to develop some form of extreme PTSD from this,” Peterson added.
He said he went “down the rabbit hole” in researching the shooter’s background and other mass shootings, looking for the “why” answer he was unable to attain.
Just like no one would have thought less of him had he quit the class, no one would have blamed him if he just packed up his stuff and went home.
Of all the questions that needed an answer, the biggest one was this:
How in the hell were you able to finish?
“I think if I would have walked away from it, I mean, going after my Ph.D. in paleontology was something I’d thought about doing since I was a kid and letting a person stop me from doing that would have let that person take more than they already did,” he said. “I wasn’t willing to let that happen.”
He finished his Ph.D. in August 2010 and took a job at UWO, but he said he still keeps in touch with faculty at NIU and his former students from the oceanography class. His recovery has taken time and he said it remains a work in progress.
“In the immediate aftermath… there was a phrase I kept hearing and I absolutely hated it and it was, ‘This is the new normal,’” Peterson said. “I don’t want ‘new normal. I want ‘old normal.’ I want ‘old normal’ where I can go to a restaurant and not have to face the door. I want ‘old normal’ where I can go to movies and not be paranoid the whole time about what am I going to do. I wanted that back. I wanted to be able to watch TV and not constantly think about this every time I saw a gun on the screen. In time, a lot of that faded.”
Although his heightened sense of awareness faded, Peterson said it hasn’t entirely gone away, something he doesn’t see as a bad thing.
“I remember that I’m getting angry at the situation where I feel like I’m sitting in a movie theater staring at the exits,” he said. “But then again, I should be doing this anyway. How often do you notice illuminated exit signs? They’re everywhere but we don’t even see them. We should. I kind of realized that some of these precautions are OK. It’s no longer heightened paranoia but it’s awareness.”
“I think that is just part of being an aware person,” he added. “I do things like (look for exits) now. I don’t feel like I have to face a door in a restaurant anymore, but I take a look around in my surroundings and I am aware… This is something people should be doing anyway. It’s part of self-awareness.”
Throughout my time in working on the project, I realized that I had an extremely limited view of firearm security, sales and regulations. It is a lot harder to find insight in this area because people feared speaking with me.
I wanted to understand how things like gun sales and concealed-carry laws worked, so I sought an interview with the family that ran the local firearms store in town, Sporting Solutions. I asked several people on a citywide Facebook board if they knew these folks and if they were nice people.
Everyone posted positive responses:
“My husband likes to go there. He says they are very informative and helpful.”
“Alex is the man. He can help you with whatever you need.”
I got the name of one of the guys who runs the store and contacted him via Facebook. He was happy to message me back. When I asked if I could come talk to him about all this, he disappeared. He didn’t answer any additional messages and I didn’t want to push it, but that was kind of how people tended to feel.
Even my student who sent me the vest didn’t want his name associated with the story.
“I should’ve mentioned it and it’s not a huge deal, but could you not mention that it’s my vest on FB? You don’t have to delete the post, but maybe just edit that part? Just not something I care to advertise… People tend to ask “what the hell do you need that for?”
After other failed attempts to engage people with this knowledge, the only way I figured I could get a handle on this was to take a course or something and start learning that way.
I went to the state website and started to walk through what it would take to get a concealed-carry permit in Wisconsin. The requirements looked rather rigorous until I realized I didn’t have to accomplish all nine requirements and subsections under the “Training Requirements” item, but only one of them.
In sorting through the potential ways I could meet the requirement, I realized most of them were out of my reach (CCW permit from another state, military training, service as a law-enforcement officer). The completion of a training or safety course looked like the only way I could do it.
The first option was partaking in a hunter education program established by the state or other “substantially similar program.” The state of Wisconsin website listed several of these programs, but they required a drive, eight hours of class time and weren’t available until much later in the year or even the beginning of next year.
I did a search for “hunter education program” and found a website that promised me I could complete the entire education course and be certified online. The link was for a .com site, but it looked legitimate so I clicked on it and did some exploring.
According to hunter-ed.com, if I paid $34.50, I could go through an entire safety course online, take a test and receive my certification. I thought it was ridiculous, but I gave it a try.
The whole course took less than three hours to complete, and I felt like I learned almost nothing.
After about 30 screens on ballistics, with multiple videos and all sorts of other stuff that didn’t teach me much of anything, I passed one module on the first try with 20/20. I had no idea what I actually knew and what I just knew well enough to get by. If this were an essay or an oral exam, I’d be screwed. However, my general sense of how to take a multiple-choice exam by looking at answers, discarding the stupid ones and picking from the logical remainders served me well here.
