GAME TIME! AP Style Quiz: Snow-Pocalypse Edition

(It’s like this, but colder and without the weird maze thing.)

In Wisconsin, we rarely get riled up over snow storms, but the one that hit overnight was something that had people freaking out for days. Our area is slated for about 18 inches and then a polar vortex is supposed to drop temps into the negative double digits.

So, with me being trapped in the house, I figured it would be a good excuse to punch down a snow-pocalypse edition of an AP quiz for those of you who are in areas where 50 degrees has the meteorologists telling you to dress in layers. I hope you enjoy pondering our misery, as you ponder these 10 questions.

You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click this link to begin the quiz.

That’s not how anything works: How journalism students can find inspiration in the failures of others

Given the week we had in terms of news, social media, angst and more, I figured we could all use a bit of humor…

When you find yourself struggling with your journalism work and wondering if there will be a job for you at the end of this whole endeavor, cheer up and realize that being even marginally good at writing, reporting and thinking will put you ahead of some of these people.

Graphical Gaffes

You might remember a few years back when Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, used this chart as part of a hearing on Planned Parenthood, in an attempt to show a spike in abortion provision and a drop in cancer screens at the organization’s clinics:

Planned Parenthood

You might also recall that it led to some serious derision by people who understand how graphics are supposed to work. The larger numbers are lower than the smaller numbers in 2013, the lines go in an uninterrupted pattern of incline or decline (something that rarely happens with data) and no data points exist other than the first and last years. Politifact also noted that the chart has no Y axis and one journalist took it a step further, stating, “This is not how charts work!

Here in the great state of Wisconsin, our outgoing governor, Scott Walker, decided to one-up Chaffetz with a graphic intent on explaining how a lame-duck legislative session didn’t really undermine his successor, Tony Evers. Walker, a Republican, provided a Venn Diagram (a term I’m using loosely here) to show that even though he signed off on legislation that shifted power away from Evers, a Democrat, and back to the Republican-led legislature, his powers and Evers’  powers were essentially the same.

This did not go well:


For those of you unfamiliar with how Venn diagrams are supposed to work, consider this simple one:


In other words, the overlap is where things are similar, with the differences being on the outside. I have no idea what Walker’s chart shows, other than this isn’t how charts are supposed to work.


Support, not repeat:

When you put together a paraphrase-quote pairing, the goal is to have a strong paraphrase that establishes who will be speaking and the topic upon which that person will speak. The quote should add value and perhaps even some “spice” to the piece. What you shouldn’t do is give your readers the sense they are living in “Groundhog Day” like this one:


I’m not sure if I should be more worried that the partial quotes are EXACTLY the same as they are in the full quote below, or if the reporter went with “hardcore” and “hard-core” in subsequent paragraphs. I am a freak for hyphenation…


It’s a lead, not an allegory.

Leads are meant to have as much good information packed into them as possible. That said, we tend to think of 25 to 35 words as the range for one of these things. Another tip I often offer is to take a normal human breath and read it aloud. If you feel tight at the end of it, or you run out of breath entirely, you probably need to trim it or cut it.

Try that with this lead and you’ll likely need some smelling salts or CPR:

BOSTON — Celtics guard Kyrie Irving said that in the wake of his outbursts at coach Brad Stevens and forward Gordon Hayward on the court at the end of Saturday’s loss at the Orlando Magic, and pointed criticisms of Boston’s young players afterward, he called LeBron James and apologized for the way he handled criticism from James when the two were teammates in Cleveland.

Not counting the dateline, you’re looking at 63 words or more than double the low end of a solid lead. It wouldn’t take much to get this thing down to that range, particularly if the writer didn’t feel it necessary to outline Irving’s transgressions in granular detail right up top.

Remember, tell people what happened, but don’t overload their brains in doing it.


Wait for it… Keep waiting…

Some stories are so horrifying, it’s hard to get everything into the lead. Not to say that journalists don’t try:

WAUSAU – The Wausau baby sitter charged with killing a 2-month-old boy in her care tried to hide the infant’s death from his mother and then went swimming at a Wausau hotel with her boyfriend and son, police say.

There’s a lot to freak out about here when it comes to the arrest of Marissa Tietsort, (this all happened in Wausau, in case you didn’t get that from the three mentions of it up there) but if you keep reading you’ll find out a few other things that are problematic that get stuck a little too low, like this one in the fifth paragraph:

Tietsort has been in jail since October on a $250,000 cash bond in a separate child abuse case.

Or this, which is about two sentences from the bottom of the nearly 1,000-word story:

In 2010, Tietsort’s boyfriend filed for temporary restraining orders after he told investigators she was abusing their two sons. Records show social services workers have removed four of Tietsort’s children from her care and were unaware that she had given birth to her fifth child.

Annnd this, which is the second-to-last sentence in the whole piece:

Tietsort is now in the Marathon County Jail and pregnant with her sixth child.

I’m thinking this could be information worth knowing a little bit earlier in the story…

It feels kind of like this:


Speaking of placement…

Sometimes stories and images have issues when they are put too close to one another. This is the case in which a criminal investigation and nice feature photo led to a question about what’s in your sandwich:


I’m still not going vegan, but this set up does give me pause.


My name is Forrest… Forrest Management

Typos can really do you in, even if you are the president.


(The tweet was later corrected. That doesn’t make me feel any better. Neither did his “hamberders” tweet. I don’t care which political party you support. I support spelling and editing.)


Good Head + Good Deck – Common Sense = Bad Example

Zombie Motorist

Unless we are fearful of a zombie driver, I think it’s safe to say this guy isn’t going to do this again, Captain Whoeveryouare.


Become a “non-denominational skeptic:” Three follow-up thoughts on the “Covington Catholic kids vs. Native-American drummer” situation

Nothing reduces the overall productivity of my life like watching people I know lose their mind on social media. In the aftermath of the “Covington Catholic kids vs. Native-American drummer” video, the “second” video(s) that purport to show “the real story,” the half-dozen tweeted videos showing high school boys acting badly in the area of the Lincoln Memorial and everyone’s “No, YOU’RE the one who doesn’t get it” posts, it’s a miracle I had time to bash my head repeatedly into my desk and pray for the sweet release of death.

Rest assured, though, that concussion was worth it…

With the hope of salvaging something of value out of that lost time (and head wound), please consider this follow up to yesterday’s post on this topic that might help you as student journalists:


“Pretty Sure” isn’t what we’re aiming for

One of the longest and most difficult arguments I had was with a journalist for whom I have a great amount of respect. She posted an 8-second video found via Twitter that had a young man (I’m guessing teens) say, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it.” The statement is appalling and the behavior inexcusable. Here is the capture of the Tweet:


I have no problem calling the kid out. I have no problem with this video being used to exemplify toxic masculinity. I have no problem if you want to rip on the kid for being a Bengals fan either. However, when pressed about how she knew this kid was part of the group from Covington Catholic High School, here is her response:

Covington Rape 2

So in other words, “What I just stated as a fact doesn’t really have to be a fact if it represents the broader truth I want to call attention to.” My friend noted that this isn’t really a problem:

I also saw in more than one video that those students were wearing MAGA hats mocking that Native man. They may or may not be the same boys who were harassing women, but it fits as a pattern of behavior in the same area on the same day with the same type of attire. Sometimes we can look outside and say it’s raining without having the National Weather Service confirm it.

My concern, however, is that the original post explicitly stated these are COVINGTON STUDENTS. Whether they are or not doesn’t make the “rape” kid’s words any more or less offensive, but if you state something as a fact, it damned well needs to be one. That’s doubly true if you’re a journalist and/or if legal action could come into play.

I doubt the rain would sue for defamation if you called it “drizzle” or the National Weather Service would sue if you didn’t get verify that this wasn’t “mixed precipitation.” However, I could easily see a kid’s parents or a school file suit if you’re wrong on this one.

The point is: If you publish content that states something is a fact, you have to be sure it is a fact. I’m trying to imagine if I had come back to the newsroom at the State Journal and told our managing editor that I was “pretty sure” about something I put into a story that’s now been called into question. Or that “I don’t know if this is true, but I don’t need it to be” for the larger truth I’m trying to tell. I imagine Cliff’s reaction would have been like this, only slightly less nuanced:

If you’re not sure, you haven’t finished the job. Either become sure or don’t publish it as a fact.


Become a “non-denominational skeptic”

It’s easy to call BS on things you don’t like or when information comes from a source you tend to distrust. It’s hard to accept facts when they run contrary to what you want to believe. This is the unfortunate byproduct of living in a society in which people now feel entitled to not only their own opinions and own sources of information but also their own reality. This makes doing objective, fair and factually accurate journalism difficult and exceedingly frustrating.

I’ve interviewed people with whom I share little in common and in some cases for whom I held nothing but contempt. There was a firefighter who handed out anti-gay literature while on the job. There was the leader of a Wisconsin branch of the KKK. There was the head of an organization that pressed back against any attempt to have anything religious near anything secular.

I also interviewed people with whom I empathized, sympathized and just flat-out liked. There was the mother whose 17-year-old daughter died when her car crashed into a tree. There was the owner of a jewelry store who gave away a diamond ring to a less-fortunate woman near Christmas. There was the fire chief who was trying to fire the guy who passed out the anti-gay literature.

That said, whether I liked them or disliked them didn’t matter. My job was to dig and poke and make sure what I put out in the public sphere under my byline was factually accurate. Just because something fit what I perceived to be the truth didn’t mean I should treat it with kid gloves. Also, just because I didn’t like someone’s position on something, it didn’t follow that they were lying about everything.

If you fall into the “trust the nice guy/gal” trap, you can end up like this scene from “Shattered Glass:”

A good way to keep yourself from letting your personal feelings shade your approach to journalism is to become a non-denominational skeptic. (I don’t mean this in the religious fashion, but more in terms of deciding not to pick sides.) Check out EVERYTHING with the same level of vigor. Treat EVERY statement as though it must pass rigorous fact-checking before it is published, regardless of how much you believe it to be the case.

If you treat content provided to you by your best friend and your worst enemy with the same level of skepticism, you’ll make your work much stronger and you’ll worry a lot less about the bottom falling out on you at any point.


Pushing for accuracy is not excusing behavior

“How can you be excusing this behavior?” someone asked me.

The person had taken issue with the fact that I wasn’t ready to fully accept that the kid making the “rape” comment was from Covington Catholic. I also wasn’t going to accept the statement that a group of teenage boys offensively cat-calling a woman were from their either because I didn’t see proof of either statement.

This person’s point was that, in calling for something beyond “the person posting the video said so,” I was essentially saying, “Hey, that’s fine.”

My point was that I needed to know HOW this person came to the conclusion that THIS PARTICULAR group of idiotic twerps was from THAT SPECIFIC school. In the “drumming” video, you could see school apparel on multiple people. In the “rape” video, I didn’t see anything tying the school to the kid. I also saw a mix of teen boys and girls, which struck me as odd, as Covington is an all-boys school. There was also an image in the original video that had a kid wearing gear from another school, so it wasn’t clear they were ALL from Covington.

And as far as the “cat-calling” video, the blur of guys and the 8-second walk-by gave me no sense that this was anything more than the videographer’s assumption these kids were from that school after the “drumming” video went viral.

In no way was I excusing lousy behavior. In no way was I saying that if these kids weren’t from Covington, it was totally cool that they acted like jerks. What I was saying was facts matter, so let’s get them right. If you can show me how you came to that conclusion and I can see your point, fine. I’m with you. If not, I’m not going to extrapolate just because we know the other kids came from that school.

Asking for accuracy doesn’t make you a bad person and isn’t condoning anything.

When you deal with controversial topics or report on sensitive issues, you might have to ask questions that are impolite or that could cause people to chafe a bit. This used to happen to me when I had to report on people who had died and family members were trying to craft a narrative. Asking, “I’m sorry, but I can’t find any proof that Bill won the Congressional Medal of Honor. How are you so sure he did?” when building an obituary can make you feel awkward. I had to ask the mother of that dead 17-year-old if she was aware her daughter was legally drunk while driving, because she had made a statement contrary to that. It sucked.

That said, I had to get stuff right.

If I published a story and erroneously called a man convicted of rape “a convicted murderer,” I would need to run a correction because it’s not true. That doesn’t make me an apologist for the guy. It doesn’t tell the readers, “Hey, this guy’s pretty OK.”

What it says is that I want to get the facts right.

Three things student journalists can learn from the coverage of the Covington Catholic Kids vs. Native-American drummer situation

The video of a white, male high school student wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, facing off against a 64-year-old Native-American man, who was drumming and singing went way beyond “viral” this weekend. In case you missed it, even though I have no idea how that would be possible, here is some background from the early stories on this situation.

From Indian Country Today’s website came one of the first looks at this:

Yesterday, following the first annual Indigenous People’s March in Washington D.C., YouTube user KC NOLAND released a video showing a large group of youths wearing “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hats and other Trump paraphernalia taunting a Native American elder playing a ceremonial drum and singing a song.

According to reports, the youths were in attendance for the March for Life, a pro-life action occurring at the same time as the Indigenous People’s March. According to organizers of the Indigenous Peoples March present for the exchange, Phillips was aggressively surrounded by more than 30 counter-protesters.

Many, like the Washington Post, relied on an Associated Press wire report, to outline the conflict:

The Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday coincided with the March for Life, which drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters, including a group from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills.

Videos circulating online show a youth staring at and standing extremely close to Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American man singing and playing a drum.

Other students, some wearing Covington clothing and many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and sweatshirts, surrounded them, chanting, laughing and jeering.

The New York Times followed with a narrative approach to the story, using movement and tension to lead into the main topic:

They were Catholic high school students who came to Washington on a field trip to rally at the March for Life.

He was a Native American veteran of the Vietnam War who was there to raise awareness at the Indigenous Peoples March.

They intersected on Friday in an unsettling encounter outside the Lincoln Memorial — a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.

