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Another Shooting, But the Same Vexing Questions Remain

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One day before the one-year anniversary of the killing of twenty-six in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, an 18-year-old young man entered the high school at which he was a student in suburban Denver on Friday and shot two students before killing himself. One of those students, Claire Davis, a 17-year-old senior, is now in very critical condition, described by USA Today this morning as “clinging to life.”

The story is shocking on its face for any number of reasons. As Carolyn Pesce of USA Today reports:

The gunman, who entered a Denver-area school on Friday and shot and critically wounded a student intended to harm a large number of individuals. Karl Pierson, age eighteen, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot, entered the north side of the high school armed with a shot gun he bought legally, with multiple rounds of ammunition strapped across his body, a machete and a backpack filled with three Molotov cocktails.

Pesce goes on to describe the tragedy: “In less than two minutes he fired five shots and ignited one of the Molotov cocktails before running to the back of the school library and killing himself.”

This is a story that simply defies the imagination when we ask a couple of very simple questions. The most direct question is unavoidable: why did this young man do this? It appears that behind this crime might be the simplest of human emotions: resentment and revenge. The student had targeted a teacher who had been working with him on the school’s debate team. The student was known to have been a very angry debater at times, but, nonetheless, was described as having his temper under control—at least until Friday. On that day he entered the school, calling out the teacher’s name and, amazingly enough, he entered the school carrying a shotgun he had bought legally as an 18-year-old in Colorado on the sixth of December.

That raises another immediate question: how in the world, given the contemporary concerns about school security, could an 18-year-old student enter a high school in the Denver area carrying, and not even trying to conceal, a shotgun with multiple rounds of ammunition strapped across his body, with a backpack filled with three Molotov cocktails, and also carrying a machete? He detonated one of the Molotov cocktails to little effect, but he shot two students, one of them with only a superficial wound and the other one, young Claire Davis, shot in the head.

This is a sad account in every dimension, but it drives us right back to the same basic questions as Columbine, as Aurora, as Newtown, Connecticut. The big question of why is a question that must be asked but cannot be adequately answered.

One especially haunting issue rises to the surface of this tragedy. Unlike so many recent school shooters, Karl Pierson was not suspected by his friends of being capable of such criminality and violence. How could his closest friends miss this part of Karl? We must note the inability of even his closest friends to describe what in the world happened between the relatively hot-headed-but-under-control young man they say they knew and the young man who entered the high school on Friday, intending to commit murder, setting off a Molotov cocktail, and shooting one student for no apparent reason whatsoever before taking his own life.

This transformation—of the Karl Pierson who entered that school with murderous intent on Friday as compared with the Karl Pierson that had been known for the previous eighteen years—raises one of the most basic questions that frustrates all human beings: how in the world can we understand someone like this? But then, of course, that drives us back to an even more basic question: How can we understand anyone? How can we get into the human heart and try to plumb its depths and disentangle its cobwebs? The reality is we can’t, even when it comes to our own heart. And, yet, we have to try.

That is why we put screening and security systems in place.  But why in the world wasn’t there some screening process in place that would have prevented someone walking in with an unconcealed shotgun? The directness of that question is raised by Jack Healy in The New York Times when he writes:

The student did not try to hide the shotgun he carried into Arapahoe High School at 12:30 p.m. Friday. He sought to confront a teacher, law enforcement officials said, and asked his classmates where he could find him. The teacher slipped away from the building, but officials said the gunman seriously wounded one student and then died, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado then called the episode an “all-too-familiar sequence” in his state. The memory of Columbine is ever present.

No doubt Governor Hickenlooper now faces the same questions as the rest of us.  And when you look at so many of the editorial pieces written over the weekend, so many seem to assume that there is an obvious answer to how to prevent this kind of tragedy. The truly vexing thing from the Christian worldview, the most deeply troubling truth, is that there is no way to prevent this—not fully, not adequately, not comprehensively. We fool ourselves if we think we can. On the other hand, we’re irresponsible if we do not try.