On June 14th I had the honor of giving the undergraduate commencement address at Seattle Pacific University. Commencement speakers usually do their best to share a lesson or two with the graduates, but this year Seattle Pacific University students, administration, and faculty inspired me and people across the nation by how they responded after a campus tragedy that should have been unthinkable but instead has become all too routine: a shooting at their beloved school.
Just days before graduation a young man with a history of mental illness entered a science and engineering building on the university’s campus armed with a shotgun and more than 50 rounds of ammunition and began firing. He killed 19-year-old freshman Paul Lee, a young man with an enormous smile whose friends said he was known for his laugh and sense of joy, and wounded two other students before 22-year-old student security monitor Jon Meis pepper-sprayed and tackled him as he paused to reload, ending the deadly rampage. The shooter’s plan had been to harm as many people as possible before taking his own life.
The private Christian university’s expressed mission is to equip students to engage the culture, change the world, and pursue scholarly excellence rooted in the gospel. How wonderful to see it in practice during such a difficult time. It brought the community closer together, united by a common sense of faith. While students expressed anger, there was also an immediate sense of forgiveness and mercy towards the shooter, with many expressing pity instead of hatred for him.
Jon Meis, the courageous student who stopped the attack, has been adamant about not wishing to be considered a hero. He helped set the tone in a powerful statement released after the shooting where he said: “[W]hat I find most difficult about this situation is the devastating reality that a hero cannot come without tragedy. In the midst of this attention, we cannot ignore that a life was taken from us, ruthlessly and without justification or cause. Others were badly injured, and many more will carry this event with them the rest of their lives. Nonetheless, I would encourage that hate be met with love. When I came face to face with the attacker, God gave me the eyes to see that he was not a faceless monster, but a very sad and troubled young man. While I cannot at this time find it within me to forgive his crime, I truly desire that he will find the grace of God and the forgiveness of our community.” Other students spent the day after the shooting in prayer circles and small groups studying passages like this one: “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hate. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.” Sophomore Hallie Brinkman told a reporter what that passage meant to her: “‘Everyone is shocked and angry,’ she said of the campus and the pervasive sense of violation. But at least in her circle of friends, she said, sympathy, charity, and forbearance are fighting back. Of the gunman, she said, ‘I haven’t heard anyone, so far, say anything other than, ‘I feel sorry for the guy.””
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the new The Book of Forgiving coauthored with his daughter says: “It is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. If I slap you after you slap me, it does not lessen the sting I feel on my own face, nor does it diminish my sadness over the fact that you have struck me. Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.” The genuine sense of forgiveness and grace at Seattle Pacific University is remarkable. The school’s students, faculty, and administration truly struggle to live their faith. I was deeply moved that my mother’s favorite hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” opened the graduation ceremony, walling off despair though not sadness during this difficult time. Even in the middle of tragedy and loss there was also a profound sense of gratitude that the attack was able to be stopped before more life was lost.
What if the shooter had had an assault weapon? The student security monitor was able to subdue the shooter because he had to stop to reload his shotgun. If he had been armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a large capacity magazine capable of firing more than a few rounds without reloading, the tragedy would almost certainly have grown—as we have seen over and over again in similar attacks. Instead a young man with a brave heart armed only with pepper spray was able to seize available seconds to act with the help of other unarmed bystanders and bring a tragedy to a quick end.
At the same time we must all ask: could this have been prevented from happening at all? The shooter, who reportedly had an obsession with the shootings at Columbine High School and a long history of mental illness, was detained and committed to mental health facilities twice before the attack at Seattle Pacific University. In 2010 he called 911 to report he “had a rage inside him” and wanted to hurt himself and others, and in 2012 police found him lying intoxicated in a roadway, where he told officers he wanted a SWAT team “to get him and make him famous.” Both times he was taken to a hospital for evaluation. His history of involuntary commitments to mental health facilities should have barred him from possessing a gun. Washington State does require reporting of mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, but does not have a universal background check law in place. At least one source says the shooter, who also reportedly worked for eight years at a gun range, used that loophole and purchased his gun legally through a private seller. And another critically important concern continues to go unaddressed—the need to ensure timely and appropriate mental health treatment, in the community whenever possible, for children of all ages and for young adults. While steps have been taken in Connecticut and a few other states since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, so much more is needed.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, the attack at Seattle Pacific University was the 73rd shooting on a school or college campus in the United States since the tragedy at Sandy Hook. I am so grateful to the Seattle Pacific University community for their witness of strength, forgiveness, and deep faith. Yet I am heartbroken that they and so many other children, youths, and adults walk in fear on a daily basis and keep having to worry about experiencing this at all. Why is our nation saturated with guns— four million in military and law enforcement hands and 310 million in civilian hands? Why are American children and teens 17 times more likely to die from gun violence than their peers in 25 other high-income countries combined? Why is our mental health system still so inadequate to respond to the cries of those needing help? When will we all say enough?
We can and must do better.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.