The episode was being investigated and the students could face punishment, up to and including expulsion, their school said in a statement on Saturday afternoon.

In video footage that was shared widely on social media, one boy, wearing the red hat that has become a signature of President Trump, stood directly in front of the elder, who stared impassively ahead while playing a ceremonial drum.

What also followed was the news media starting to reconfigure its position a day later, as you can see in this add to the top of the NYT’s original news story:

Interviews and additional video footage have offered a fuller picture of what happened in this encounter, including the context that the Native American man approached the students amid broader tensions outside the Lincoln Memorial. Read the latest article here.

The Times then followed with this story:

A fuller and more complicated picture emerged on Sunday of the videotaped encounter between a Native American man and a throng of high school boys wearing “Make America Great Again” gear outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.

Other media outlets also did something between a backpedal and a retraction, now seeking “nuance” or “a broader understanding” for the incident.  Nick Sandmann, the student who is now infamous for his face-to-face encounter with Omaha elder Nathan Phillips, issued a lengthy statement to media outlets on Sunday, in which he states that he was not mocking or insulting Phillips. A longer video from another vantage point includes the interactions between the students and a third group, which had made hate-filled and racist comments toward the students.

As news consumers, the degree to which you believe any particular position taken by any of the groups or individuals in terms of who did what to whom is entirely up to you. That said, as student journalists, there are three learning moments you can take from the media coverage of this event:


Fast is good, accurate is better

The speed at which this whole story hit mainstream media makes the adrenaline shot in “Pulp Fiction” look measured and nuanced by comparison. The NY Times, the Washington Post and other venerable outlets seemed to run from pillar to post, looking for reaction from everyone who ever touched a keyboard or attended Catholic school.

As that happened, everyone tangentially attached to this, from the school’s administration to the mayor of a city that doesn’t actually contain that school, issued statements condemning the unholy hell out of the students as quickly as possible. People tried to identify as many of the students as possible online. Each outlet appeared to try to add something “extra” to the story, relying on tidbits of varying value.

The problem? A lot of stuff wasn’t accurate. For example, a publication quickly identified the wrong student as being involved in the face-to-face moment, only to have the Lexington Herald Leader issue a correction for the internet at large. In addition, an internet troll claiming to be Nick Sandmann’s mother made disparaging comments via the @gauchoguacamole Twitter account about Native Americans and smallpox, which led to more confusion. Twitter also suspended an account that purported to be from a California teacher, but was not, that made “deliberate attempts to manipulate the public conversation on Twitter by using misleading account information.”

Who was “legit” and who was trying to just mess with people? Nobody seemed to know, but a lot of it managed to leak into varying media outlets on the web. Even more, the Times and others tried to excuse themselves from their roles in this disaster-bacle by stating “a fuller and more complicated picture emerged.” (Saying something “emerged” is a nice way of absolving yourself of something and roughly translates to, “Hey, we didn’t find everything necessary to understand the whole story, but now that everything is a toxic waste dump out there, let’s slow up and take another shot at this.”)

Even the March for Life, the organization the students arrived to support, had to issue a statement backing off of its original condemnation, noting, “We will refrain from commenting further until the truth is understood.”

That’s a pretty good policy for people in general and journalists in particular: Don’t write something if you don’t know it to be accurate. It’s easy to figure, “Hell, the information is out there so it MUST be true enough to use for my piece,” but that’s not how journalism works. Your job is to find out what actually happened, write as much of it as you possibly can in a coherent and accurate way and, when you’re sure your work is ready to undergo the crucible of public scrutiny, publish it.

If you can do all that quickly, fine. If not, slow down and get it right first.


The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish

One of the big debates online was if the students in the video, particularly Sandmann, should be identified. Some media outlets chose not to do this, while others seemed to treat this as sport:


(It’s “Allegedly Racist Pokemon!” Gotta catch ’em all!)

One particularly long Twitter thread outlines the way in which the author got information on Sandmann and then chose not to “out” him by name. The rambling (and somewhat sanctimonious) nature of this thread aside, the author does bring to bear a bigger issue: Just because you get the information, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should publish it.

Each time you write a story, you are actively engaging with the material in a way that leads to a particular “frame.” You provide your readers with certain information and discard other information that may not see the light of day anywhere else. In many cases, these choices are easy or run very little risk.

However, in cases like these, you can find yourself battling different instincts. You want to add something to a story, but you don’t want to hurt someone. You want to shine a light on something important, but you aren’t sure about the quality of a source. You feel pressure to “get the story out” but you don’t know if you have adequately considered all the ramifications of your actions.

Those thoughts, and others like them, are all completely normal and do not make you a bad journalist. In fact, they make you a pretty good human being.

This doesn’t mean you should be a wimp when it comes to your reporting, nor does it mean you should go all Vic Mackey from “The Shield” on people. Report to the best of your ability and ask whatever questions you need to get as much information as you can. However, before you put anything before the public, review what you have and decide how important you think it is. Then, make choices about what gets published and what doesn’t. Just because you got the information doesn’t mean you should publish it. That’s what we call editorial discretion.


Objectivity is still an admirable goal

This is a truly odd time to be a journalist. The term “fake news” gets tossed around a lot. The public seems to have less trust in us than at any other point in recent history. Media outlets (and I use that term loosely) do not always abide by the same ethical and professional norms you learned in your Intro to Mass Media class. “Everyone” is an expert and yet “nobody” knows what they’re talking about. The idea of “gathering information from all sides” seems quaint to some and almost villainous to others. To say, “I’m not sure yet” or “We need to hear from everyone” will sound to some people like you’re an apologist, a coward or a hypocrite.

Don’t worry about all that. Stick to the basic tenets of journalism and you’ll be fine.

Objectivity is like perfection: You will never truly attain it. However, as Vince Lombardi once noted, it’s important to relentlessly pursue it, because you’ll get something pretty good along the way: Excellence. It can seem pointless to hold back a name if “everyone” is publishing it or to “balance” a story when the truth seems so clear.

That said, journalists are paid to be fact-finders and skeptics. The job is to be nosy, find the facts and give them to your readers and viewers. They may not like it and they may not entirely believe you because “other people” have said more or have woven in stronger bits of unsubstantiated content. However, when you turn out to be right more often than not and the other sources implode, thanks to their own hubris, people will come around.

When is a smile a smirk? When is a cheer a jeer? When is contact a confrontation? I have no idea, but what I did know was that some people extrapolated based on their own preconceptions and ended up regretting it later.

The goal here is not to pick sides and fight for only the people on it. You need to figure out what happened and report the content. In a standard news article, you should stick to the facts, gather as many of them as you can and present them to your readers in the most direct way possible. Then, THEY can decide for THEMSELVES if the kid was smirking or trying to defuse a situation or if the noises the students were making were in the furtherance of school pride or blatant racism.

You’re not Superman. You’re Clark Kent.

First-Person Target: Day 6, Wednesday: “No one has ever been convinced to be a better person by being told what a horrible person they are.”

This is the final 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.

(To understand the “rules” I set up for myself in regard to wearing the vest and conducting the interviews, click here.)

The previous installments are here:


I know this is the last day in the vest, which makes today feel better than the other days of the week. Usually, time flies by each week, but it really seemed to drag for the past six days. Part of that is the lack of sleep, mainly due to the anxiety of “OK, what’s going to happen now?” Part of it is that I don’t know if this whole thing was going to lead to anything worth writing.

My 8 a.m. class gets a second look at me in the vest. When I walk in, the class is chatting and it just feels more normal. One kid notices I’m wearing an “I Voted!” sticker.

“Did you really wear that to vote?”


“NO WAY! What happened?”

“Nobody said anything. It didn’t look like anyone noticed or cared.”

A young woman up front looks at me with a “voice of experience” expression and says, “You’ll hear about it later. It’s a small town. That’s how it works in a small town.”

Class is relatively uneventful, although the heat seems to be lower this time in the room than it was the first time. I’m almost entirely sure that it isn’t the room, but rather my lowered anxiety that makes me feel more comfortable.

After class, I hunker down in my office to prepare some presentations for a daylong workshop I am doing with journalism students at Stoughton High School the next day. I agreed weeks earlier to work with a friend of mine to help the teacher there help the publications staff. Student media has always been a big part of my life, and I’m really looking forward to this opportunity to help these kids out.

It is a weird fluke that this seminar hit at the end of when I wanted to do this bulletproof vest project.  thought about wearing it the full seven days, which would include this field trip. However, I realized that a) the last thing these kids needed was to see someone they didn’t know wandering into their classroom in a bulletproof vest and b) my presentations tend to be hard enough to follow without them wondering if I was the crazy person they had been trained to avoid since their first ALICE drill.



Kelly Furnas spent six years working as the executive director of the Journalism Education Association when he realized he missed working with student media. He took his current job at Elon University in North Carolina back in 2016, which gave him the opportunity advise the student newspaper, TV station and website.

“That was one of the highlights of taking this job,” he said. “As much as I really, really loved the job at JEA, and being able to work on a national scale, I realized I was doing a lot more administration and no teaching and I really missed interacting with students, so now it’s full-time teaching and advising student media, which was sort of the dream job.”

Furnas’ first job full-time job at a university ran from 2005 to 2010, when he advised student media at Virginia Tech, an experience that placed him at the forefront of what remains the deadliest shooting at a U.S. college. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on campus before committing suicide. The attack wasn’t the first of its kind, but it made Virginia Tech the collegiate equivalent of Columbine for many people.

Furnas was 30 years old at the time and less than two years into his first media advising job when he had to ask a newsroom full of students with little experience to cover the deaths of their friends and classmates.

“In the moment, there was simply no time to process anything,” he said. “Even the scale of the shooting… We kept hearing the death toll increasing throughout the day and we didn’t really learn until the afternoon what the final death toll was… It is interesting to me to realize now how numb I was to those numbers because they were incomprehensible at the time.”

The following days and nights became a fleeting blur of reporting, writing and publishing while simultaneously giving interviews to national media outlets, working through their own grief and consuming copious amounts of pizza that news agencies throughout the country sent to the Collegiate Times newsroom. The paper won a Pacemaker Award, often viewed as the Pulitzer Prize of college journalism, for its work that year, specifically the content produced in the wake of the shooting.

“It’s striking to me today to think about how I just continued to go about my business that day because we were so high on adrenaline and we were so caught up in the moment that we weren’t actually reflecting at all,” Furnas said.

It wasn’t until months later that the full impact of what his students went through actually took hold, Furnas said. People who live through a traumatic situation tend to have a specific memory, such as a sound or a smell, that remains carved into their minds for years to come. In Furnas’ case, it wasn’t anything associated with the Virginia Tech shooting, but another attack altogether.

“The picture in my mind that I go to a lot is actually months later: Feb. 14, 2008 when the shootings at Northern Illinois happened,” he said. “I remember walking into the newsroom and we had the TV going and CNN or whoever was covering it and I remember my students all paralyzed, just frozen, mouths open, staring at the television. That is seared in my memory, this idea that these 18-to-22-year-olds who had just lived through this horrific event were now essentially reliving the trauma.”



One of my former students stops by for a conversation about something else, and she notices what I’m wearing. She gets kind of a “You OK?” look on her face and then asks if I’m able to talk about something with her class schedule for the next term.

Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, she decides to ask somewhat quietly, “So, what exactly are you wearing?”

I go through the same routine I’ve gotten into over the past week and she tells me how cool that sounds as a project. I explain that it’s been anything but cool, but at least nobody has taken a shot at me yet and that I’m almost done.

As this student is leaving, she bumps into one of her friends from her sorority. That student enters my office and asks point blank, “Why are you wearing a bulletproof vest? I heard you say you would talk about it if people asked, so I’m asking.”

As I explain this to her, she doesn’t seem to flinch at all. Almost everyone else kind of had some kind of change of emotion. For her, it feels kind of like something she would normally expect to see.

“How did you know it was a bulletproof vest?” I ask.

“I’ve grown up around guns,” she says. “I’ve been shooting since I was a kid.”

We talk at length about her experiences and it is fascinating to me, given that she never struck me as a person who would have a background with firearms. She says she knows how to load, fire and clean a variety of weapons and that she was always taught to respect the guns.

She says she has family in both the armed services and law enforcement and that she has guns in her family home back where she is from. Although she comes from a more conservative background, she says the bigger issue for her is a general respect for the law and what a gun represents in regard to safety and responsibility.

“It’s not about politics or whatever, it’s about what’s up here,” she says, pointing at her head.

Her father serves in the Air Force and is away from home for long stretches of time, so when her father is away, he gives her access to the gun at home, she says, and she keeps it under her bed.

Once, she says, she heard something that sounded like someone breaking in. She had the gun under her bed and she contemplated her options. It turned out to be her brother trying to sneak in to the house, but it did give her pause.

The bigger concern for her, she says, is her uncle.

“The thing with him is that he got a concealed carry and he doesn’t have it just in case,” she says. “He has it to basically gloat.”

It is an interesting dichotomy: She says she would feel totally comfortable around her father if a gun were on the table in front of the two of them, but fearful if it were her uncle instead of her dad.

She mentions that she was thinking about getting a concealed-carry permit because newer reporters tend to end up on the crime beat and she might end up in a new city and have to enter some less-than-savory parts of town.

I think back to a documentary I saw about Miami in the 1970s and 1980s during the days of the “cocaine cowboys.” A journalist interviewed in it said she never went anywhere in the city during that time period without a gun. I also remember one of the newsroom veterans back at the Wisconsin State Journal telling me a story about a long-gone police reporter who carried a two-shot derringer and a six-pack of beer in her purse.

We finish up our discussion about the vest and get onto something more important, namely her need for some kind of general-education elective to help her graduate. We pick through her transcripts and look for some options.

As she leaves, she says, “I’d really like to read what you write when you get it done.”

I tell her if I ever actually got this done, I’ll send her a link.



