This article is part of the Voices of School Shooting Survivors project, a series by VICE.com intended to shine a light on victims of school shootings across the country.
On February 27, 2012, a 17-year-old student at Chardon High School in Ohio fired a handgun at a table of classmates in the cafeteria. Of the five students who were hit, three died. Nathaniel Mueller survived the attack from his former friend after a bullet grazed his ear.
The shooter was actually one of our friends in middle school. He had been to my grandma’s house. One of the kids who was shot, his mother used to babysit him, so they grew up together. It’s hard to say now, but we were friends up until high school, and then he kind of distanced himself from everyone. I don’t think it was anything personal. There’s a lot of stuff that had come out about bullying, this, that, and the other. Typical stuff you hear after these mass shootings. It was never like that in our scenario, which was really strange. It adds an extra level of question to the whole situation which is already one big question after it happened. So it leaves that level of uncertainty.
In some cases there isn't always the obvious cause and effect that people want. It’s almost like religion. People want an easy answer to things people can’t understand. I probably hadn’t said more than a handful of words to him for two years—since we were freshmen in high school. My last encounter was about a week before that, I had seen him on the bus with his head against the window just kind of staring off into space. I waved to him and said, "What’s up?" He just looked at me. I didn’t think too much of it. My buddy, his last encounter, he saw him a couple months before in the summertime walking down the road and pulled over and asked if he needed a ride, and he said "No." It really does make you wonder what happens to a person that they can turn the switch and do something like that to other people they used to be friends with.
The day the shooting happened was really a weird day for everybody. We sat at the same table every morning since we were freshmen. It was usually 30 or 40 of us at this big cafeteria table. That day there were eight or seven of us. Everybody had their own strange thing. A handful of people just got stuck in the mud in their driveways that day. I was late to the bus and I actually had to run across my yard to get on the bus at my neighbor’s house that morning. My buddy who got shot didn’t want to go to school and his mom forced him to go.
The way the school is set up, everybody comes in off the buses and gathers in the cafeteria. The bell had gone off, so were just standing around talking, and at 7:42, I believe, I heard a bag pop. I looked over at my buddy. He had his head down on the table. I didn’t think too much about it. I heard another pop, and the second time I actually laughed. "Who is popping bags this early in the morning?" So I turned around 180 degrees behind me and about three feet away, I see him fire the third shot as it comes out of the barrel. At that point, the fight-or-flight kicks in, and it’s really not up to you anymore. I know that sounds weird, but when you’re in that state of mind, it really is what your body is gonna do. You hear a lot of people say, "I would do this, I would do that." You really have no conscious ability to do anything other than what your instincts tell you to do. So I ran out. I actually jumped over my best friend who was on the floor. I thought maybe, in his head, he is doing the drop and roll, like how they teach you to stay low in a fire drill. I went out the front door to the school, and I called the police while I was hiding behind some cars.
Our school did have have an active shooter plan in place, so all of us knew that we had to go to the middle school. That took so long, and when I did a local news interview, I was absolutely in shock. It's so funny when I look back, because it doesn't seem like I'm watching myself. Maybe for about a week I was still in shock. I would say at least once a month there was a story about Chardon, or about the school, or community, or somebody involved. I don’t think anybody even noticed the media. When you go through something like that, and you have media in your small town every day for a month straight, you kind of start to hate them a little bit. That one-year anniversary was like somebody was taking a plate off of my chest. That was when I felt like I could move on.
I did a short internship with the Brady Campaign, which had brought in a guy named Colin Goddard who was shot at Virginia Tech four times. After that, I had stayed in contact with him and said, "Hey, I think this would be cool for me. I want to do this." Shortly after, he had moved over to work for Mayor Bloomberg and Mayors Against Illegal Guns before they had merged with Sandy Hook and Moms Demand Action. So I kind of got to see that merger go through and work for a lot of families in Sandy Hook, which was the experience of a lifetime at 18 years old. At the end of it all, the company was going in a direction that I didn’t feel that I could be a part of and I expressed that and they were very open about that and said, "We don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do." When I was with them, they really wanted to ban 30-round clips and assault rifles, and I at first was for that, and as time went on, I started to think about it and I could not agree with that.
I've never really thought about how bad it could have been, or what it would have been like if he had an AR-15. Obviously, it would have been a lot worse. The only saving grace in our case is we had a football coach who was man enough to chase this guy out of the school. The only reason he was able to do that was because he only had ten rounds as opposed to 30. It could have been the same weapon, 30 rounds versus ten rounds. Thirty rounds is going to win every time.
The only reason I don’t advocate for a ban anymore is because if there was no AR-15s, people would shoot up schools with AK-47s. The only thing I deep down in my heart want to see happen is universal background checks for everyone, for private sales, for the gun shows. I just want to make sure that everybody who owns a firearm does it legally, is qualified to have it, and is responsible, and I don’t think many people disagree with that at all. If I could ask Donald Trump anything, it would be to fund the NICS system, which for people who are unfamiliar, everytime a counselor or doctor deems someone to have a mental issue or inability, it goes into that system. It’s very under-funded. It was used about 10 percent of the time when I was in DC a good five years ago. I would also ask him why he got rid of the mental illness ban he got rid of when he first got into office.
It's really hard to say what would have legally prevented this, though. The rumor that has been going on in our town for a long time, was that he used a gun his uncle had bought the day before. He had a background check I believe, but nothing would have stopped him from legally obtaining a firearm. I think in our case, legislation that punishes someone after the fact—his uncle was never charged for anything, so maybe there's room for legislation there, but it’s hard. Every time a shooting happens, it’s always the same argument: It’s almost impossible to stop evil. You have to look past the fact that you’re not going to stop evil, but how can you lessen it? How can you make evil not so capable?
When I was working on improving gun control policy, I got to talk to all these politicians and it’s sad that nothing ever came out of it and we’re still talking about it five years later. I think the saddest part is that it happens so often now that it almost doesn’t even matter. It's kind of like NASCAR crashes. I’m sure when NASCAR first started, those were a really big deal, and now they’re not. People go blind to things that happen a lot faster than you would think. Look at the state of our politics and how there’s so many things going on that people go, "Oh that’s crazy," and they move on. You can’t live in that atmosphere your entire life. You just can’t. It’s shocking. It’s going to continue to be shocking for a day or two until the next one happens. I think that’s kind of where we are at right now. It’s happening too often for it to be meaningful.
But I think these Parkland kids just have power in numbers, and they were damn smart to get the ball rolling with the media in town. I think that’s the difference from a lot of the shootings that happen. They tend to devastate a community, which it has in Parkland, but the difference is that it's in one of the biggest school systems in Florida. That is a lot of kids and people who are willing to speak out, willing to do it yesterday, and the media is already there. You know, it’s usually not like that for a lot of these other shootings. Smaller towns just go into shock. But when you have all those people, and you mix in the media being on site, it’s the perfect storm. Fire and gasoline. And they hit when the fire is hot. I think they are going to be in the news for a long time.
You have to re-learn who you are as a person after surviving a mass shooting. For me, at 7:41 that morning, I was Nate, and then at 7:43 I was a new person with a new set of fears, new set of morals, new characteristics. As the years go on, you kind of adapt and get used to that new person that you are. The whole month of February every year is generally a bad month for me and a lot of people I went through it with. We went from doing very unhealthy things on the anniversary to now, the past couple years, we’ve been able to gather a group of friends and cook out and turn it into a celebration of life as the years have gone by. It does get easier, but it is always still there.
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