I passed every module on the first run, except the one where I was on the phone with my book publisher, and I didn’t really pay attention. Even then, I failed by only 10 percent. The website let me repeat the quiz after checking my answers without penalty.
I wanted to see what would happen if I failed again, so I purposely selected wrong answers and found that I could keep taking this quiz as long as I wanted within my 90-day registration time period. I decided to knuckle down, so I passed that module and the next five easily.
One of the more stunning moments for me came when I was working through a section on muzzleloaders, a type of firearm that requires specific care in terms of loading, powder and projectile. The graphic associated with the “how to safely fire the weapon” section included specific safety rules and regulations for the hunter. In examining the illustration on a first pass, it seemed to violate at least two of those rules, in terms of safety wear.
The final test looked scary: 50 questions, but I got a practice exam I could take as many times as I wanted, and if I failed the exam, I could take it over and over again. The question rotation seemed to be heavily skewed toward things I answered right, but it just might be that every question seemed to be about making sure you didn’t point a loaded weapon at someone. I passed with a 90 percent, which means I missed five of 50 questions. Not sure which ones I missed, as I was more enamored at getting my certificate and moving on. A few minutes later, an email with a PDF showed up in my inbox, declaring that I was certified in hunter safety.
I printed the application forms, and started checking the boxes necessary to get my concealed-carry permit. Most of the 17 questions were relatively simple statements regarding if I was a citizen, if I lived in the state, if I had a felony on my record and more. At the end, it asked if I had completed the training, which I had.
I then noticed I had to send $40 via check and a copy of the form, triple signed and a copy of my hunter safety certification. Despite how ridiculously easy this was, I wondered if there was an easier way, so I searched the web and found an online version of the form that I could submit via the state’s Department of Justice.
I punched in my answers from the forms I filled out, uploaded my certificate and clicked the pay button. After inputting in my credit card information, the website sent me an email saying I had been charged and to click going forward. I clicked the next button and got a message saying I couldn’t get my application approved as submitted and thus I needed to call the DOJ.
I received no other confirmation email, so I figured I was red flagged because it clearly couldn’t be this easy. I did some deeper searching and found a DOJ FAQ that explained online safety courses didn’t count, or at least that’s what it looked like it said. I actually felt better about that, because I figured that someone somewhere might want me to actually touch a gun before I was allowed to hunt with one or carry one in a concealed fashion.
That said, I didn’t want to be out the $40 for a license I wouldn’t get. The $34.50? Hey, at least I got a test out of that.
I called the DOJ around 4 p.m. and got a guy on the phone who seemed like he would rather eat live meal worms than talk to me.
I explained what I did and I asked about the submission when he cut me off.
“Did you get an email with a confirmation number?” he asked tersely.
“I got one with my payment. Is that it?”
“Yeah, that’s it. You’re fine. OK, so good-”
“No, wait. I got a message saying to call you…”
“No, that’s the only email you’ll get. People keep getting that error message and we don’t know why.”
“OK, so that’s it?” I asked quickly.
“And I should just expect to hear from you folks in the mail in a couple weeks with the license?”
“Couple weeks, yeah, goodbye now.”
“After the shooting, I became very vocal about all these policies and I kind of realized I didn’t really have a lot of experience with the thing I was talking about,” Peterson said. “I could talk about what happened to me, but I wasn’t very knowledgeable about firearms. So, over the last couple years, I’ve been stepping out of my comfort zone and going to ranges and talking to gun shop owners… I just say, ‘I’m somebody who wants to learn.’”
The journey toward understanding “gun culture” took Peterson to a variety of shooting ranges and firearms stores. He listened to experts, talked to gun owners and began to explore why some people became enamored with firearms. Through it all, he saw a lot of stereotypes breaking down in front of him.
“I’ve learned a lot from people at gun ranges…,” he said. “I think it’s funny that there’s an organization out there called ‘liberal gun owners’ or something like that who pride themselves on being very, very far left but also pride themselves on owning firearms, and I’m thinking, ‘There are more people who lean left in this country that own guns than you might think, so I don’t think we need a special group.’”
“Shooting at a range is fun,” he added. “I can see why people enjoy it.”
Peterson peeled back several layers of the gun-ownership argument, moving from those who hunt to those who carried weapons for protection. At that point, he decided to get a concealed-carry permit.
“I went to a free class,” he said. “It was four hours of listening to (an instructor) who started the class by firing a blank into the air in the room to try to get our attention and try to scare us. We weren’t allowed to touch guns. The hands-on portion of the class was when he handed around a little cardboard box with bullets in it so that we could see the differences between a .45 and a .22. They weren’t even full cartridges.”