More than a decade after the Virginia Tech shooting, Furnas finds security in his ability to balance a need for heightened awareness with his ability to rationally examine the reality of his surroundings.

“I do feel safe…,” he said, pausing before continuing in a measured and thoughtful tone. “It hasn’t changed for me since 2007. I tend to look at the statistics and I try to take emotion as much out of it as possible. I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to focus on my fears or let the fears kind of control how I interact with the public or how I limit my activities. I imagine there is a significant portion of that that is the benefit of being a white male and I’m acutely aware of that. It’s why I’m always hesitant to take my own feelings of safety and try to apply those to policy or how other people should feel.”

The work his newspaper students did to unpack the “why” elements behind the attack helped him more broadly examine the issues of guns, mental health and safety, he said. The state produced an extensive report regarding the attack, which included an analysis of the shooter prior to the event. The content there makes it clear the shooter “fell through the cracks” when it came to mental health issues, background checks and more, Furnas said.

“That certainly has changed how I think about my own responsibilities in terms of interacting with others,” he said. “If someone seems like they could be harmful to themselves or to others it’s not enough to just say, ‘Oh, they’re probably having a bad day.’ That probably weighs on me more than anything now, I really do think, ‘What is the right course of action?’ or ‘How can I get them help if they need help?’”



I’m heading out the door around 2:30 to pick up the carpool kids from Zoe’s school, when I stop by the main office and run into our program assistant. She asks if anyone talked to me about the vest or if anyone has stopped by with concerns.

“Not really. I had a couple conversations after class but nothing much. Why?”

“Some people were wondering if you had gone off the deep end.”

Apparently, multiple students expressed concerns to at least one professor in the department about me and if I had some sort of a mental breakdown. They spent their lives preparing for active shooters, so apparently seeing me geared up had them on edge.

She knew what was going on because I told her about my intent before I started the project. She explained to the concerned faculty and students that I wasn’t any more crazy than usual and that I was doing this as a project. She says she encouraged them to talk to me about it.

Nobody did.

I tell her that I’m interested in what they wanted to say and why they didn’t come to me. I suggest fear as a rationale.

She says it’s strange that we talk around this issue but we don’t really raise the issue in any meaningful way. We agree to talk about it at some point later.


About a week after I stop wearing the vest, I end up needing something or other from the main office, so I walk down the hall only to find the door locked, with our program assistant inside doing something or other. Usually, if she’s in there, the door is open unless she’s taking a sensitive phone call or talking with someone privately.

I look at my keys and look at her to see if it’s something I need to leave her alone for or if she’s OK with me just coming in.

She opens the door for me and says, “I need to talk to you.”

My Catholic guilt kicks in.

“I’m sorry. What did I do?”

“You didn’t do anything. Remember about a month ago when you had me look into the journalism library?”

Last month, I noticed a kid in our library, which is just across from my office, listening to headphones by himself in the dark. He was walking back and forth and back and forth, occasionally making an odd sound or talking to himself or something.

The kid was rail thin, with a really short, utilitarian haircut. He had dark hair and really wide-open eyes. He was wearing a T-shirt and had kind of a hyper-aware look on his face.

Think Sheldon Cooper if he were hopped up on speed.

I said something about being in the dark, flipped on the lights and asked him if he was OK. It wasn’t abnormal for kids to be in the reading room by themselves or even just sit in there in the dark. My issue was that I didn’t know who this kid was and I’ve taught almost everyone in the J department at least once, so I felt like he shouldn’t be there.

I got an odd vibe off him, but I kind of shook it off at the time as he reminded me of a student I knew who was on the autism spectrum.  I was just like, “This room is for journalism folks only and I don’t know you so I wonder if you belong here.”

I went down to see our program assistant and asked if she’d poke her head in at the time. She did in and the kid immediately left. I didn’t see him again that day, so I figured he was just gone. She said she didn’t recognize him, but we’d keep an eye out.

Today, she was in her office which shares a wall with the library and she heard some banging around so she went over there.  She found the door locked, the lights out and this kid was in there walking around, listening to his headphones and talking to himself. She unlocked the door and asked why the door was closed and what he was doing in there.

He kind of half answered her about that, so she asked for his name and he said Tyler something or other.

They then had a brief exchange about how this was for journalism students and he left.

He then came to her office and confronted her about asking for his name and why she cared that he was in there. She says it really freaked her out which is why when he left, she closed the door and call the university police.

I sit down and offer to hang out in there with her for an hour or more. I will get my laptop and just work in there for a bit until we are sure everything had blown over, I tell her. She says thanks, but no thanks. It is just that the kid gave her the willies because of the confrontation and she has been thinking about safety more since I started the vest project.

I’m about to get up, but just then, I look at the glass wall that abuts her door and see a person look like they are coming down the hall toward the door. However, the person sees me and jumps back away from the door in the direction from which he or she came. I can’t see the person’s face because the wall has all sorts of posters on it, but in the space between the artwork, I make out a skinny body in a reddish-pink shirt.

“I think he just tried to come in here,” I tell her. “But I couldn’t see his face. I did see his shirt. Was it red?”

“Pinky red, yeah,” she says. “That was him.”

Now we’re both essentially holding the fort in a locked office and neither of us is particularly enjoying the level of anxiety in there. I keep talking to her to keep the air moving in the office. Eventually, I get up and peer down the hallway through the wall of windows to see if he is lurking. I can’t see him, but there is a student lounge area about 20 feet away and it is hidden from my vantage point.

I ask if she wants me to stay and she says no, but as I get up to leave, I tell her I’ll take the long way back to my office so I can look into the lounge and see if the kid is still there.

She closes and locks the door behind me.

I get going down the hall and right when I get to the point where I can see into the lounge, I spot the kid sitting in a chair that is close to the hallway where I was walking. He spots me, so I pretend not to notice him. I think about doubling back to the main office, but then I reconsider: If the kid is going to do something, going back might set him off.

I walk calmly to the end of the hall and then I start hustling down each subsequent hallway to get to my office so I can call the main office and tell her about the kid.

I make the final turn down the last hall toward my office, doing this “walk-run” thing where I’m trying to move quickly without doing a full sprint. I see the program assistant coming toward me and we both go right into my office and I close the door.

“He was in the lounge,” I tell her and then I essentially stop hearing everything she said to me in response as my mind started racing.

“Entrances and exit. Where are they?”

“Is my door locked?”

“What do I have in here that I can beat the shit out of him with if he tries to do something?”

I snap back to reality when she sits down and asks if she should call the police again or not.

I err on the side of caution and encourage her to make the call.

“You’re not wrong about your gut feeling,” I tell her. “You’re not wrong.”

Over and over, I tell her at various points, “You’re not wrong.”

It’s like a mantra, an affirmation and a prayer all at the same time.

It feels like we’re in the office for about 7,023 hours, but I know it isn’t more than five minutes. She calls UPD and relays what happened, noting her earlier call. They say they’re sending officers right over.

I sit facing my door, which has a long, thin window in it, made of some sort of plexiglass. Like most faculty, I covered it up so that people can’t look in on me, but there are gaps in the coverage because I used baseball and football cards to block the window out.

It always felt like a personal touch. At this point in time, it is an impediment. I can half see movement outside the office door. I see the red shirt flash by.

I go over to the door and pull out one of the cards so I have a peep hole through which I can see at a distance. I watch people move back and forth as the class “passing period” has students streaming through the hallway.

Suddenly, there is a face at the door.

It is one of my students stopping by for office hours. I open the door and she apologizes and says she didn’t know I had someone in here.

I give the PA a look like, “Do you want me to tell her to go away or…?” She shakes me off and gets up. As the PA leaves, she turns to go to her office and then she turns back toward the library, which is right across the hall. She is followed by two police officers who arrived. I start to feel better about her not staying in my office.

As I edit, I’m half paying attention to what’s happening across the hall when the kid in the red shirt walks past my office.

I froze. Now what?

The officers emerge from the library and I hear one of them, in her best “loud-but-not-yelling” voice say, “Why don’t we just go into this room and talk?” She’s followed by her partner and somebody closes the door.

After I edit the student in my office, another one shows up for help. I go through the edits with him and, again, I am trying to be normal.

A short time later, the cops are done, the kid in the red shirt is gone and I go to see our program assistant. She is locked in her office again with another faculty member. I don’t disturb her and I go back to my office to prep for an interview later that day.

About five minutes later, the program assistant shows up in my office doorway. Turns out the kid lied to her about his name and freaked out when he saw the cops.

He’s actually a student in some other department, she says, and police explained to him that since this isn’t his area of study, he should stay out of the room. Also, he probably should stop doing whatever the hell he’s doing that freaks us out (I’m sure there’s more to it than that in a legal sense).

In the end, it remains unclear if that kid is a threat or or if he has a spectrum disorder or if he’s just socially awkward.  I still have no idea.

Suddenly, I realize that I had about 10 minutes to answer two emails and get to the interview with a source for this project. I make it there on time, but I am a mental wreck and the adrenaline drain has my head pounding. Fortunately for me, he is about 10 minutes late, so I have enough time to get my head together and prepare for the interview.

The next couple hours were a blur, with me barely making it to carpool pickup on time.

When we got home, Zoe asks if she can check the mail. As she heads to the mailbox, I enter the house through the garage as our mini-Schnauzer, Maggie, is yapping and bouncing and yapping and bouncing.

She heads to the back door where we have a tether for her to “go outside.” I also realize I need a restroom break, so I clip her leash to the tether and head for our powder room.

CCW Permit Letter

When I get done, I sort through the mail: a couple catalogs, some junk mail and an official looking envelope addressed to me.

I absentmindedly open it as I walk to the door to let the dog in.

“Holy crap,” I say to no one in particular.

My concealed-carry permit has arrived.




Right after the Virginia Tech shooting, Furnas became a de facto “must have” for high school and college media conventions. I remember planning sessions for the first big college media conference after the shooting and I felt like it was a major coup to get him and at least one of his editors to speak about their experiences.

The room we scheduled for them was about the size of a 100-person pit classroom and it was packed with students and advisers. As they spoke, the silence in the room felt both tense and yet respectful as every word they uttered soaked deeply into the minds of the attendees.

At that time, Furnas’ experience bordered on the unique and getting him as a speaker was like having a unicorn at your zoo. In the years that passed, however, his sessions became crucial because more people had experienced mass shootings and student journalists realized they needed to learn how to cover them.

His sessions became less “unique speaker,” and more “how to,” something that has weighed on Furnas.

“I think part of that is just knowing that things were happening that were pretty horrific before 2007 and things have continued to happen since 2007 that have been pretty horrific and that lets me know that experiences that I had were not unique,” he said.

Furnas said he pitched a session to a high school convention in Chicago, which would have been the first large student journalism conference after the Parkland shootings. He called it “Covering the Unimaginable,” and he saw it as a way to help high school students cover any tragedy that affected their schools, not just mass shootings. As he prepared the presentation, he said he experienced an unexpected reaction when he tried to look into the coverage of various shootings.

“I really don’t want this to sound callous…,” he said. “What I found was I could not research other school shootings. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to see how the coverage was of them. It wasn’t like an overwhelming sadness or upset or frustration. It just was I couldn’t do it. I started googling coverage of this shooting or that shooting or that shooting and I would get to the headline and get to the lead and say, ‘Mmm. OK. I don’t want to go any further.’ I really wish I could nail down exactly what the emotion was that was keeping me from doing it but I couldn’t.”

“Quite frankly when I hear about a mass shooting I read the headline and I mention it to my wife and that’s about it,” he added. “That’s about all I can handle at this point. It’s obviously overwhelmingly sad and it’s frustrating and it makes you angry and upset but it’s also just like not where my energy can be. I think every single time that happens I think back to my students and what they went through and maybe that’s part of it.”

In the middle of explaining this, he paused and emitted kind of half of a laugh, as if he had realized something about himself.

“I’m kind of working through all of this as I’m talking to you,” he said.

While he found the activism of the students in Parkland inspirational, Furnas said he doesn’t have the same desire.

“I keep it at arm’s length,” he said. “I think that’s probably the most accurate way to say that. When other tragedies happen, I get a little sad, I get a little frustrated, but I’m not interested in it. I’m not overly compelled to seek out more information… I’ve done enough of a deep dive into one of those that I feel like I don’t want to do that over and over and over again.”



I’m half asleep on the couch, planning to coast to the end of the project when Amy sidles up next to me with the “I love you because I need you to go out and get something from the store…” smile on her face.

Thanks to the doctor’s visit I need to get some foot stuff, along with whatever it is she needs, so I grab the vest from the back of a kitchen chair, make a list and head to town.

Somewhere along the way, the sky begins to emit a “mixed precipitation,” so after I park the car, I put on a knit cap in hopes of keeping my head relatively dry.

The store isn’t that crowded and most of the stuff is easy to find. It’s a quick run through the store until I have to check out.

The kid at the checkout counter has green hair and has these green deely bopper head things on. She scans everything but pushes the beer to the back of the conveyor, as she is too young to ring it up. As she waits for something resembling an adult to scan the alcohol, I start feeling warm so I unzip my jacket, exposing the vest as the line continues to grow behind me

“What does that mean?” she asks, rather loudly.

I figure she saw the vest and the “Second Chance” logo on it. Before I could answer, she points at my cap

“Carhartt. What is that?”

“Just a brand,” I tell her as the woman who is supposed to ring up the beer walks past us for at least the third time.

The line grows longer and people are starting to mutter under their breath. The guy behind me wearing a UPS uniform keeps nudging his items closer to the scanner, as if that is going to help anything.

He has two packs of gum and four sticks of deodorant. I have no idea why I notice that.

I tell the checkout kid to just put the beer back, but she says, no, because the person is probably coming right now and that she will get in trouble if she does that.

In the meantime, I find myself even more uncomfortably awkward than usual and it has nothing to do with the vest. I hate people who hold up the line, so doing it to others really bugs me. Whenever I’ve got someone in front of me who decides to strike up a conversation with a cashier or pay for a Snickers with a third-party check, I feel like my soul is going to emerge from my body as a screaming ball of green energy and explode.

