The Mass Shooter at My School Only Stopped Because His Gun Jammed

We assumed it was a hunter because, well, it was 1992 and school shootings were not a part of our collective consciousness.

Mar 23 2018, 4:00am

Photo courtesy the author. Image by Lia Kantrowitz

This article is part of the Voices of School Shooting Survivors project, a series by intended to shine a light on victims of school shootings across the country.

On December 14, 1992, an 18-year-old student at Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, opened fire on his community. When the rampage was over, two people had been killed and four others injured. Among the survivors was sophomore Anne Thalheimer.

I was 18-years-old and working on a paper for my sophomore writing seminar in my dorm room on the edge of campus when the phone rang. It was my resident director: “Turn out the lights, lock your doors and get down on the floor. Someone is shooting on campus.”

We assumed it was a hunter because, well, it was 1992 and school shootings were not a part of our collective consciousness like they are now. It was before most people had cell phones. Everyone was calling each other on landlines: “What’s happening? What’s going on?”

We had never had an active-shooter drill. Why would you need to?

We didn't find out until we got a call much later that night saying everybody should come down to the dining hall. One of my classmates had bought a gun, and murdered a professor and a student. He also wounded a security guard and three other students.

Somebody laughed, because grief and trauma are weird. Everybody was stunned. We were asking ourselves, How could this have happened here? How could one of us have done this? What do you mean these people are dead? It was unfathomable. We had never had an active-shooter drill. Why would you need to? School was supposed to be a place where you could feel safe.

Simon’s Rock only had about 350 students, so everybody knew the shooter. We had classes together, but we didn’t really hang out. He had written a couple papers that people found pretty offensive. In one, he said that people with AIDS should be rounded up in concentration camps. He and his friends would sit at a table in the dining hall and glower and generally be unpleasant human beings. He had alienated himself in a lot of ways, but he wasn’t isolated. He had friends. He interacted with people.

The paper I was writing when the shooting started was for one of the two classes I had with Ñacuñán Sáez, one of the people murdered that evening. I also knew the shooter’s other fatal victim, Galen Gibson. It was impossible to be on campus and not know Galen—there was no one else like him.

After the shooting, I stayed on at Simon Rock for my bachelor's degree. That saved me. I didn’t go off somewhere where nobody knew what happened. I was in a community for another two years of people who all already knew and were going through it with me. I was lucky to have a community of survivors, other people trying to grapple with this inconceivable tragedy, and also go on with the business of living and being a college student, and trying to exist in the world.

I went to the trial for one day, and that was a very intense experience—sitting there and seeing the shooter again. I felt immense rage, an indescribable fury as I watched the man who had murdered my professor and my classmate. The trial only took a month, and he was found guilty on all 17 counts.

The shooter has given a lot of interviews since, which, in my view, is an effort to stay in the public eye. He still hasn't really acknowledged the amount of damage he caused to all of us in the Simon's Rock community. He told Newsweek after Virginia Tech in 2007, “The fact that I was able to buy a rifle in 15 minutes, that's absurd. I was 18. I couldn't have rented a car to drive home from school, yet I could purchase a rifle. Obviously a waiting period would be great. Personally, I only had five days left of school before winter break ... If I had a two-week waiting period for the gun, I wouldn't have done it."

It’s a quote of his that frequently gets pulled out, which doesn’t recognize the fact that he ordered bullets and had them shipped to campus. He had time to think about what he was going to do, and he still did it. He still hasn’t taken responsibility for his murders.

The way I see it, naming the murderer inspires more crime. The more mass shootings we have, the more we learn about mass shooters, the more we learn that they kind of read about this in the media, and think, Oh I could do that too. I want more victims. I want to be more well-known. The media has a responsibility not to glamorize murder, not to make someone famous for taking the lives of others.

Meanwhile, it's been tough to witness the deluge of school shootings that have happened since Simon’s Rock, and not see anything done about it on a federal level. We need universal background checks. I’ve lived in Massachusetts almost all my life, and actually grew up around guns. My dad was a clay target shooter, so we would go to the gun range as kids. He was always very careful to really explain to us what it was, why it was not a toy. He safely stored everything. We weren’t going to blunder into it. I think a lot about that and how easy it was for my classmate to get a gun—not just any gun, but a cheap, Chinese-made SKS. His weapon kept jamming, but he intended to kill all of us. It’s unfathomable to sit with that truth.

One of the things we accomplished after our school shooting in 1992 was fixing a loophole in Massachusetts that allowed the perpetrator of our shooting to get his gun. Massachusetts used to honor the law of the purchaser's home state, which is how an 18-year-old from Montana was able to walk into a Massachusetts gun store and walk out with this cheap SKS. After the shooting, we went to the statehouse and talked to our legislators. We got signatures on petitions, and even though there were all these adults saying, “You will change your mind about guns when you’re older,” the law got changed. If the same perpetrator went into a gun store today to try and do that same thing, he wouldn’t be able to get the gun.

In America, it’s important to walk the line between the Second Amendment, which is a federally protected right, and making sure they don’t get in the hands of dangerous people. We’re not doing enough to keep guns out the hands of people who are too dangerous to have them. There’s no background checks at gun shows or for private sales. We have to change these things. They contribute to the epidemic of gun violence across our country. Not just at the mass shooting level but also at the domestic violence level.

To this day, I’m grateful to have a community of survivors to talk about the gun epidemic. When I went to graduate school afterwards, nobody knew what had happened to me. I didn’t tell anybody. That was weird. You feel marked in some way. Having close friends who I can just ping whenever there’s another mass shooting is so important. I’m still in touch with other survivors from the Simon’s Rock shooting, and I’m an Everytown Survivor Fellow. With other survivors, you have a shared language already. You know that that other person is going to see the news of a mass shooting, and they’re going to have the same feeling you’re having. Like, “Oh god. Not again. Why is this happening again?”

I’m lucky to have the opportunity to speak with people who have been impacted by gun violence; even if you weren’t shot, you’re still a gun-violence survivor. If you witnessed a shooting, you are a gun-violence survivor. If you had a friend who has a domestic-violence situation and their partner brandished a gun, you’ve been touched by gun violence. We tend to think about it in ways that soften the experience of what actually happened, but we need to get specific about it. What happened on my college campus wasn’t just a school shooting—it was murder. There was an article that popped up years ago, where somebody referred to the perpetrator of the Simon’s Rock shooting as an “ex-school shooter.”

He can be an ex-school shooter when my friends are no longer dead.