Throughout the day, the class took a few breaks and looked at a variety of aspects of gun ownership, including how to properly fill out concealed-carry permit forms. Peterson said he and his wife took the class together and they kept waiting for something that would help each of them feel ready to own and carry a gun.
“We realized at the end of the class when (the instructor) says ‘OK, we’re done. Go line up, get your form and I’ll sign it on the way out,’ that, hell, we could have come here, dropped off our form, gone to the mall for four hours and come back and just grab our stuff, and nobody would have known…” he said. “I didn’t have to take a test. I didn’t have to do anything. I just had to sit there.”
Two days later, he received his concealed-carry permit.
“The next day, I went to a gun shop in Appleton, I bought a 9mm handgun and I never fired it before and I got a holster. The next day, I gave a presentation on active shooters with the FBI and I was talking to a friend of mine who is the agent I was doing with this…,” Peterson said. “I said, ‘Let me tell you about the week I had. I sat through a free four-hour concealed-carry course where I did absolutely nothing and was told I wasn’t even allowed to touch a handgun while I was there. I got my permit. I then went and purchased a gun I’ve never fired and I legally could be carrying it right now, so my question is, ‘Do you want me as your backup?’ And he laughed loudly and said, ‘Of course not.’”
Since that time, Peterson said he continued his learning process and his proficiency with the weapon by practicing at ranges and going out in public with his concealed firearm.
“I have carried to see what it feels like and it does change the way you walk around,” he said. “It’s a weird sense of confidence that I’m not comfortable with, to be honest with you.”
“I think in certain situations I think somebody’s more likely to get themselves into trouble… especially if you’ve had no training, which I don’t feel like I’ve had any training,” he added.
Peterson also said he knew that even if anyone in his NIU class had been armed, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
“They want to be Dirty Harry,” he said of some overly zealous gun owners he has met. “They want to save the day. Being in that situation there wasn’t much anybody could do, realistically. It happened too quickly.”
“I think it’s easy for a lot of civilians that don’t have that kind of training to think they know what they would do in a situation,” he added. “Just having the weapon doesn’t make you prepared. It’s mental preparation and that comes with training and that comes with experience. So, I’m not going to say that absolutely no civilian could possibly do good. No, it does happen. There are armed civilians that do stop crimes… And that’s great when it happens, but there are numerous cases where it becomes the problem and you have to look at both sides of that.”
As I sit in my office after class, I find myself in an introspective mood.
Why does simply wearing this thing make me feel anxious?
Maybe it’s because I’m literally the “average white guy.” I never had a purple mohawk or anything weird with my hair so I didn’t draw attention that way. I was average looking and I had no real distinguishing features that made people pay attention to me. I wasn’t overly tall or extremely short or extremely skinny or morbidly obese. I wasn’t missing a limb and I didn’t have an extra eye in the middle of my forehead or anything like that.
Also, I never acted in a way that brought attention or knew I had something different about me that would make people look. I wasn’t a star athlete, a class clown, a problem child or anything like that. I liked to think of myself as smart, but smart doesn’t get a whole lot of “Hey, look over here!” attention.
This vest might make people look at me, and I’m not comfortable with the idea of getting attention.
I’m also really sweaty.
I walk down to the main office to shake my head free of those thoughts. I start to talk about all my experiences with our department’s program assistant, and she becomes emotional. She says after she reflected on what I’m doing, it was clear that nothing would really save us if someone came through here. It was also something that she realized never used to be the norm.
I feel bad about the negative effect I’m having on her, so head back to my office. Along the way, a couple students say hi. One gives me a high-five and tells me how much he supports my project.
It’s strange but this is the place I was most worried about and yet most people are like, “Hey, how’s it going. What’s up with the vest?” Like this is the most normal thing in the world. The people I would expect to be less judgmental or fearful like the lady in church just freaked out.
I get ready for the last meeting of the day, a writing session with a player on the UWO women’s volleyball team. The university started a Team Fellows program a few years back, which pairs faculty and staff members with sports teams to help the athletes on anything school related. I love sports and I am into being helpful, so I volunteered for the program a year or so ago.
Each team received three “fellows” from various places on campus, ranging from places like the admissions office to various departments, like journalism, math, geography and more. I know a lot about a lot of sports, a little about most sports and absolutely nothing about volleyball, so naturally, I was a perfect fit for this team.