I don’t really even care about the beer, so I’m standing here keeping people from going about their daily lives for no real reason. I’m also pissed at myself for not finding a cashier who looked older than 12 before I chose my lane.

Sure enough, two seconds later, the woman returns from her fourth full tour of Walmart’s entire cashier bank and rings up the beer.

As everyone behind me shuffles forward, I pack up my stuff and leave as quickly as I can.



I mentioned to Furnas that people involved in traumas often remember small things about them or they feel subtle alterations to their daily lives. He said he felt a few moments like that, even though he’s a dozen years and a few career stops away from the incident on the Blacksburg campus.

“The shooter had chained the doors shut in Norris Hall, where he did most of the shootings so that people couldn’t escape,” Furnas said. “That is certainly something I notice now when I walk into a building or walk into a business and they have those same door styles… And that was a big push at Virginia Tech afterwards. They essentially got rid of all of those doors.”

“I wouldn’t say I avoid those buildings or I’m more scared in those buildings, but it definitely something I observe more,” he added. “I know it seems like a small thing, but it’s one of the things that is now heightened in my senses.”

Furnas said general awareness meant as simple safety precautions benefits people in every walk of life, regardless of the situation.

“They’ll tell you that the difference between people who go through a traumatic event like this and have a higher chance of survival higher chances of being able to get out of it are the ones who have thought about it before they walk into a room,” he said. “You can argue whether this is a sad state of affairs or not, but I think more people should think that way and just be more aware of their surroundings and not be just be so self-absorbed as to think that everything around me is just going to take care of itself and I don’t need to look both ways before crossing a street or know where the exits are when I enter a building.”

Elon is a private institution, and it doesn’t allow people to carry weapons on campus, and Furnas said he isn’t sure if any groups on campus are pushing to change this policy. One thing he is sure of is that it isn’t just people who were directly involved in mass shootings and the people closest to them who suffer as a result of an attack.

“I think the one thing I can say with a pretty high level of certainty is that when traumatic events like this happen there is an emotional impact that ripples throughout even the thinnest of connections…,” he said. “I was not in any building the shooter was at, I was never really in harm’s way, one of my students was injured but none of my students was killed and I was still shaken by it.”



My last stop of the night is to drop off some things at my mother-in-law’s place, a newer assisted-living community just on the outskirts of Omro. About seven years ago, she had a stroke that deprived her of movement on her left side, so she spends much of her time in a wheelchair now or in her lift-assist recliner.

As I walk to the front door of Country Villa, I can see a few of the older residents congregating in the living area across from the kitchen, watching some rerun of an old TV show I don’t recognize. I punch in the access code at the front door and quickly swing it open so I can grab the cabinet my mother-in-law asked me to bring and make it inside the door in one fluid motion. I put the cabinet down on the floor and pull on the closing door, fighting the pressure hinge in it to make it close faster.

You get 15 seconds to unlock the door, get inside and close the door before the alarm goes off. Several of the residents have dementia issues, so they tend to wander, which requires the facility to be locked down. If they try to get out or if the door stays open too long, a computerized voice will call out to the staff, “FRONT DOOR! FRONT DOOR! FRONT DOOR!” This continues until someone with an override code shuts it off.

I move down the hall past the kitchen and to my mother-in-law’s room, knocking on the slightly ajar door before entering. She’s sitting in her wheelchair, doing something or other at the desk in her room.

We chat as I bring in the cabinet and rearrange some of her furniture to make it fit properly. I also fix a couple of her electronic gizmos and set her clock back an hour to account for daylight savings time.

Somewhere in the middle of this, I start sweating profusely, so I take off my jacket.

She points at my vest and has a quizzical look on her face.

“How is the project going?” she asks, clarifying for me what Amy told her and what she remembers.

“It’s almost done. The hard part, anyway. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this or where to go next with it.”

“You’ll figure it out.”

She pauses and then smiles.

“I’m just tickled pink that you’re doing this,” she says. “I think it’s really incredible.”

We talk a bit more before I look back at the clock I reset to realize it’s almost 9 p.m. and I had promised Amy I would unclog the shower drain today because water was backing up into the tub.

“I gotta go, Mom,” I say as I pull my jacket back on.

“Goodnight, sweetheart.”

I close her into her room and walk to the exit. Nothing has changed in the living area, other than the episode of whatever TV show is on that I still can’t identify.

Time to go home and be done.

For now.



Like most of the people interviewed for this project, Furnas doesn’t have a magic answer for how to solve the issues of fear, safety and mass shootings in this country. However, his perspective on where we are as a country provided more than a glimmer of hope that this isn’t as hopeless as it seems.

“We’re not that far apart,” he said. “The problem is, we seek out the most divergent viewpoints. We as journalists especially — and this isn’t just gun control or this isn’t just school shootings or mental health or whatever— Every single time we have a topic, we find the most polar opposite view points and we say let’s have the two of us engage. Or we do a poll and say, here are your two options. How incredibly ignorant is that to say that a solution a problem as complex as this is going to find a solution on the fringes or by checking box one or two.”

One of the key things journalists learn at the beginning of their careers is to find “both sides” of an issue, which often means playing to the extremes or providing what we are now calling “false equivalency.” In other words, if we have someone who says that humans need breathable air to survive, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we need to find people from the “anti-breathing establishment” to outline a polar-opposite position.

“I think there are incredibly intelligent people who have very nuanced opinions in the middle…,” Furnas said. “I think you can actually have really intelligent conversations if you find those people and you engage those people.”

Furnas illustrated this point in recalling a time at Virginia Tech when online readers clashed over a story regarding firearms.

“I distinctly remember the Collegiate Times had a story online about gun control… and at that time our comment section was very, very vigorous,” he said. “Someone threw out what would now be a pretty standard online comment bashing liberals and in all the poetic language you can use to describe a liberal, saying they’re just pansies, they’re snowflakes, they don’t understand that this is a right and I think that’s how the comment ended, they just don’t understand. Someone replied to them and said, ‘I agree with a lot of what you’re saying but the problem is they’ll never understand when you talk to them that way.’”

“If you are beginning a conversation with anyone by undermining them as a human being, not just disagreeing with their viewpoint but undermining them as a human being and saying you are a snowflake, you are a gun nut, you are whatever fun little phrase I can throw at you that I heard on late-night TV, you’re done,” he added. “That’s the end of the argument. There’s no convincing someone. No one has ever been convinced to be a better person by being told what a horrible person they are. You get convinced to be a better person because you care about the people on the other side of the view point. I think that’s how you hopefully begin to have conversations or have maybe even solutions.”

First-Person Target: Day 5, Tuesday: “People who have a carry permit are just like anybody else.”

This is the fifth 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.

(To understand the “rules” I set up for myself in regard to wearing the vest and conducting the interviews, click here.)

The previous installments are here:



I wake up to a sound that isn’t my alarm, but is just as persistent. I pull back the red curtain that covers the window above the head of our bed to peek outside. The source of the semi-rhythmic noise becomes apparent quickly.

It’s raining like hell. Great.

As I pull myself out of bed, I think of the three things I need to do today: Teach, go to the doctor and vote. All three things will require me to be in public wearing the vest. I am feeling relatively normal about this at this point, so the anxiety was less palpable every moment of the day, but each new experience brings with it some additional potential for concern. On the drive to work, I think a lot about what the students in the class said on Monday: The presence of something makes you aware of it and that also leads you to fear it.


My 8 a.m. class today is the quieter of the two groups I teach at this hour of day. I am scheduled to deliver the same lecture to them today as I did for Monday’s group, so there is some normalcy in the repetition. The idea of new people seeing me wear this thing makes me think it still wouldn’t be completely normal.

As I did the day before, I ask if anyone had any questions and, as it was the day before, nobody asks about anything.

I do the lecture in the first hour, interacting heavily with the students on the topic of advertising. I teach in small-group settings of about 15 students per class, so I not only get to know them, I’m able to remember basic details about their interests and goals. This helps me call them out when we talk about a topic like fashion or baseball. Even when they’re staring right at me, they seem to be just as engaged or disengaged as they normally are.

Just before I give them the break at the hour mark, I ask again if anyone has any questions.

No one asks anything.

Honest to God, I think to myself, I’m getting handcuffs and a dead clown.

We finish class with a couple minutes before the release time and one kid finally pipes up:

“What’s up with that vest? Is that really a bulletproof vest?” Her question sounds more like a natural curiosity than a suspicion of mental illness.

Several students gather near the podium at the front of the room and talk with me about the vest and the project while the others practically dive into their phones, as they start texting or popping in their earbuds.

As we are finishing up our discussion, one of them says, “I really support your project, Dr. Filak. Let me know how it goes.”

Another student asks how long this project has been going on, so I explain when I was stopping it and why I’m not going the full week. She says it’s interesting that I won’t wear it to a high school, given that in her estimation, a school is where most shootings occur.

As I walk out of the room, two students who are always joined at the hip walk out with me toward my office and they continue to ask questions.

Finally, I say, “Why didn’t you ask me these questions when you first noticed the vest?”

Kid 1: “I figured you were doing something and that you’d mention it.”

Kid 2: “Yeah, I didn’t want to be the one to ask a question.”

Me: “Why not? You’re a journalist.”

Kid 2: (shrugs) “I don’t know. I just didn’t really, y’know…”

This conversation sticks with me for the rest of the morning for a number of reasons. First, as journalism students, these people are learning to notice things and ask questions about them. Nosy is part of the job description.

Second, I wonder if we had trained an entire generation to ignore things that might be foreign to them or that might force them to speak about something uncomfortable. I’m starting to worry that they’ll all just keep their heads down, staring into their phones and hoping whatever is going on right in front of them isn’t a problem.



Nate Nelson arrived at Oshkosh’s only Panera restaurant for an interview on a topic in which he possesses both a passion and an expertise. An ill-timed phone call from work had him running a few minutes late, something that seemed to irk him, as making good on his promise to be there on time clearly mattered to him.

Nelson strikes a towering figure at well over 6 feet tall with a broad frame that carries 280 pounds. His face sports a well-groomed reddish-orange beard and a wide smile that often emits a burst of laughter throughout the two-hour conversation.

When offered a choice of a table or a booth, he selected a small two-person spot in a hidden alcove, away from the busier and more crowded portions of the dining area.

“Given what we’re talking about, we probably want to be out of the way,” he said as he slowly eased his barrel-chested body into the booth portion of the corner spot.

Nelson sipped from a large iced coffee, half of which is cream, as he answered questions about his work as a certified firearms instructor, the precipitating causes of mass shootings and how tough it is to talk about guns in America today.

“I guess to me I’m used to getting involved in conversations with people who are boisterous and over the years I’ve learned to temper my own feelings and thoughts and just take it to ‘Let’s talk about the facts of what’s going on here and try to understand it,’” he said. “At a certain point, you maybe decide we’re not going to get anywhere in our conversation so it’s not worth having, but I don’t really get heated in an argument like I probably did early on.”

Growing up on a farm in northern Wisconsin, guns were a normal part of life and something with which Nelson became comfortable. He said it wasn’t until he arrived on a college campus and became more engaged in city life that he heard a lot of negativity directed toward firearms. To help bridge the gap between the two parts of his life, he became actively involved in campus activities and helped start a student chapter of the National Rifle Association.

“I also got involved in student government, so I got a better understanding of working with people who were maybe not always in my side, but how to talk to people and how to work with people and find common ground,” he said.

Nelson began teaching firearm safety as part of hunter education courses. As the population of Baby Boomers continued to age, the number of hunters began to dwindle as hunting wasn’t being passed down from generation to generation as much, he said.

Interest in firearm education began to grow around 2010, he added, when the state was poised to pass a law that would permit licensed individuals to carry concealed weapons.

“In the midst of all this discussion people were saying, ‘Well, when we have concealed carry we’re going to need people to teach these classes and you’re passionate about this. Why don’t you get involved in that, why don’t you do that?’” he said. “I had friends at gun ranges who were getting all these questions and there is nobody to answer anything because basically we were creating the wheel.”

Individuals interested in becoming firearms instructors have a variety of options, including training through the National Rifle Association. According to Start Up Jungle, more than a quarter-million instructors operate within the United States, with a salary range of $45,000 to $100,000 annually.

Nelson said the idea of turning a Constitutional right into a get-rich-quick proposal bothered him so he looked to provide the best possible training at the lowest possible price.

“I saw that there were instructors out there who were charging a lot of money, and that wasn’t (what I wanted to do)…,” he said. “It’s a service I’m able to provide and I make a little bit of money but I don’t think people should get raked over the coals in order to exercise their rights.”

Certification courses for concealed-carry permits can be classroom-only instruction, where people learn about the law and how to fill in forms for a permit, Nelson said. Even though he finds nothing wrong with that approach, Nelson said he prefers pair the classroom with time on a firing range to help students feel competent when it comes to carrying, holding and firing a gun.

“Not all classes are created equal…,” he said “My way is to take people and teach them the hands-on portion because carrying a gun every day is a huge responsibility and I want to make sure that people are equipped to do that.”

Responsibility takes many forms in Nelson’s classes, including understanding how guns work and how to overcome the fear people have in dealing with them.

“Many of them, the first time they pick up a gun, their hands are trembling,” he said “They’re afraid of it because it’s something scary for them, and they leave the class shooting in tight little groups.”

In addition, people who are new to gun ownership and use often don’t think about the legal ramifications of drawing a gun in any situation, Nelson said.

“If you draw that gun you’re probably going to spend six figures in legal defense,” he said. “People need to take that portion seriously on top of the fact of you might end up taking somebody’s life and it might be the assailant that’s bothering you or it might be somebody else that’s innocent because of where those bullets go beyond that.”

