Let’s try to get our language straight. According to federal law enforcement, a “spree killing” is defined as murders at two or more locations with very little time between them. “Serial killing” means killing multiple people over a longer period of time, with a “cooling off period” between murderous episodes.
A “mass murder” is the killing of 4 or more people at a single place and time. These sorts of murders do not include terrorists, and we will limit our interest to perpetrators who use firearms.
In the last issue of Women&Guns, I discussed tactics for dealing with these kinds of killing episodes, arguing that it is most effective to immediately go after an active shooter with lethal force than to wait for police to show up. But would such a response really work? Has someone like you or me, not uniformed police, ever actually stopped one of these murderous rampages in our country? Absolutely! Several people have, and several others have nearly done so. Here are some of their stories.
1. Jacquie Miller, Louisville, Kentucky , September 14, 1989
When the public was not yet accustomed to news stories about disgruntled employees turning places of business into shooting galleries, Joseph Wesbecker made big news. He had worked in the Standard Gravure printing company in Louisville, Kentucky, resigned due to severe mental illness, and one day he brought an AK-47 and some other guns to his former place of employment and started shooting people.
38-year old Jacquie Miller worked there, too, and when she heard the shots, she thought at first that light bulbs or something like that was breaking. She went into the hall to investigate, and saw Wesbecker in the midst of his killing rampage. She had a handgun in her purse, in her office! It wasn’t legal at that time, and it was against her company’s rules, too. She never thought of the legalities as she raced to get it, but just as she reached for her .38 Charter Arms, Wesbecker shot her four times. She was found lying on the floor with her gun in her hand. After spending about half an hour in the plant, Wesbecker finally committed suicide.
Miller survived, though gravely wounded, and went through many months of hospitalization and many, many surgeries to repair her as well as the doctors could. She pleaded for more reasonable pro-gun legislation from her wheelchair. She also vowed to keep carrying her gun, legally or illegally.
She was quoted as saying, “The day we were shot, the police were wonderful. They were heroic. They
were brave. They did the best they could given the circumstances, but the fact is, they got there after it happened. Most people view the police as the protectors of our society. But I see them as a clean-up crew. They get there after the fact. I don’t want my life put in someone else’s hands. I have not the slightest doubt I could have pulled the trigger. I saw his eyes; there was no one home.”
She also said, “If I had just realized they [the sounds she heard] were shots, I would have gotten my gun immediately, and when he walked into our office I know I could have stopped him. Then only three would have been shot, and only one would have been killed instead of 20 shot and 8 dead.”
Just a few seconds separated “almost stopped the killer” from “did stop the killer,” in this rampage. Surely Miller’s brave actions deserve to be remembered.
2. Suzanna Gratia Hupp , Killeen, Texas, October 16, 1991
Suzanna Gratia went to Luby’s restaurant with her parents for lunch. To comply with Texas law at the time, she had to leave her handgun in her car instead of carrying it in her purse into the restaurant. George Henard chose that day to drive his pickup truck into the restaurant, right through the front window, and then start shooting patrons with his 9mm Glock 17. Gratia reached for her gun in her purse, but, of course, it was not there. While she managed to escape through a window, Henard shot both her parents to death, killed 21 others and wounded another 20, reloading several times in the process. He finally committed suicide as the police approached. Nearly half of the people in the restaurant at the time were shot.
This horriffic incident propelled Gratia (later Hupp) into the limelight as a strong spokesperson in favor of concealed carry. The Texas laws have since been reformed, and she served multiple terms as a state representative there. There is absolutely no doubt in her mind that she could have stopped the massacre and probably saved both her parents if her gun had been with her. Instead, she was forced by the law to leave her gun outside, near, but not available when it was vitally needed.
3. Joel Myrick, Pearl, Mississippi , October 1, 1997
Remember the high school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi on October 1, 1997? Luke Woodham, a 16-year-old boy, began his day by stabbing his mother to death. He then brought a hunting rifle (a 30-30 lever-action) to school where he murdered his former girlfriend and her best friend. After that, he shot randomly into a group of students, wounding 7, and tried to drive away.
Joel Myrick, the assistant principal, heard the shooting. He went to his car, retrieved his personal .45 caliber Colt semiauto, and forced Woodham out of his car. Myrick made the shooter lie on the ground, pulled his coat over his head and kept one foot on his back to wait for the police.
The school principal felt that Woodham might have been headed to the pizza parlor where he worked or some other location to continue killing, since there were 30 rounds of ammo with the rifle in the escape car. Myrick’s actions certainly resulted in the swift capture of this spree killer, and probably saved other lives as well.
4. Ken Hammond, Salt Lake City, Utah, February 12, 2007
Malls aren’t just nice places to shop. They can be sources of virtually unlimited number of victims, if you are looking to kill a lot of people, as apparently 18-year old Sulejmen Talovic wanted to do. Nobody knows precisely why he decided to start killing folks, but he had a backpack full of ammunition, a shotgun and a .38-caliber pistol when he entered the Trolley Square shopping center in Salt Lake City. He shot 9 people, killing 5 of them.