The athletic department gives each fellow passes to all sporting events, with the hope that we will show up and cheer for the team. I went to several games last year, only to find myself clapping at all sorts of inappropriate times. During one game, I sat next to a couple family members of one of the players and one of them finally asked me, “Do you know anything about volleyball?”
Um… No… But I’m trying to be supportive.
This year was easier, as Zoe became more active in volleyball at her school, so I watched more games and learned more of the rules. That said, the middle-school game and the D-III college game run a bit differently (just a smidge), so I’m still really nowhere with this.
Even with my almost infantile level of understanding about this sport, I have found myself to be more than marginally helpful, in that I understand writing, something with which many students struggle. After I helped one student out with a speech, word got around that I’m not inept, so I have been working with students on their various freshman-level comp papers and Com 105 speeches.
The player stops by about five minutes late, but she’s enthusiastic about getting help. Her previous speech turned out pretty well, even though she had yelled herself hoarse the night before while supporting her team during a match. We sit down across the desk from each other and start picking through requirements of her next speech and her notes on her topic of choice.
We work on this for more than an hour and she never once mentions the vest or looks at me in a weird way.
I keep thinking I really should come to work with a dead clown handcuffed to me and see if any of them would notice.
Near the end of the interview, Peterson gets reflective about where life took him after the shooting. Of all the things that bothered him, one sticks out.
“One thing that has been frustrating since then, every February somebody contacts me, usually from Chicago, because they want to do a ‘Where are they now?’ piece,” he said. “People on social media will reach out and that is beautiful and really touching. But that was actually the first Valentine’s Day my wife and I had together as a married couple. We never really had a Valentine’s Day together because every year it’s kind of overshadowed. So this year, we decided we’re taking it back. It’s been 10 years.”
In those 10 years, Peterson said he has spent a lot of time exploring the various elements of guns, safety, mental health and more with the hope of trying to find common ground between the two polarized sides of the gun debate.
“There is so much middle ground here we just have to get those two loudest wheels (extreme positions) to quiet down so we can actually get something done,” he said. “I really think that’s what holding us back and it is both sides.”
With each subsequent mass shooting, politicians called for “thoughts and prayers” while both extreme sides of the gun debate dug in and relied on their standard talking points. Each time, people would say, “We must do better.” Instead, each time became “next time.”
“After Sandy Hook, I lost a lot of hope,” Peterson said. “When nothing was really getting passed in the legislature about doing anything after a bunch of small children were murdered, I don’t see what could possibly change things and even if they would change now, it’s a day late and a dollar short.”
“With every one of these tragedies there are more and more survivors,” he added. “We are all members of a club we don’t want to be a member of and we don’t want any more members in it.”
Although he desperately wants the shootings to stop, Peterson said he does not want to take away anyone’s guns and he knows simply passing laws won’t solve the problem.
“Gun laws don’t prevent anything,” he said. “Absolutely. Laws don’t prevent anything. It’s that most people agree with them and people agree not to break them. Safety comes from having more good people than bad people.”
“I might be one of the few that actually thinks that I don’t have a problem with people being able to purchase other kinds of firearms,” he added later. “You want an AK-47? I could probably get on board with that but you need to go through a hell of a lot of training. You need to prove a hell of a lot of training and regular background checks. I don’t ever see that happening, but just to show that I don’t want to take anyone’s guns away.”
Peterson said he favors a well-rounded approach, including stronger universal background checks, a registration approach akin to what people do with their automobiles and training that goes beyond the bare minimum.
“I do think we need to make guns harder to get,” he said. “I’m not saying impossible but they shouldn’t be easier to get than Sudafed. I’ve been turned down for buying cold medication more than I have for buying firearms.”
Even if those policies were put into place, Peterson said the goal of zero mass shootings is a pipe dream.
“I’m careful to use the term ‘reduction’ because we live in a country with firearms,” he said. “We live in a country with cars and we have car accidents. A lot. If you’re going to live in a society with firearms, you’re going to have people who get shot whether on accident or sometimes people do it on purpose. When people talk about ‘prevention’ I get what they mean, but that opens the door to criticism because it’s unrealistic, unfortunately. But reduction? We do things to try to reduce car accidents. We do things to the chances of fires. We can do things to try to reduce the chances of mass shootings.”
“I think I’ve been in this kind of journey that I’ve been trying to put myself through on this,” he added. “In learning more about gun culture, learning more about firearms and learning to appreciate them for what they are, demystified a bit, I’m learning that there is a lot more middle ground covered. It’s the extreme views that muddy these waters and that’s what’s keeping things from getting done.”