Most of his classes have about 12 people or fewer in them so they can get adequate one-on-one time on the range, Nelson said. The majority of his students are women between the ages of 50 and 60 who don’t feel safe at home or in public, he said, adding that couples often come in together as well to experience a shared understanding of the responsibilities associated with firearm ownership and use.

“I treat everybody as green coming in, I actually prefer that they are green because otherwise people come in with bad habits…” he said. “Very often it’s couples that come in, and it’s the husband that maybe knows a little bit about guns. He might hunt, sometimes that man will come in and maybe he’s already got a permit because he’s got something (like) a military background or something else they used (like) hunter’s safety. The thing is, hunter safety doesn’t really address the handling of a handgun. Handling a long gun is way different.”

“The men come in with bad habits more often than not, even if they haven’t had any experience with guns, almost all of them played proverbial “Cowboys and Indians” or had squirt guns and they come in with these jerky triggers and they’re constantly putting the rounds off to the right side of the target,” he added. “Women come in with most of the time no experience and that’s perfect. You start with a blank slate and it’s perfect. It’s the difference between doing new housing construction and a remodel.”



The Aurora Health Care outpost in Omro is about the size of an average dentist’s office, stocked with all the basics for health checks and staffed by the nicest people you’ll ever meet. One of the benefits of being in a small town is that people get to know you over time. One of the nurses has taken care of Zoe since she was getting her 3-year-old immunizations and when a princess sticker would cure the pain associated with them.

I made today’s appointment six months earlier, which is what has to happen if I wanted to get in to see the doctor for a physical. I check in with the desk staff, which has all new people since the last time I made it to the doctor’s office. I lean over the counter and look for a friendly face. One nurse waves and called me by name, immediately following up with, “Did Zoe come with you?”

“No, she’s in school.”


It’s good to feel loved for just being you, I guess…

I sit down in the waiting room next to a TV that outlines the weather for the Eastern Seaboard. I take off my coat and relax until the nurse calls my name and takes me into the back of the building.

I don’t know this woman and I can tell she’s not exactly sure what to make of me as she asks me to step on the scale. I ask if we can do it twice: once with the vest and once without.

“That’s about a 5-pound difference,” she says.

“I wish it were that easy to lose 5 pounds,” I say.

She remains silent as she leads me to the exam room.

The nurse goes over the basic details of who I am, where I live, what medicines I take and all that, as she punches the answers into the computer. She finally stops and asks, “Are you wearing a bulletproof vest?”

I explain to her the point of the project and what I’m trying to accomplish. This seems to relax her.

“How has it been?” she asks.

“Honestly, my anxiety has been through the roof,” I tell her. “I can feel my heartbeat in my ears.”

She gets a look on her face like, “That’s not good” but doesn’t say anything. She reaches into a drawer to grab a blood-pressure cuff and then dons her stethoscope to take my vitals.

I normally have really low to moderately OK blood pressure, but I figure I’ve got to be about 200 over 100 or something at this point.

“BP is 112 over 62,” she says, as she rips off the Velcro cuff. She then holds my wrist for my pulse, which I can still hear in my ears.

“Pulse is 68,” she says, adding “That’s very good” after it’s clear I have no idea what the numbers mean. “I wish I had those numbers so I wouldn’t have to be on medication.”

“Great!” I say before starting to fumble through an awkward apology in case she thought I was glad she had to be on meds. She just smiles.

“The doctor will be in shortly.”



Nelson freely shared a great deal about his life, including his health history. He’s a two-time cancer survivor living with diabetes. His goal is to continue an active lifestyle that involves as much outdoor time as possible, especially when it comes to hunting and fishing.

He just returned from a hunting trip in which he bagged a 10-point buck and his son, aptly named Hunter, took down his first deer, a doe. He said it really bothered him when people who didn’t know him were chastising them on social media for killing animals when “there is plenty of hamburger for sale” at various grocery stores.

“I’m not the kind of person to use PETA as a source, but go watch some of their videos on what a slaughterhouse is like and tell me that the deer my son shot that literally was dead in like three seconds of him pulling the trigger didn’t go out in a much better way…” he said. “She still had corn in her mouth, so she went out happy.”

Nelson’s father nurtured a respect for firearms that he is passing on to his own son. Nelson explained that the boy would sit on his lap and accurately pick off soda cans with a BB gun before the age of 3. When the state’s concealed-carry law came into effect, Hunter would often point to the signs on buildings where weapons were prohibited and say, “Dad!” knowing that his father was carrying a weapon. Nelson explained to him that the signs really just help people feel better.

No mass shooting was ever stopped by a sign, he said.

To say that guns and gun rights are Nelson’s “thing” feels far too reductive, even though he was able to explain laws, weapons and training with the knowledge of an expert and the translation skills of a quality teacher.

Of all the people who I tried to get to help me understand something for this project, he taught me the most. He was also the only person who knew the guns end of the discussion who was willing to take a chance and meet with me.

“I’m probably the stereotype: the burly bearded man who wants to have a gun in his pocket or a holster and I think that’s completely the opposite,” Nelson said.

“People who have a carry permit are just like anybody else,” he added. “They’re your normal neighbors, they’re not out there to be John Wayne. That’s one of the things I talk about in class. This is a license to carry a gun, it’s not 007, it’s not a license to kill. It doesn’t mean you should do anything else you wouldn’t normally do. Just because you have a carry permit doesn’t mean you should go down a dark alley in a busy city in the middle of the night… If anything, it makes you more aware and maybe more thinking about, ‘Am I going to put myself in a bad situation where I need to use that?’”

Awareness can also make others feel safe, Nelson said. He noted that Hunter would occasionally lean up against him to feel the outline of Nelson’s pocket pistol when he felt uncomfortable. Simply knowing his father was there and able to protect him if need be was enough to make him feel safe.

The intersection of safety and children bothers Nelson a great deal, especially when it comes schools.

“As someone who has a kid in a public school, I do think it’s atrocious how soft of a target a school is right now,” Nelson said. “It would be way too easy to get into most schools and do harm if you want to do that, if that was your intent.”

Mass shootings at schools tend to be among the most terrifying for the public and usually draw the most attention. The 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado killed 13 people and injured 20 others and remains a touchstone for the debate on mass shootings. Nearly 20 years after that attack, Nelson was able to recall the names of the two shooters easily.

In the two decades since that attack, the names of other mass shooters are more difficult to recall and the incidents tend to blur as body counts rise and outrage increases. In the wake of each subsequent shooting, calls get louder for banning certain weapons or revoking access to certain firearms. Nelson noted that these kinds of reactionary demands overlook the ways in which other massive casualty attacks have nothing to do with guns.

Timothy McVey and Terry Nichols killed 168 people at the Oklahoma City federal building, using a bomb made of fuel oil and fertilizer. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a 19-ton truck through a Bastille Day celebration in France, causing the deaths of at least 85 people in 2016. A year later, Sayfullo Habibullaevich Saipov killed eight people in New York City in the same fashion, driving a pickup truck along an exercise path.

“If someone has ill intent and if they have ill will and they want to harm people, they’re going to figure out a way to do it,” he said. “Unfortunately, we can’t legislate the way of taking evil out of the hearts of men. I think we have to figure out a way of fixing people rather than fixing the gun. To me the gun is not the problem.”

Just like anyone else, Nelson said he aches when another attack occurs and struggles to understand the motivation behind these attacks.

“It’s sad,” he said. “Just as much as anyone thinks it’s sad, I think it’s atrocious and I think it’s more so a symptom of a mental health problem in the country, a moral problem. For some reason people are thinking that they’re sad and their angry and they’re going to go do this. I don’t know if they think they’re going to be famous or thinking ‘I’ll show them.’ I don’t understand that. I have a problem relating to that.”



Dr. Larson enters the exam room with her usual smile, but she pauses when she notices the vest.

“How are we doing?” she asks in a measured pace and tone.

“Hey, Doc. I’m OK, how are you doing?”

“Good… So… what are you wearing there?”

I explain the project as she starts to pick through the notes the nurse left behind on the computer. She nods along once she starts to understand what’s going on and why I’m doing what I’m doing.

“That sounds interesting,” she says. She pauses. “For a minute there, I thought maybe we had you in for a mental-health check.”

“Nope. Just a checkup and a couple other minor things.”

It’s supposed to be just a six-month checkup, but she notices that I haven’t gotten blood work done in a while, so she wants to get me caught up. I’m never thrilled at the idea of needles, even though I don’t mind bleeding. I tend to joke that I’ve donated more blood than anyone else, just most of it goes into the engine bay of the Mustang or on the furniture I’m refinishing.

I explain to the doc that I’m feeling tired all the time. She guesses a lot of it is stress and anxiety. She asks how much longer I’m doing the project, in hopes that a quicker end to this might return things to normal. I tell her it’s been longer than just this week that I’ve felt this way, so she says it might be a vitamin deficiency.

I ask about some pain in one of my feet, so she looks it over.

“You have a wart.”

Great. Just great.

She recommends some over-the-counter stuff that essentially burns it off with acid. It’ll take about three to six months before it’s all said and done.

“OK, the nurse will be back in to do the blood work. If anything looks off, we’ll call you.”

“Thanks, Doc.”



Nelson drained the rest of his iced coffee, so I offered him a break to go get a refill. He shook the ice a bit and said, “No, I’m good.”

I then asked about the point he was making about the issue of mental health and shooting deaths.

Calls for improved mental health screenings in relation to gun ownership also emerge after many mass shootings. Nikolas Cruz, the shooter in Parkland, Florida, had a long list of mental-health problems that the school acknowledged but attempt to redact from public documents. Reporting by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel revealed that the Cruz didn’t get the attention he needed and repeatedly slipped through the cracks in the months leading up to his attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In 2012, Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school. A Connecticut State Attorney’s office report found that Lanza had “severe and deteriorating internal mental health problems,” and that he had previously suffered from depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Steven Kazmierczak, the Northern Illinois University shooter, had dozens of red flags in his background and had previously been institutionalized, leading investigators after the fact to note that he should have had no access to a firearm of any kind.

Even though mass shootings represent a minuscule percentage of gun deaths and the fact that the mentally ill are no more prone to violent attacks than the population at large, a combination of these rarities has led to horrifically deadly outcomes. Nelson said these issues become a sort of “Catch 22” for the country: People who want to possess firearms but suffer from a potentially problematic mental illness will likely go to further lengths to hide their condition.

“We have to find a way to help people without stigmatizing them or we won’t get anywhere,” he said.

The issue of how to help people struggling with depression and despair before a bullet becomes the best option for them remains a crucial, if under-discussed, aspect of this issue. Even as mass shootings gain wide public attention, suicides account for approximately two-thirds of all gun-related fatalities.

One of the more difficult aspects of “fixing people” is the stigma associated with mental health issues. According to researchers from a variety of areas, 1 in 5 U.S. adults lives with a mental illness, but due to the negative connotations associated with these illnesses, approximately 60 percent of these people receive no help for their illnesses.

I mentioned to Nelson how people tended to react strangely to me when I wore the bulletproof vest and how at least one person asked if I had sustained a mental breakdown.

“I think it puts something bad in their mind,” he said. “Probably in that instance (they assume) if somebody comes in wearing a vest, they are expecting a fight.”

In all his time training people to carry firearms, he said he has not run into a person who he felt uneasy about due to concerns for their mental stability.

“I have had an instance where I had a woman asking me about a class once upon a time but it never came to the point of her actually enrolling,” he said “Her thing was that she was in fear and she claimed that her neighbors were doing things to her property.”

“She made me uncomfortable and I thought, ‘Y’know, I’m not going to help this along,’” he added. “She’s probably not the kind of person who needs access to those sorts of things but I don’t have the means to take that away from her because there is no mechanism for that to my knowledge.”



The Omro Area Community Center on Larrabee Street sits adjacent to the Webster Manor assisted living facility about three blocks from my house. Large “VOTE HERE” banners flap in the wind, flicking residual rainwater onto passersby. It’s about 1 p.m., which means the lunch voters have dispersed and the whole area looks relatively empty.

The election is one of the more intriguing midterm elections I can recall since I moved back to the state more than a decade ago. Gov. Scott Walker is trying to win his third term and his fourth overall gubernatorial election. In 2012, Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election, defeating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by an even larger margin than he did to obtain the office in 2010.

Walker’s opponent this time is state Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers, a 67-year-old cancer survivor who spent more than four decades in education. Media reports describe him as a bland man from Plymouth, Wisconsin with an affinity for Egg McMuffins and the card game euchre.

This has been the event I dreaded the most all day with the vest. The students know me and I figured they would likely give me a chance to explain myself if they were really worried. The folks at the doctor’s office know me and probably have dealt with weirder things than me.

A group of poll workers who are already tense about how divided people have become? I could see myself having a heart-to-heart with a cop for about six hours if one of these people really freaked out.

Screw it, I say to myself. For all the talk of rights and responsibilities I’ve dealt with in this endeavor, I’m not forfeiting mine. I shut the car off and head toward the building.

I enter the building and veer left down a long hallway toward a sign that tells me voting will happen around the corner. I am reminded that ID is required to vote, so I unzip my jacket and grab the wallet out of my pocket.

The half-dozen people sitting at the various table where I have to state my name and sign the polling book collectively must be close to 450 years old. Listening to them try to find my name on the pages in this giant binder just adds to the absurdity of this whole situation.

Nobody seems to notice the bulletproof vest that is exposed.

One of the ladies at the table hands me an “I Voted!” sticker. I fully open my jacket and paste it on the vest over my heart and show it to her.

“How does that look?”


I head to one of the wobbly lean-to voting stations posted around the community room. I look down and notice I’m standing on the end of a shuffleboard lane that is inlayed into the floor.

I eschew the “pick a party” option and slowly work through each race, picking my preferred candidate as I go. Some of the races are uncontested like the one for coroner. I ponder for a moment how one decides to run for coroner and if those races are ever contested. It’s another odd thought on an odd day.

