This past week, we in Kansas City were forced to take an unblinking look at the emotional toll taken when a deranged man desperately needing psychiatric care picked up a gun and went on a shooting rampage.
On a much smaller scale we were drawn into the emotional drama that Blacksburg and the Virginia Tech University communities have endured and what other communities have faced in the past with eerily similar circumstances.
Here’s the horror of what we faced on an incredibly beautiful spring Sunday afternoon: Without provocation, a mentally ill man in his 50s killed an elderly neighbor woman who had taken him in because he was on the verge of losing his home.
She had fed him and temporarily provided him with a place to stay. He beat her to death last week and her body wasn’t discovered until Sunday morning. Her stolen car was reported missing and later that afternoon, a police officer saw the car and approached the driver. Gunshots were exchanged. The officer was wounded but he also wounded the shooter who escaped.
The shooter drove to a mall near the state line and pulled into a parking place. Persons in the cars on both sides of his car were immediately shot and killed in their cars.
The shooter then entered the mall after shooting the windows of a shoe store and a Starbucks. Several were injured from the flying glass.
Armed with two .22 pistols and a .30 caliber carbine rifle taken from his dead neighbor, the man began shooting at persons in the crowded mall while walking toward the Target store. That is where he had most recently worked, before his private security officer’s license was suspended.
By this time, the Kansas City Police swarmed the mall, and the man was “neutralized.” He died immediately from the shots sustained, and the incident was ended.
The only problem is that the story has not ended. The shots continue to reverberate in our community.
While the stores have reopened for business (life must go on), our hearts have been slow to reopen. They have closed in protection from the disturbance of randomness.
This could have easily happened anywhere. Indeed, this kind of thing has been a reoccurring phenomenon, as our nation has methodically cut back the funding for mental health care resources across the nation.
The American Psychological Association estimates that some 20 percent of our nation’s adult and youth population are diagnosable with some mental or emotional condition. This man had been admitted to a hospital last October, because of his threats of suicide, but was only detained for about six hours.
His sister apologized to the community for her brother’s savage attack on the community but also reminded us that she had been unable to get him committed to a hospital for the care he desperately needed. The shooter at Virginia Tech had a similar condition and was allowed to purchase guns by which to commit his acts of violence.
There is a common thread that connects these senseless stories, in which the resources to protect these perpetrators and the community as a whole have been losing ground and we are paying a severe price in terms of the wounded and dead who are victims of the shooters. Also at risk has been the national sense of priorities that would care for those who need care.
An irony in this story is that while at the same time the gory details of this tragedy were plastered on the front page of The Kansas City Star, another story on the inside section of the paper described how we’ve hit the half-trillion dollar mark in spending on the war in the Middle East.
At the beginning of the initiative to take us to war in Iraq, the White House estimated it would cost $50 billion. Now we sit at the $500 billion mark, and the costs are still climbing. Those exorbitant expenses, along with massive tax cuts, have meant that social services have necessarily been drastically cut.
Will this kind of event happen again? This is a problem that has been conveniently ignored, as the balance of national priorities has no place for the mentally ill.
Almost surely it will occur again, and the only randomness about it will be in guessing where the next shooting will occur.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).