On Sept. 11, 1991, I was beginning my sophomore year at Stevens High School in Rapid City, SD. I was in a computer class on the first floor. I don’t remember what first alerted us that something was wrong, but I remember hearing several loud, echoing bangs. To me, it sounded like someone throwing a basketball as hard as you could against the floor.
Two floors above me, a 17 year-old junior named Ryan R. Harris had walked into a math class, pulled out a sawed-off shotgun, and told the teacher to leave. He did, and Harris held the rest of the class hostage for the next four hours. He was inspired by Stephen King’s novella Rage, in which a misfit kid kills a teacher, takes a class hostage and charms all the kids in the end (except the mean jock who everyone secretly hated anyway).
Most of our school was evacuated. The room I was in was sort of tucked away, and we were told to stay in place. No one knew what was happening, but rumors swirled. We’d all heard the bangs, and saw freaked out teachers trying to deal with the situation. What we couldn’t see were the police surrounding the area, setting up snipers, deploying negotiators and readying their SWAT team. The working theory among my classmates was that someone had lit off some pipe bombs or something.
At one point, a teacher came in, and called me to come with him to the principal’s office, just down the hall. As soon as I got there, he whirled on me and demanded to know what I knew about “Ryan Harris.” Another teacher who was present (and who actually knew who I was) snarled, “Not ORRIN Johnson, God damn it!” They were looking for another kid with a name similar to mine, and who Harris apparently had a beef with.
I went back to class armed with new knowledge to share with my classmates. The problem was, my knowledge – as is so often the case as any crisis is unfolding – was wrong. There was another kid at my school named Ryan Harris. He was the nicest, most happy-go-lucky, best Wayne Campbell impersonator you could ever want to meet. I – and now my classroom – were trying to figure out what made a guy like that suddenly snap, and bomb the school.
The media rarely used Harris’ middle name or initial when writing about what occurred, and to this day my friend Ryan gets phone calls from media folks who don’t know any better.
After about an hour, we were cleared to leave. In the class being held hostage, the intercom had been blasted from the wall by Harris, and police negotiators were working to defuse the situation. Harris demanded pizza and cigarettes, which were delivered, and $1,000,000 and a helicopter, which weren’t. He fired a total of 10 shots in the room. But before he could get the Stockholm Syndrome angle working, he set down his gun for a minute to light a cigarette. That was enough time for a quick football player named Chris Ericks to grab his gun. Police swarmed in, and in the end – that day, at least – no one was physically hurt.
Harris did not have a bump stock, a high capacity magazine or even an assault rifle. Shotguns are on nobody’s (out loud) list of weapons to ban anywhere, and certainly not in a place where a tasty pheasant is the state bird. His weapon was already illegal for anyone to possess due to the barrel being shortened. He no doubt suffered from mental health issues, but so do millions of other people, teenagers included, the vast majority of whom don’t pick up a gun and start blasting away inside classrooms. It turned out that the only thing that stood between him and a room full of dead kids was his own restraint – something I think the traditional culture of my home town ought to get some credit for playing a small role in.
Sadly for Harris, his tenuous grip on himself didn’t last. He was certified as an adult by the legal system, and pled guilty to various crimes. He received probation, but with strict conditions to participate in psychiatric care. I remember a tense couple of days at Stevens the following spring when he walked away from a mental health facility. He soon turned himself back in.
Seven years later, Harris, who was by then in North Carolina and potentially involved with a woman who was found shot and killed, engaged police in a 15-hour armed standoff in a convenience store after a traffic stop, ultimately turning his handgun on himself, ending his own life.
Whenever a school shooting happens, it’s impossible not to think about my own experience, and of the – dare I say? – bullets dodged. Many of my friends from high school post their own reminiscences of that day when news of another school shooting ignites social media. Our opinions and politics are as diverse as they can get, and no one owns any sort of moral authority about the Second Amendment, mental health, bullying or any of the other straws people grab at when trying to come to grips with the unimaginable. But what I think most of us who were at school that day do share is a certain vivid sobriety about the risk of violence at times and places where one should least expect it. We share a perspective that most people – thankfully – will never have.
And so for me, it is worth thinking back to that September day so long ago, coupled with the things I’ve learned since, as I look at my own kids, worry for them and wonder what we can do to keep them carefree and safe – if indeed there is any such solution at all. (Spoiler alert: There is no “The Solution,” but there are certainly things we can – and ought – to do.)
My thoughts on weapons, self-defense, violence and mental illness have been refined by other life experiences since high school – my time as a martial arts practitioner and children’s instructor, a victim of domestic violence myself, working for a police department, three military deployments and 10 years in the criminal justice system as a public defender and then a deputy district attorney.
I can say for certain that anyone asking me for policy advice in the weeks following our very own school shooting would have been a fool. I turned 15 that month, for crying out loud, and while children may be the future, adults with more experience and hopefully more wisdom must handle policy issues in the present.
(This is not to say that crime victims of any age ought not be heard – they should, and those on the right who would sneer at their expressions of frustration and pain are fools and worse. President Trump, of all people, deserves enormous credit for hosting an opportunity for various victims of school violence past and present to express their thoughts, concerns and ideas. But there is a thin line between that and ghoulishly parading grieving children and parents around, wrapping them in Absolute Moral Authority and using them as a political cudgel, with the express purpose of appealing to emotion where facts or logic are insufficient to prevail.)
I claim no special moral authority by virtue of having merely been in the same building during a school shooting incident. But I do have some professional expertise most people throwing memes at each other on social media lack. These are issues that need to be rationally and truthfully discussed, not avoided or weaponized against one another. In that spirit, in the next column I’ll offer one man’s thoughts on these violent acts based on my experiences – and what can, cannot, should and should not be done about it.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]