I dutifully fill in my circles and head to the giant mechanical vote-counting machine.

The “bing” indicates my vote has counted. I notice on the screen that I’m number 851 for the day. Given that our city declares a population of around 3,500, I figure that’s pretty impressive for the first half of the day in an off-year election.

IMG_1291I exit the building and decide to take a photo of myself for the project. I crane my neck around and extended my arm as far as I could to capture the building, the “VOTE” flag, the vest and my sticker. After about three failed attempts, I get something passable. As I put the phone away, I hear a whirring sound off to my right.

An extremely obese woman dressed in a pink sweat suit motors toward me in a specialized wheelchair. She is almost entirely prone and is straining to see where she’s going when she notices me.


“Taking your voter selfie?” she asks.

“Yes, ma’am. Would you like some help with the door?”

She zips past me and reaches for the automatic door button.

“No, that’s fine.”

“OK, have a nice day,” I tell her as she disappears inside the building.

As I head to the car, I wonder which people will get her vote today.



The sound of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” drifted out of the stereo system’s speakers at Panera, leading Nelson to chuckle. He said when he hears this song, he thinks about President Trump’s war of words with Kim Jong Un, whom the president has often called “Little Rocket Man.”

On the personal side, Nelson cited two sources for his interests in politics: Ted Nugent’s book “God, Guns and Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the Michael Moore film “Bowling for Columbine.”

“One sparked my interest and the other one probably made me angry,” he said, noting in particular Moore’s treatment of NRA leader Charlton Heston.

“At heart I’m a libertarian but libertarians don’t get elected,” he added later.

The Second Amendment sits at the core of Nelson’s politics, he explained, outlining his interest in helping to elect candidates who supported concealed-carry laws and the concept of the castle doctrine.

“There’s a certain thing about the morality of allowing a person to be able to take care of himself…,” he said. “Allow me the opportunity to do that.”

Carrying a concealed weapon has become an everyday thing for Nelson, something that he said he got used to, just like any other safety precaution in his life.

“Nobody knows I have it unless they really know me more than likely and it doesn’t hurt anybody and it’s just there if I need it,” he said. “It’s like insurance on my car or fire insurance on my house. It’s something that’s there in case of an emergency but other than that I don’t think about it that much.”

In all his years carrying a concealed firearm, including a stretch of time at UWO after he and his wife received an anonymous death threat, Nelson said he never felt pushed to the point of drawing his weapon.

“I hope to God I never, ever have to draw my gun for self-defense,” he said. “There have been a few times in my life where I have been in a situation where I have been legitimately- even as large as I am – going, ‘This makes me feel uneasy’ and I’ve gripped up on my gun in my pocket or in a holster or whatever else but thank God I never had to draw it.”

Nelson said the Second Amendment makes it more difficult to figure out how best to address the way in which guns can and should be addressed, especially in regard to mass shootings.

“It’s so often so black and white and it’s like, ‘No, the solution probably is somewhere in the middle,’” he said. “We just have to work to figure that out. The interesting thing with the Second Amendment is that you’re talking about a right that is guaranteed by the Constitution so that makes it a little different than some other rights,” Nelson said.

“When it comes to the debate on this sort of issue in stopping the shootings, the reaction seems to be, ‘Get rid of all the guns,’ or ‘Build schools out of steel and concrete with one entrance,’” he added. “The solution is probably somewhere in the middle and it’s a matter of finding that and I think it’s tough to find the common ground. I wish I did have the answer, because I’d be king.”

First-Person Target: Day 4, Monday: “If I die here, my wife is going to kill me.”

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.

(To understand the “rules” I set up for myself in regard to wearing the vest and conducting the interviews, click here.)

The previous installments are here:


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.”



(Photo by T.R. Gleason)

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.”




(Photo by T.R. Gleason)

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.”

“Nice fella…”

“Very knowledgeable…”

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, 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.

MuzzleFailOne 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.

“Yeah, so-”

“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.”

“OK, thanks.”



“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.”

First-Person Target: Day 3, Sunday: “Sometimes the cards are just not in your favor.”

This is the third 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.

(To understand the “rules” I set up for myself in regard to wearing the vest and conducting the interviews, click here.)

If you missed Part I or you want a longer explanation of how this project worked, click here. Part II is available here.


I wake up around 4 a.m. on Sunday. And then again at 5. Finally, at 6, I get out of bed.

The anxiety dreams kept me in and out of sleep most of the night, as I tried to figure out what was bothering me. I finally realize it was a conversation I had with Zoe the night before.

After church last night, we went to dinner at the Golden Corral. It was after 8 and not crowded which was good because this was the first time I’d be in public with this thing and no jacket.

When we walked in, I immediately managed to make a scene when I reached to take my soda from the counter guy and knocked Zoe’s water all over everything. I was yammering about how sorry I was and the guy just kept saying, “It’s OK. You’re fine.”

Truth was, I wasn’t fine and I knew it.

As much as I made a promise that I wouldn’t use my family as props in all this, I took Zoe with me to church, instead of letting her go with Amy on Sunday, because I felt safer with her than I did in this damned vest. I figured that if someone saw me alone, wearing this thing and not knowing who I was, they might really lose their mind or totally freak out. Me with a kid? I might get a pass.

I hated that I was afraid. And why? What the hell was I really afraid of here? Goddammit…

Nobody said anything or looked at me strangely, which meant either I had been overthinking this whole thing or the people who work there have seen far weirder things than a middle-age man sharing a quiet meal with his daughter at 8 p.m. while wearing a bulletproof vest.


(Photo by Zoe Filak)

The waiter showed up and placed a business card sized note on our table, letting us know his name was Luis. I judge all waitstaff in exactly the same way: Do they drown me in Diet Coke? Luis filled me up about three times and never seemed to bat an eyelash or stare at me.

A doubly large tip was coming his way.

I noticed one kid about 4 years old staring at me half the night from across the room while his mom played on her phone, but I honestly think the kid was just zoned. I finally ignored him and started talking to Zoe about safety in her school.

I had always assumed they had drills, but the degree to which people dealt with them or worried about them wasn’t really something I thought a lot about.

Do they have drills in your school in case someone comes in with a gun? I asked her.

“Yes, and we practice them about once a month so we make sure we’re good at them.”

A lot of people in the field refer to these kinds of drills as ALICE training, although that refers to a specific program that has come to represent all forms of active-shooter training in school, much in the same way people call all gelatin deserts “Jell-O” or all giant trash receptacles “Dumpsters.”

ALICE, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, emerged in the wake of the Columbine shooting as a way to manage an active shooter scenario within a school. Greg Crane, founder of the ALICE Training Institute who built this approach into a national brand, created and developed this plan to help keep the elementary school where his wife worked safe in the event of a similar attack.

The approach advocated through simplifies the ALICE method to include only three key points during an attack: Run, Hide and Fight. The Ready program, which was developed in 2003 as a national public service lists active shooters alongside fires, severe weather and other “natural and man-made disasters” that require public awareness and preparation.

The run-hide-fight approach is the one Zoe’s school used in the event of a shooter. It indicates that students should run to safety if they think they can get to a “safe zone” without unnecessary risk, leaving behind everything else including personal possessions and even friends. If running isn’t possible, the approach tells students to shelter in place, blocking the door and getting in a place where the shooter can’t see them from the hallway through the door. Silence is crucial, but so is getting information to the outside world, so students are encouraged to contact the police or other adults on the outside through texts or instant messages.

Fighting serves as the last resort. Use whatever you can, including scissors, PE equipment and brooms to attack and disarm the shooter.

Don’t stop until one of you is no longer moving.

Zoe outlined the rules specific to her classroom, such as where to hide and what her responsibilities are if the door needs to be blockaded. If escape is possible, she said she knows which ways to get out of the building and where she has to meet up with others from her school.

“We always have to run in a zig-zag,” she explained, motioning her hand in a back and forth pattern toward me.


“Because if I run in a straight line, it’s easier for the person to shoot me.”

It wasn’t so much the statement that bothered me, but the matter-of-fact tone in which she delivered it. She made that life-or-death explanation much like she would say, “I have to charge my phone so the battery doesn’t die.”

I started to take another bite of food but I just couldn’t at that point. I went back to the questions.

“Do you ever get scared when you have to practice these things?”

“Not when we’re practicing them. I guess it would be different if there really was someone. Did you have to do these when you were a kid?”

“No. We just had fire drills and tornado drills. We had to go outside in the parking lot or duck our heads like a turtle in the hallway for a tornado drill.”

I thought about my parents in the 1950s and their drill: Duck and cover. In case of a nuclear explosion, you were supposed to hide under your desk and duck your head.

All of these drills were intended to keep us safe from something, although the degree to which they could seems variable at best.



IMG_1315.jpgChance Duenkel’s bulletproof vest looks more like a utility kit than a life-saving device. His Point Blank brand body armor contains pockets, pouches and clips that allow him to adorn it with various practical items he requires for his daily duties. A gold sergeant’s badge rests above his heart, while his name tag and SAFE training pin parallel it on the right side of his chest. A small notepad protrudes from an unzipped pocket just above pouches containing safety and restraint gear.

A flashlight is holstered off of his left hip while a pair of safety gloves dangle from a clip on his right. His radio, usually attached to the vest, sits next to him on the table during an interview. All told, the vest and the items adhering to it weigh about 25 pounds, not including his taser and his firearm, which are safely holstered on his belt.

His close-cropped blond hair extends in the front with a sharp wave of gel-supported bangs. His greenish-gray eyes shine past his matte-black-framed eyeglasses and express a happiness that tells people he’s doing exactly the job he always wanted to do. His alertness and enthusiasm run counter to the idea that this man is working 12-hour overnight shifts and has a 3-month-old son at home.

He grew up in Trenton, Wisconsin, a farming community outside of West Bend in a military family that prized duty and honor. Those standards, plus an experience with a Police Explorers group during his teen years, had him excited to become a law-enforcement official.

“I give it a lot to my parents always telling me that if you have the capability to help somebody, do it,” he said. “Honor was always huge in our family, doing the honorable thing, having integrity, being honest, those types of things have always been huge things in our family, so I knew I would want to do something like that.”

Guns were a part of life growing up, and Duenkel said rules and respect were drilled into him.

“My father was in the Navy so he had some familiarity with firearms and I grew up out in the country, too,” he said. “We had a firing range in the back yard, so it started at BB guns and working your way up to .22, bird shot and slowly progressing… The rules for firearms were ingrained into me early on, always treating the gun as loaded, even the fake toy guns, building those rules internally that you constantly follow.”

Duenkel came to UW-Oshkosh for college, where he became a community service officer in 2008. The CSO program partners these students with residence hall advisers to work in security stations, provide students with Safe Walk partners to help them get home safely and assist the campus police department as requested.

In 2012, Duenkel took a full-time job at the police department on campus and said he continues to love the job on campus. He embraces the idea that his job is the same as all law-enforcement officers: keep people safe, eliminate fear and stop crime and disorder.

“I’m a police officer because of who I am, I’m not who I am because I’m a police officer,” he said. “I’m pretty much always in the range of being aware of different things. It gets annoying to some people at some times, but it is who I am.”

Over the past six years, his life has changed in a number of ways, including his marriage to his wife, Samantha, and the birth of their first child, Jackson. When it comes to those life changes, Duenkel said he hasn’t altered his approach to the job, but he knows he has more things to think about now.

“When I got married, when we had the kid, I was surprised at the change,” he said. “It made me pause seeing a couple different things, thinking, ‘Do I really need to be getting into this right now?’ Having that thought, ‘Pull a traffic stop, it could be my last traffic stop’ type of thing but it only drives me more to refine my skills and really prepare myself even more because there is a lot more at stake personally… Make sure that I do go home.”

Although he feels safe on campus and has taken measures to keep his skills sharp, Duenkel said he knows keeping himself alive isn’t always a sure thing.

“There are cases where you can do everything by the book and have all the equipment on you and sometimes the cards are just not in your favor,” he said, recalling the death of area police officer Craig Birkholz.

Birkholz was a military veteran and served as a Fond du Lac police officer until he died in a line-of-duty shooting on March 20, 2011. According to the Department of Justice report, James Cruckson was holding his girlfriend’s 6-year-old daughter hostage and had threatened to kill both of them if she reached out to the police for help.

When the police tried to free the girl, Cruckson started shooting at them. Official documents indicate Cruckson, an Army veteran, fired more than 50 shots at the officers. When Birkholz showed up in the middle of the chaos, Cruckson shot him twice in the chest. One bullet struck below his bulletproof vest. The other struck just above it.

“It was kind of like, ‘Whoa this happened in our backyard. It’s not California or New York. It’s 15 minutes from here,’” Duenkel said.

“He had all the equipment, he had the experience dealing with these types of firearms and weapons calls and the cards, unfortunately, weren’t in his favor.”



Although Birkholz had participated in a UWO project titled “War Through Their Eyes,” I had forgotten about him and his death. I had also forgotten the name Sergio Valencia del Toro, but not how the random lottery of chance kept his mass shooting from occurring on my campus.

In May 2015, Valencia del Toro was a non-traditional student at UWO, studying criminal justice. The 27-year-old served in the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of senior airman, and had subsequently enrolled in the U.S. Army. He was engaged to his long-time girlfriend, Haylie Peterson, with whom he shared a home in Menasha, approximately 15 miles up Highway 41 from the campus.

According to media reports, Valencia del Toro suffered from depression and recently had been acting irrationally. On Sunday, May 3, the couple had an argument at their home around 5 p.m., ending when Peterson left the house to get dinner. Valencia del Toro grabbed a 9 mm, semi-automatic handgun and a revolver and rode his bike approximately one mile to the end of the Trestle Trail bridge, a serene area with pristine beauty.

After watching people walk on and around the bridge for an undetermined amount of time, Valencia del Toro opened fire indiscriminately, killing three people, including an 11-year-old girl. He then shot himself in the head. He died later that night at Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah.

