<em>“Tanner first fired a gun aged three. He now owns a .243 Ruger rifle, a Remington 58 and a 20-guage automatic shotgun. Andrew has a Browning Rifle, a Remington pump-action shotgun and a military rifle. I’ve got about 50 guns.”</em>

Jack Cone, 45, with sons Andrew, 10 and Tanner, 12, NRA annual convention and gun show, Dallas. From Gun Nation © Zed Nelson

On one of the training courses I got sent on the instructor said, “The thing about guns is that they’re a great way to turn money into noise.”

Everyone nodded. It seemed like a smart thing to say. I guess he was trying to get us to appreciate the wastage in firing your gun off like an idiot when you don’t have a target, just because it makes you feel like you’re doing something. I could see a lot of the other school resource officers nodding. There isn’t a reason for an SRO to be shooting his pistol off on campus, anyway. Well, only one reason. One event. And when that event happens, you realise guns ain’t about the noise. They’re about the silence. But I guess it don’t sound so clever to say guns are a great way to turn money into silence.

Of course, with so many SROs in the room you hear a lot of horror stories. SROs up in the north of the state talking about “neutralising an active shooter.” And we all knew like as not that meant killing a teenager, but what the hell else was this training for? Almost every week, I’d have a talk with Sally over dinner about what I’d do if there was an active shooter at my school. We both knew I’d be the one to face him down and because there were two likely outcomes of that – me killing him, him killing me – we never really chased the thought to the end.

The SROs who’d actually done some killing fell into two camps. There were the guys in whom the killing had closed something down. And then there were the guys in whom the killing had really opened something up. Those were the guys I was wary of. They’d go into a whole lot of detail about the pursuit and especially the killshot. The killshot was an anecdote in itself. It was like there was a hierarchy to the storytellers. The ones, like me, who’d never had an incident might be involved in the talk at the beginning but then we’d drop away. The ones who’d had a pursuit but not a killshot could last a little longer, but only the guys with a killshot could reach the end. One or two SROs had disarmed an active shooter without violence but the killshot guys were still at the top of the pyramid. When I heard some of these guys talk about brains exploding out of skulls, I figured they’d always had a killshot coming to them in their lives, no matter whether or not they were paid to carry a gun.

I’d been an SRO at my school for twenty years. It’s a decent school in Osceola County, white stone buildings set back from a long flat road where you see the heat blurring in the distance as if the horizon were being shook out. The worst incident in that whole time was that I’d had to confiscate a hunting knife. I thought that was bad enough. A bunch of fistfights, obviously, and one kid who came in with swastikas on his bag who I needed to sit down with and give a talking to. But otherwise very little. We’d always had really great kids. They called me ‘Dep’ on account of my being deputised by the Sherriff. Even gave me an award once, Best Staffer To Talk Things Out With. That meant a lot.

That day, when the first reports came through of firecrackers going off in building D12, I didn’t think too much on it.

It was 10.12am. The papers printed out the timeline the next day.

I left my office and started making my way over to D12. It’s about a two hundred yard distance and I wasn’t walking slow but I guess I wasn’t running neither.

What I found out later is that by then three kids were already dead.

When I got to D12 the double doors were pinned back and I was about to go in and then I heard more bangs and they didn’t sound like no firecrackers.

I couldn’t hear no more shots but I still saw kids running and some ran past me and I yelled at them to get back, to get the hell out of there. I reckon I saved lives.”

My radio was squawking to hell and the fire alarm had started and I saw kids running across the football pitches. I felt like my training kicked in and I radioed a code red to lock down the school at 10:13am. That’s just a minute after the initial call. They played a recording of me next day on the news. “Be aware, possible, ah firecrackers, could be shots. Possible shots, D12 building. Code red lockdown.” I thought I sounded okay, not scared, not stammering.

I took up a cover position facing D12 with my back against the janitor’s hut. I couldn’t hear no more shots but I still saw kids running and some ran past me and I yelled at them to get back, to get the hell out of there. I reckon I saved lives.

Los Angeles family purchase an AR-15 high-velocity semi-automatic assault-style rifle for ‘home protection’. The AR-15 is a modified version of the M-16, used to deadly effect in the Vietnam War. From Gun Nation © Zed Nelson

We couldn’t place the location of the shooter. We just didn’t know where he was. I remember thinking it could be a sniper like that bastard in Vegas and I was scoping out the other buildings, the vantage points, even the trees.

It was now 10:14am. Eight kids were dead.

The shooter was going up the stairs. Next day I saw this animation CNN put together that showed his movements. At 10:15am he got to the second floor and killed two kids in the hallway. Then he went into classroom 12/22.

I was still outside, on the opposite side of the building. I could hear shouts, maybe screams. The fire alarm made it difficult to tell. The radio was doing a lot of talking but not much helping.

The shooter was firing 18 rounds into 12/22. He killed four more kids. Then he went back into the hall.

“I need some units over here!” This was me again on the radio.

Someone came back to me, flickery with static, “We got, ah, two gunshot victims. Southeast entrance.”

I said, “Please repeat location.”

“Right over by the southeast entrance.”