Ken Hammond was an off-duty police officer having a meal with his wife in a restaurant in the mall when shooting broke out. Hammond was off duty, but he was armed. When he heard the gunfire he told his wife to call 911 while he headed toward the trouble. He was able to locate the gunman and pinned him down, exchanging fire with him until other officers arrived. Talovic died in a hail of police bullets, but it was the armed off -duty cop who interrupted and stopped the murders.
The police chief later said, “There is no question that Hammond’s quick actions saved the lives of numerous other people.” Talovic killed only 5 people. Think how many people are in your average mall. Many more would probably have died if not for the presence of a man who, though with police training, was essentially an armed citizen who just happened to be on the scene.
5. Jeanne Assam, Colorado Springs, Colorado, December 9, 2007
Matthew Murray was a troubled young man (24 years old) who tried several years previously to be a student at the Arvada Youth With A Mission (YWAM) missionary training center in Arvena, Colorado. However, after 2 months there he was let go, expelled for reasons that were never made entirely public, but may have had to do with his mental state. He was a classic loner, painfully shy, with extreme mood swings. He claimed to hear voices. He was socially awkward, which he blamed on his home schooling. He developed a hatred for Christian organizations in general and bore a grudge against YWAM in particular. He sent YWAM some hate mail, but that didn’t satisfy his anger, so he took action. He left some chilling messages on some religious websites, including this one: “I’m coming for EVERYONE soon and I WILL be armed to the …teeth and I WILL shoot to kill. …God, I can’t wait till I can kill you people. Feel no remorse, no sense of shame, I don’t care if I live or die in the shoot-out. All I want to do is kill and injure as many of you … as I can especially Christians who are to blame for most of the problems in the world.”
On the morning of December 9, 2007, Murray went to the training center and asked whether he could stay there overnight. When his request was refused, he shot 4 people including 2 staff members, killing 2 of them. He left the building on foot and although police immediately started searching for him, he was not found.
About 1 PM the same day, Murray entered the parking lot of the New Life Church, in Colorado Springs, 65 miles from his attack on the missionary center. YWAM had an office there, which might be why he chose it; he was not a member. This is not one of your little neighborhood churches. It is a mega-church, with over 10,000 members, a sanctuary that seats 7,500 and a youth theatre that holds 1,500 children. A service had ended about half an hour earlier, so there were almost 7,000 potential victims available.
Murray shot 4 people in the parking lot (including two teenage sisters and their father) and then went into the building where he shot another man. He could have gone on killing for quite a while; he had a rifle (a Bushmaster XM15 .223) , two semi-auto handguns (a .40 Beretta, and a 9mm Springfield Armory ), and about a thousand rounds of ammunition. This could easily have become the biggest mass murder ever.
He probably thought that he could kill as many people as he wanted in that church, but he didn’t count on the presence of Jeanne Assam. She was a 42-year old church member, owned a gun, and was a voluntary security officer for the church. She saw what was happening and immediately took action. She took cover and fired 5 times at Murray wounding him with 4 of those shots and putting him down. Realizing that he wasn’t going to be able to continue his killing spree, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
A few months after the incident, the Colorado State Senate passed a resolution praising Assam’s actions and calling her “a true hero.” Assam had been a police officer at one time, but had not worked at that job for some time, so she was a private armed citizen, not a police officer or even a paid security guard.
Afterward, Assam said that her hands weren’t shaking when she fired, and that she never for an instant thought of running away. “It seemed like it was me, the gunman and God,” she said repeatedly in interviews. The pastor estimated that easily 50 to 100 more people could have been killed if the armed Assam had not been there or had not acted decisively. The pastor also said, “When the shots were fired, she rushed toward the scene and encountered the attacker there in a hallway. He never got more than 50 feet inside our building,” he said, “There could have been a great loss of life yesterday.”
The Denver Post reported that there have been 12 church shootings in the US since 1991. Who would have thought churches could be so dangerous? Of course mass shootings can, and do, occur almost anywhere.
Wikipedia has a compiled list of various types of multiple murders in many countries. Limiting just to the United States, there have been 1,380 victims (about 580 killed, 800 injured). That’s the actual past; do you have any doubt that there will be more mass shootings attempted in the future? I don’t.
These folks in this article were prepared, with training, mindset and equipment, to stop the killers many minutes before police could possibly get there. Would you be ready? Think about them the next time you are whether it is just too much trouble to take your gun with you the next time you go out.
Figure 1. Multiple Murder Victims in the United States (source: Wikipedia)
This article first appeared in the Nov-Dec 2008 issue of Women&Guns mahazine. Copyright © 2008 Lyn Bates