When the news broke on campus, the staff of our student newspaper, the Advance-Titan, began to dig into the story to report the UWO angle on it. When someone found his photo online, several of us gathered around the computer monitor to see if we recognized him or Peterson. A news reporter got a sickly look on his face.

“They were both in one of my classes,” he said.

He took a deep breath and then asked the question all of us had:

What if he had decided to start shooting people while he was on campus?



When Jarrod Ramos began his attack on the Annapolis Capital Gazette on June, 28 2018, reporter Chase Cook wasn’t there. His request for an extra day of vacation might have saved his life.

“I wasn’t in the office that day…” he said. “Rob Hiaasen, who is now dead, gave me the day off because I worked 16 hours covering a primary election on the 26th. I was supposed to work Thursday and I sat at his desk on Wednesday and asked for an extra day off because I was exhausted.”

Ramos had a long-standing feud with the newspaper, which included an unsuccessful defamation of character suit and a series of ongoing social media attacks. He arrived at the newsroom on that Thursday in late June carrying a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun, which he used to blow apart the office’s glass doors. He had planned the attack for some time, officials said, noting that he had barricaded a back exit to prevent people from escaping.

The shooting left five dead and two others injured. In addition to Hiaasen, staff members Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith died in the attack.

Cook was at home when he heard about the attack. He immediately changed into his work clothes and headed to the newsroom.

“I was kind of there to cover it and also make sure my friends and colleagues were OK,” he said. “It was kind of a balancing act.”

Cook and several of his colleagues gathered in a nearby parking ramp and set up their computers in the bed of a pickup truck, preparing to cover an incident that had ended the lives of several of their colleagues.

“I just remember meeting Pat (Furgurson) and Josh (McKerrow) at that truck…” he said. “I remember asking Rick (Hutzell) to put as many bylines on it as he could because I felt strongly that this was a group effort. It wasn’t just me.”

As he gathered information and helped construct the main news story on the shooting, Cook found himself having to go to a nearby mall for supplies.

“I remember going to buy a charging cable for my phone because it was going to die and I didn’t have a charging cable with me,” he said. “I must have looked insane to the person I bought it from because I was sweaty, I had been crying, I was tired and I was like frantic and I must have looked like I was on drugs or something.”

“It was weird, too, because being in the mall, everybody was kind of going through their day,” he added. “They were living a normal experience and my whole life felt paranoid. I thought this guy was following me in the mall I got really paranoid because I kept seeing him everywhere I went.”

In the wake of the shooting, the most famous words that emerged came from Cook’s Twitter account when he declared, “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” Cook said the paper was a group effort involving the staff of the paper, the folks at the home office of the Baltimore Sun, the press workers and countless others, and he thought it was important to let people know the Capital Gazette would still publish.

“For me personally it was kind of a 50/50 of my own personal resolve. I was really upset and I was there working and I wasn’t going to let that stop us from running a newspaper…,” Cook said. “The other part of it was this was news. Nobody knew if we would have a newspaper tomorrow. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to tell people except that this was a targeted attack. We’re the local paper. We should know more, this happened literally in our office.’ So, I confirmed it with Josh and them that we were still going to have the paper tomorrow.”

“I felt that nothing would have prevented any of us from putting out a newspaper the next day,” he added later. “Even if I had been dead inside the building, somebody would have done it.”

Accolades for the staff’s work have poured in from a wide array of sources. Time magazine named the staff of the paper among its “Person of the Year” winners in December, interviewing its members at a hotel near the Newseum. Cook said he begged out of that trip, because he is still having difficulty reflecting on his work on the shooting.

“I did not go to the Newseum with the staff because I still had some anxiety seeing the words that I had written, even if they were in a tweet, being on the wall of the most popular news museum in the country,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to do that.”

As much as the staff feels honored, Cook said he has trouble coming to grips with the attention and the praise.

“We internally reconcile with, ‘This is awesome we should be happy but why can’t Wendi, Rob, John, Rebecca and Gerald be here to enjoy it with us?’ And they can’t be,” he said.

“I struggle with feeling good or proud about what I did on the 28th and every day since then,” he added. “There’s no room in me to feel proud about that, it’s really just grief.”



If ever a topic personified the adage, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics,” it would be guns and gun-related incidents.

Federally funded research into gun-related deaths and injuries is weak at best, as a result of the 1996 Dickey Amendment which effectively ended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s examinations of the topic. Other organizations, both public and private, continue to study the issue and have come up with a mixed bag of results.

According to the National Safety Council, deaths attributable to guns have continued to increase in the United States over the past 15 years for which we have data. In 2015, the NSC found that 38,658 deaths occurred via a firearm, up from 28,663 deaths in 2000.

The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action has pushed back on this notion, stating that “gun violence is alien to most people’s experiences and the nation’s murder rate has been cut by more than half since 1991 and in 2013 fell to perhaps an all-time low.”

Even statistics involving mass shootings have widely differed among investigators, primarily due to how these incidents are measured.

For example, the Washington Post stated in its expansive look at the topic that 158 mass shootings have taken place in the United States since 1966, when Charles Whitman killed 17 people from the clock tower on the University of Texas campus. Conversely, the website states that 325 mass shootings have taken place in 2018 alone.

Although mass shootings and random violence associated with firearms garners the most attention, the majority of deaths associated with guns happen without confrontation. Statistics reveal that nearly two-thirds of all gun-related fatalities are suicides, with the remaining one-third falling into the category of “assault.”

The Washington Post’s report indicates that only 68 of the 12,509 “assault” deaths caused by guns in 2018 came in the form of a mass shooting. The 158 mass shootings the paper studied since 1966 yielded 1,135 deaths, or less than 10 percent of all “assault” gun deaths in 2018 alone.

In addition, data from the National Safety Council reports a 1 in 11,125 chance of dying in a mass shooting in the course of a lifetime. Of the top 48 causes of death, assault by a gun (1 in 315) ranks 18th, meaning you have a better chance of dying of the flu or by falling than you do of being shot to death. As far as mass shootings go, their ranking at 32nd places them as less likely than dying of choking on food or any airplane/boat/spaceship incident.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that more people died from gun deaths in 2017 than any time since at least 1968. The data revealed it was the third consecutive year that the rate of deaths from firearms increased, with about 60 percent of those deaths attributable to suicide.

Statistically speaking, mass shootings account for less than 1 percent of all firearm deaths, thus placing them well below suicides, homicides and accidents on the list of fatalities.


Statistics state their case plainly and simply, but fear’s whisper grows louder with each outburst of gunfire and media report of massive death. As the frequency of these shootings grows, so does the number of people who feel the ripple effect.

“I’m so much more intimately familiar with the wave of destruction that happens after (another shooting),” Cook said. “It’s not just to the bodies of the people who are shot but how it proliferates throughout the community that I just feel depressed and sad.”

Cook continued working at the paper for days and weeks after the shooting, using work to help him cope with the tragedy. He said he didn’t really feel the full impact of the attack until he took a week or so of vacation and the adrenaline surge subsided.

He said he is still working to acclimate to daily life in some ways.

“I have a hard time in movie theaters now,” he said. “I get anxious when the lights go out, which is a bummer because I love going to the movies. I think about it a lot when I’m in really crowded places… That fear factor has kind of permeated through everything. I’m at work, I’m in danger. I’m at school, I’m in danger. I’m at church, I’m in danger. I have to convince myself that I’m not because while mass shootings are a problem in the country and they’re up, they’re still a rare crime.”

Cook said the most dangerous thing anyone does on a daily basis is drive a car, something he hasn’t stopped doing. He uses this logical approach to keep his mind quiet when it begins to spiral with fear.

“I try not to live that way but still people knock on the door or ring the bell or something unexpected happens, I get anxious there’s no way to not do that. It happens subconsciously,” he said. “I just try to say, hey, recognize how you’re feeling… Be honest with yourself and how you feel.”

“I think my general sense of safety is different now because I’m constantly having to have that conversation with myself of convincing myself that I’m not in an immediate threat,” he added. “That was not something I thought about before this happened.”

Cook said as he works toward feeling safer, he wouldn’t be inclined to turn to a gun for his own for protection, even though he has spent much of his life around them.

“I don’t know if I would feel safer with more people with guns in the room,” he said. “I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve shot guns. Shooting guns is not a thing you just show up and do. Shooting is a skill and it degrades so if you are going to have a gun, how often are you training with it? Are you confident that you can do something? Are you confident that you can kill somebody? There’s so much more to it than just having it.”

Over the course of his career, Cook has written stories about gun deaths, recalling one about a child finding a gun and accidentally shooting himself with it, which makes him leery of owning a firearm.

“For me personally, I have massive respect for guns,” he said. “That’s how my dad raised me. He’s in the Marines. He carries everywhere he goes… So, I’m intimately familiar with guns. I don’t personally own one. I don’t want to own one, only because I’m so aware of their destructive power that I’m afraid of making a mistake and I would rather just remove that possibility from my life by not having a gun.”

As he continues to move forward from his experiences on June 28, Cook said he sees an important conversation that needs to take place, with citizens demanding more of their leaders on this topic.

“It’s an incredibly complicated thing that I think at the basic level citizens should be demanding that their politicians and their newspapers do something about it,” Cook said. “Write about it. Talk to politicians. Demand they have a stance. Make the politician who thinks every teacher should be armed make that stance… explain to people why you think that would solve the problem and start that conversation.”

“It always turns out where people say, ‘Oh, you just want gun control,’” he added. “That’s not it. It doesn’t work that way. I’m not smart enough to come up with a solution on my own. I want to hear about it. I want to write about it. I want somebody to convince me that this will solve the problem, and use data, and we’re just not having that conversation.”

First-Person Target: Day 2, Saturday: “God is weeping.”

This is the second 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.

(To understand the “rules” I set up for myself in regard to wearing the vest and conducting the interview, click here.)

If you missed Part I or you want a longer explanation of how this project worked, click here.


Most of Saturday is spent cleaning the house, until about 3 p.m., when I get ready to go to church. It is the first time I will wear the vest out of the house and I start having second thoughts.

Amy sees me fiddling with the straps and asks in an incredulous voice, “Are you REALLY going to wear that thing to CHURCH?”

At that point, I make up my mind, thanks to both my stubborn streak and a broader understanding of the moment at hand.

Eleven people were shot and killed in a house of worship a week ago,” I tell her. “I don’t think sitting this one out is in the best interest of what I’m trying to do here.”

Amy says she won’t go with me and that she’ll catch a Sunday morning mass, but I decide to take my daughter, Zoe, with me. Even though the church is only about three blocks away, we take the truck, with the idea of maybe going out for dinner afterwards and running a few errands.

ChurchPlaqueSt. Mary’s Catholic Church in Omro dates back to 1866, when the Gothic-style structure with clapboard sensibilities arose in the middle of this river town. The Milwaukee Diocese officially codified its presence as an institution intent on serving the many Irish immigrants who fled their homeland during the potato famine and took up farming in the area.

The wooden building with a tall bell steeple was recently wrapped in weather-resistant siding, thanks to a fundraising campaign among parishioners. The main entrance is a Gothic opening with two heavy wooden doors that are painted pewter gray open onto the Madison Avenue side of the building.

Two equal sections of pews run from the altar back to the entrance. Large, ornate stained-glass windows line the sides of the church, with small dedications to their donors noted on tiny translucent panels.

The ceiling doesn’t reach to the heights one would expect upon entering, given the giant peak visible from the outside. A butter-cream color paint covers the thatched-panels of beaver board that round the sidewalls into the ceiling with an organ loft established at the end of the room opposite the altar.

The church is relatively full for a Saturday mass, but we find seats off the outside aisle on the left-hand side of an empty pew about half way up.

Shortly before mass begins, Sister Pam, the parish director, walks briskly to the front to welcome everyone to the services and to outline a few musical elements of the upcoming mass. As she does this, two ladies in their early 60s come down the main aisle and sit in our pew, with them edging toward the right side and us gravitating toward the left.

As Sister Pam retreats to the back of the building to help lead the priest in the processional, she strides with a speed walker’s pace, her thick-heeled shoes pounding into the hardwood floor.

As the first notes of the processional hymn begin, I unzip my coat instinctively but suddenly yank it closed when the zipper hit the last Velcro strap. I feel my face flush.

Zoe looks at me.

“Daddy, are you OK?”

“Yes, peanut. Thank you.”


At 68 years of age, Sister Pam Biehl said she has no intentions of “sitting in a rocker.”

As the parish director, Biehl oversees the day-to-day operation of both the St. Mary’s Church in Omro and St. Mary’s Church in Winneconne, two cities with a collective population of less than 6,000 people.

Her “nicer” office is in the Omro church, with space for a desk and several bookshelves filled with religious texts and spiritual knick-knacks. A few inspirational sayings are neatly stenciled on the walls. To create a more intimate environment, she eschewed using the chairs near her desk that would separate her from a visitor and instead suggested a triad of padded wooden chairs near the entrance. Their proximity to one another gave a sense that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit could huddle there before providing inspiration to those in the gathering place down the hall.

As this interview progressed, Biehl stared forward with an intense expression, as if through sheer will she would fully understand how she could have missed seeing a man in her church wearing a bulletproof vest during a Saturday mass.

“Nobody said a word,” she said with a look of astonishment on her face. “Not a word. I totally was not aware… I’m not sure. When I’m up in front, I’m so attentive to so many things, I would have registered it, but I don’t know if I would have thought about it that long.”

Biehl was born and raised in Chicago and said she wanted to join the convent after eighth grade, but her dad convinced her to spend at least one year of high school before making that choice.

Once in high school, Biehl said she became actively involved in councils, groups and organizations, which pushed the idea of a religious order to the back of her mind for a few years. As graduation neared, she had considered going to college for a year before committing to a convent.