“Is the shooter there?” I was shouting now.

“Negative.”

“I hear shooting. Shots fired D12.” Looking back, I don’t remember hearing no more shooting but at 10:15 there I was saying I did. “Do the victims say what he looks like?”

“Victims non-responsive. I repeat, victims non-responsive.”

That stopped me. I looked up at the windows on D12 and I didn’t know what to do.

At 10:16am the shooter was overpowered in the stairwell by two unarmed staff members as he was reloading. The shooting had lasted four minutes.

Sixteen kids were dead.

The fire alarm was shut off. Even the police sirens seemed to go quiet.

Silence.

The shooter, hell, it was that weird kid I’d bawled out for coming to school with Nazi shit on his bag. Turned out he’d told pretty much everyone around him what he was planning to do. He walked around wearing swastikas, he posted pictures on Facebook holding guns, he left comments on Twitter saying he was going to shoot up a school.

I guess you could say the warning signs were there.

Why didn’t no one do nothing? Why didn’t no one call it in? Perhaps some people were scared. Ain’t no shame in that. If – on one single occasion – your courage fails, it don’t mean you ain’t brave.

I came home and I looked Sally in the eye and I wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking.

Losing your courage one time don’t mean you ain’t brave. Is a man’s whole life going to be judged on eighty seconds?”

I went to as many funerals as I could. And I cried at every single one, like a damn fool. Those kids, my friends, murdered.

It took ten days for them to look at the surveillance tapes. Then I got a call from the Sherriff telling me I was retired, as of that moment. Said I was a disgrace and a coward and a bunch of other things. The next day, he went on television and called me the same names with a few more added for good measure.

And since then things have gone a bit different for me.

I admit, it just doesn’t look good, that footage of me pressed up against the damn janitor’s hut. I worked out that there was maybe eighty seconds between me taking up my position there and the shooter getting overpowered. What could I have done differently in those eighty seconds? Just to run up the stairs and get to the other side of the building would’ve taken twenty or thirty seconds. So I’d have had at best a minute.

Six kids died in that minute.

So I wish to hell I’d gone in the building. I still ain’t set foot in there to this day. Maybe I’m a coward, maybe I ain’t, but if I’d have gone in the building, I’d have known one way or the other. I was on the threshold. Take three steps forward and all this would’ve been different.

Pro-gun bumper stickers, Las Vegas. From Gun Nation © Zed Nelson

It was about six months afterwards that this film crew got in touch and asked if I’d take part in something they were making. They wanted to film me in D12, tracing the shooter’s route. My first reaction was to tell them to go to hell, like all the other vultures that had come out of the woodwork gunning for me. But Sally thought I should do it. Said it might help things mend.

So I agreed.

The shoot was in a month’s time. On the day, a Sunday, they came to pick me up and on the way over to the school, I had a chat with the young feller who seemed to be in charge. It’s a fair drive now, I’ve moved out of Osceola County, so it was a long chat. I wanted to see if he planned to make a fool of me or not but he seemed okay.

Right first thing, they set up out outside D12. It hadn’t changed one bit since I’d last seen it. Even the double doors were pinned open like before.

They set me up in my cover position against the janitor’s hut and I talked through all the actions I’d taken: scoping the scene, locking down the school, stopping kids going near the building.

Then they told me to go into D12 and they filmed me walking over to it and the young feller was asking questions. He asked me what it felt like to come back.

I said, “It feels odd.” Because it did.

“Does it bother you that people are calling you a coward?”

“… Yes it does. I know it ain’t true.”

“You waited outside when you knew the shooter was inside.”

“I didn’t know for definite the shooter was inside. He could’ve been anywhere.”

“You said yourself on your radio, ‘Shots fired D12.’”

I paused. I was right at the threshold of the building again. Where I’d stopped before. And I stopped again today. I said, “Losing your courage one time don’t mean you ain’t brave. Is a man’s whole life going to be judged on eighty seconds?”

They were looking at me. I’d begun to sweat. Maybe agreeing to this weren’t such a good idea. I looked round and realised I was looking at the trees and vantage points again and lowered my gaze. My mouth was dry. I said, “You want to talk about a coward? A coward wouldn’t go in this damn building, would he?” I stepped forward, over the threshold, into the hallway and looked at them. “I’m in, ain’t I? I’m in the building. You got it on film. You want to talk about a coward, you ask a hundred other people what they’d do.” The young feller looked at me and then glanced at his crew. I realised I was crying. “I’m inside,” I said. “I’ve gone into the damn building.”

 

AJT James was born in Wales and lives in London. His writing has appeared in New Welsh Review, The Cafe Irreal, Eclectica, Bandit Fiction and many other magazines in print and online.
ajtjames.com
@AJTJames

Zed Nelson’s work has been exhibited at Tate Britain, the ICA and the National Portrait Gallery, and is in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Based in Lodon, he has had solo shows in London, Stockholm and New York. Gun Nation (Westzone, 2000), his seminal first book, has been awarded five major international photography prizes and is regarded by many as the definitive body of work on the subject of America’s deadly love affair with the gun.
zednelson.com
@zed_nelson

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