“I had been communicating with our vocation director from the mother house that had the sisters who had taught me… and she said, ‘No, no, no,’” Biehl said. “She said the exact opposite: ‘You go to the convent.’ And I think to this day that I would not have gone had she not said that. I always say I owe my vocation to her.”

Biehl did attend college as part of her vocation, attending Silver Lake College of the Holy Family in Manitowoc and learning to become a teacher. She started teaching in Waukesha shortly after graduation, before heading west, where she taught in Nebraska, Arizona and California. Eventually, she came full circle, returning to Manitowoc where she became a campus minister.

As a “hobby,” she conducted liturgy workshops and taught teachers how to work with children as part of the ministry.

“I made it up as I went along and I said maybe I should get some schooling, so I know what I’m talking about,” she said. “I asked the community if I could go back to school, and they said, ‘Sure.’”

With her master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame in hand, Biehl became a director of liturgy and ritual at St. Raphael’s in Oshkosh in 1994. Thirteen years later, she landed in Omro as parish director where she oversees both St. Mary’s there and in nearby Winneconne.

“It was the grace of God that I got the job because they lost my files,” she said of her current post. “They didn’t even know I was in the system.”

As the director, Biehl said she has dealt with the issue of concealed-carry and parish safety over the past decade or so. When Wisconsin passed “right-to-carry” legislation, several places were exempted and were allowed to post signs that alerted people to the “weapons-free zones.”

The church is not one of those places, she said.

“It’s come up and we were told we can’t put that sign on the door,” she said. “I can’t remember why, but we did receive notice a couple years ago that we can’t post it.”

As far as people who actually carry, Biehl said no one has ever mentioned carrying a gun in church or asked for her thoughts on the matter.

“There could be somebody in church who has one,” she said. “Someone might have one in their purse. I’ve never come across anyone asking me about it… That doesn’t mean anyone isn’t.”



After the procession, the priest opens with an explanation that today we all will honor the memories of the parishioners who died this year.

Sr. Pam had 11 candles set up at the front of the church, one for each of the departed. As each name is read, a family member is invited to come to the front of the church and light a candle in their honor. The women who joined us in our pew a few moments earlier stand up and head to the front when the name of their loved one was read.

I keep thinking about the number 11.

Eleven people in our parish died in a year, while 11 were shot and killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in less than 10 minutes. I didn’t know any of the people in our parish who died, but I know in almost painful detail who died in that shooting and how they met their end.

I try shaking that out of my head, but the priest’s homily is about how he kept looking to God for signs that his recently deceased mother wanted him to do something. He said  he kept seeing sandhill cranes each time he asked for a sign, so I keep thinking about how nothing really is coincidental in life.

I wear my jacket, even though I feel hot. I attribute a great deal of the warmth to the adrenaline that I can almost sense pouring into my bloodstream throughout the mass.

I have it unzipped, which mean the “Second Chance” straps and the padded plating are visible. The weight of the vest, which I previously dismissed as inconsequential, has become an issue after a short amount of time. Also, no matter how many times I adjust the straps, I feel the vest tightening around me each time I move and about half the time I breathe. However, I still don’t feel ready to take the jacket off. I am already well aware that I am wearing this thing and I find it horribly distracting.

In other ways, it makes me more attuned to certain things I tend to say or do in church without thinking about them. I suddenly become hyper-aware of how many times we mention death in our faith. Also, how many times we talk about evil as a concept, as opposed to the manifestation of it and what it can do to people.

I also realize the main two entrances are behind me and that only a small side door kitty-corner from my position will let me out if someone came in the main entrance with a gun.

I occasionally find myself able to forget about the vest for a moment or two, like just after the homily when we are all quiet for a second. However, when I look down to grab a hymnal, I see the straps and I snap back into a spiraling panic about what I am wearing. This thing is meant to keep me alive if someone suddenly decides to start shooting at me.

It also dawns on me that even this thing might not keep me safe if a shooter has evil intent and the desire to end me.


As a parish director, Biehl’s thoughts about life after a horrifying event, like a mass shooting, tend to gravitate toward the people she serves.

“My first thought, the boss in me says, ‘Oh my gosh, what if that happened to me?’” she said. “What would we be doing now? How would I respond? How could I be the pastor of that place? How could I pastor to those people?”

“I think about how to help people deal with it,” she added. “And what I think we struggle with and I come back to this all the time is we’re not good living in mystery. Not knowing why. Why a synagogue? Why? OK, so a man was angry and we find out he was anti-Semitic so he killed Jews. OK, but why that one? Why?”

In the times of pain and suffering, people often seek answers in religion, even when those answers seem unlikely to satisfy them. Biehl said that her work with parishioners who experience losses and despair requires her to help these people understand how faith can assist them.

“I have never had to deal with that kind of a tragedy,” she said. “But I’ve had to deal with people who have taken their lives, I have dealt with car accidents, things that are not as horrible but horrible in that moment. I say to people ‘God gave us that free will and people make bad choices,’ and I don’t mean to make it simplistic but what I work hard at is having people understand that God is still with us.”

As people struggle for answers, they often will turn to bad or erroneous justifications just to have some solid ground for themselves, Biehl said. She recalled a story in which a child died and the parents struggled to understand the loss.

She said she asked the parents if they considered that they had done something wrong as to incur punishment from God. In asking this question, she explained to the parents that it was likely they would look deep inside themselves and find something they did wrong, such as a theft they might have committed, to rationalize the loss.

“Somewhere in the depth of your being you will acknowledge that and you maybe won’t accept that but you’ll say, ‘Well, maybe that could be true… so maybe that’s how God is punishing me,’” she said. “Somehow in the back of your mind I believe, you now feel that you have an answer. It’s a horrible answer, a wrong answer, a totally wrong answer, but you have one.”

The Roman Catholic Church itself is laden with mystery and faith, often relying on the concept that seemingly negative outcomes represent our lack of understanding in God’s larger purpose. In allowing for the all-knowing nature of God, Biehl said she doesn’t want people to think God intentionally inspires mass shootings and other tragedies within his creations.

“So often I hear, ‘Well, that’s part of God’s plan,’” she said. “That is not God’s plan. I will never believe that my God would ever plan any of that.”

Instead of seeking the “why” behind tragedies or attributing them to “God’s plan,” Biehl said she tries to help people continue living when something horrible happens.

“I think, ‘How would I speak to my people?’” she said. “’What would I say to them?’ And I would say, ‘God is weeping. God is weeping with us.’ And the question is to say to God, not why did this happen, but now that this has happened this horrible thing happened, how will you help me through this? How will you walk with me, how will you show me the way so that tomorrow I can put one foot in front of the other when I can barely, I can barely breathe right now.”


Church might have be the ideal place for a first public appearance in this vest. Because everyone faces forward, nobody can really tell anything about how I look from the back. The vest doesn’t seem to be an issue and nobody seems to notice. However, in various parts of a Catholic mass, people interact with each other, and that thought niggles at the corner of my mind throughout the mass.

The church takes up a collection while the priest prepares the altar for the consecration of the bread and wine. This offering of financial support for the institution involves people passing wicker baskets throughout the rows of pews and dropping in cash or parish envelopes to help support the place.

The woman in front of me turns to pass me the basket and I think it is the first time anyone really sees what I am wearing. She hands it off as she looks away quickly. Zoe tosses in a couple bucks, hands it to me and I pass it down the pew to keep the process going. The people next to me take it, look at me and smile. On it goes.

The next point in which we interact is the sign of peace, in which the priest invites us to shake hands with people around us.

I shake Zoe’s hand first and give her a hug before I turn around to greet a married couple in their 30s was behind me. I shake hands with each person and don’t get a reaction. I shake hands with one of the women next to me. No problem.

I then reach to shake hands with the woman who had handed me the basket. She finishes shaking hands with someone in front of her, but refuses to turn back toward me.

She stands ramrod still and pulls her arms in at the sides and doesn’t move, even as I accidentally brush my arm against the sleeve of her coat, while I shake hands with a lady sporting a tight, poodle perm hairstyle two pews in front of me.

The woman has to be in her 60s or 70s. She is shorter than Zoe, so I peg her at about 4-foot-10 or so. She has a bony build with relatively larger hands that are gnarled with arthritis. She is wearing thin, silver-framed oval glasses and her gray hair is styled into a mushroom-cap haircut. Her face, what I can see of it, would be best described as “beaky.”

When it comes time to go up for communion, she skitters to the end of the pew quickly. She doesn’t say anything to anyone, not even the usher, a tall woman who has to be no more than 30 years old, wearing a fleece vest and a name tag indicating her role at the church.

The usher, on the other hand, had looked in at me a bit strangely when she was monitoring the collection, but she didn’t treat me any differently. When it is my turn to enter the aisle to go down front for communion, I extend my hand to her.

“Peace be with you,” I say to the usher.

“And also with you,” she replies, smiling and shaking my hand.



I outlined my experience with the woman in front of me in mass as part of the interview with Biehl. She said nobody spoke with her about seeing me and no one raised an issue, but she can understand the anxiety I provoked in this person.

“She must have thought you were going to do something harmful and then I think (if it were me) I would think, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t probably think you were there to do something good,’” Biehl said.

I apologized anyway, explaining that for me, church has always been a sanctuary of sorts. I find that I do some of my best thinking inside of a house of worship. In some cases, that’s finding answers to personal problems or finding strength when facing difficult emotional situations.

Of all the things I remembered about church in each stage in my life, the biggest one was a sense of safety and comfort in those buildings. The calm hand of God somehow found me each time and made me feel protected, even though I knew full well I was nowhere near as good of a Catholic as I could or should have been.

“We’ll never be totally safe… I’ve thought about that every time there’s a shooting,” Biehl said. “It’s everywhere. It’s in the malls now. Where has there not been somebody who shot a group of people? Churches, malls, the synagogue, Las Vegas and in the schools.”

“No matter how much we sit and put together a safety manual, if people want to kill you, I think they will kill you…” she added. “I don’t think there’s a way to keep us totally safe.”

With that in mind, the Earthly element of Biehl’s job takes hold.

She said the Green Bay Diocese, which oversees the parish, created a pamphlet with guidance on safety measures for all of its churches. The diocese recommended meeting with the police and the schools in the area to see how they monitor safety and what they do to help keep people out of danger in the event of an attack.

In response to that prompt, the church will add a camera at the door to allow people to see who is outside the side entrance near the parish offices, Biehl said. She also said that the “church of many doors” as she calls it, will undergo some police scrutiny for additional ways to create a safer environment for workers and worshipers.

“You can do a little added security, but I’m not going to have guns at the door,” Biehl said. “I’m not going to have guards at the door.”



When we return to our pews after communion, I kneel in prayer, noticing the woman with the silver glasses is still there and kneeling as well. As the rest of the congregation receives the Eucharist, the cantor sings “On Eagle’s Wings.”

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

For some reason, the song seems to get louder each verse.

You need not fear the terror of the night,
Nor the arrow that flies by day,
Though thousands fall about you,
Near you it shall not come.

I glance up from prayer and notice the woman in front of me is moving her head around in sharp, darting glances as if she were looking for someone or something. She looks panicked.

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

As the priest returns to his seat, the woman sits back into her pew. I have my hand on the back of the pew as I lift up the kneeler and she leans right back onto me. Out of instinct, I apologize.

She doesn’t flinch or look back.

I am grateful Zoe hasn’t noticed any of this.

Before we get into the final blessing and dismissal song, Sister Pam always whips out a thin white binder that has a list of the 912 things that are going on at the parish that week that require our attention.

Today, we need to do a second collection for disaster relief, so the baskets come around again.

This collection is a lot quicker than the first one, as people tend not to contribute as much or as often when the church hits them up twice. The usher keeps things humming until the basket reaches the woman in front of me.

She takes the basket and holds it for a second, as she looks at the usher almost like she wants something to happen or is afraid something might occur.

Then, without looking, she pushes the basket at me over her shoulder. I take it, toss in some cash and then pass it along.

As Sister Pam keeps talking, the woman continues craning her neck in sharp short movements as if she is desperate to get someone’s attention. I think about just leaving, but I realize that if I do anything, it will draw more attention and possibly upset more people, so I basically stay put.

Once the final song ends, the woman rushes into the aisle and moves toward the door quickly. We file out the side aisle, with Zoe hopping in front of a couple people who were heading out, nearly knocking into them.

“Sorry,” I say.

They smiled and both say something along the lines of, “That’s OK.”

I zip up my coat and follow my kid who is weaving her way toward the big exit doors in the back.

“I guess everybody’s in a hurry to get home.”



At the heart of so many social issues, is the balance between safety and fear. Finding the right mix between the two remains a difficult balancing act, Biehl said.

“I think the word fear is so important,” she said. “We are so afraid. How many times in the Gospel does God say, ‘Do not fear, be not afraid.’ I think that is the key. Fear.”

Biehl said she relies on her faith in God and what he has provided to her and her parish to come up with better ways to mitigate disaster and fear at the same time. The police have offered her advice in regard to ways to add cameras and establish behaviors that can tighten safety at the church. She said a subcommittee is working with her, the police and other outside agencies to improve the situation.

“I just pray that I don’t want to be paranoid,” she said. “I’m rooted in my faith, but I don’t want to get crazy thinking about this. If you think about that too much, you’re going to be crazy…God expects us to use our intelligence, so yes, we will look at the situation, call in the people we need to make our church secure, act more vigilant but we’re not going to be crazy.”

“I walk the walk because I know God is with me,” she added. “I say to God every morning, ‘If you want me to do this work, you’re going to have to keep me alive.’”

First-Person Target: A Six-Part Series on Fear and Safety in the Era of Mass Shootings

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.

(To understand the “rules” I set up for myself in regard to wearing the vest and conducting the interview, click here.)

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:

  1. Enter with an open mind and read the WHOLE series before you think I skipped your point of view.
  2. 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…
Have fun!


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.

IMG_1264With 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:

“Wear Kevlar.”

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?