At 3:00 p.m. on February 14, I was sitting in the political-science graduate assistants’ office in DuSable Hall at Northern Illinois University. Ten of us were chatting, waiting for 3:30 classes.
At 3:10, my friend’s cell phone rang. “Joe just called,” she said after hanging up, her face ashen and her eyes wide. “He says there are people streaming out of Cole. He sounds scared.” She broke off. “If he’s messing with me, I’m going to kill him.”
DuSable is right behind Cole Hall, so several of us rushed to the windows. Moments later, the assistant chairman of the department rang the office. My friend Geoff answered. A few seconds into the conversation, he waved frantically for us to shut the door, then hung up: “We’re supposed to lock ourselves in here until they know what’s going on.” For the next hour, we waited. The news reports online were conflicting, and our cell phones were barely getting service.
There had been a gunman. One was dead. One was injured. Two were dead. By 3:20, the university had posted a notice online, warning that the shooter was still at large. A little later, news reports announced that he had killed himself. Finally, around 4:20, someone knocked on the office door. “Police,” barked a harsh voice.
Geoff opened the door. “Is it safe to leave?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say safe,” the officer answered, “but head toward the childcare center. Keep your hands in view. Don’t go to your cars.”
I followed my friends into the hallway. Two officers stood there, holding rifles across their chests. Another, his finger on the trigger of his pistol, was positioned at the top of the staircase. We held our hands out to our sides and trooped down two flights of stairs and out the back doors. The first sound to greet us was the beating of choppers flying overhead. “O my God,” said my friend Kevin. I looked in the direction he was facing. The entire parking lot—and it’s a sizeable one—was a sea of flashing blue and red.
Even if we had wanted to get our cars, we couldn’t have gone anywhere; the clogged traffic would have kept us from making any tracks. So we walked to a nearby bar, where we knew the news would be aired. The death toll started rising. Two. Then four. Then five. Then, finally, six, including the shooter. Eighteen wounded. We were all receiving frantic phone calls from friends and family. Pacing the parking lot in the cold, I lashed out to my mother over the phone. “Nobody could do anything! These were a bunch of 18-year-olds, stuck in a lecture hall, with nowhere to go! They were like a bunch of sitting ducks, just waiting to die, and there’s nothing any of them could do!”
The days since have been surreal. The university is closed for a week, and most students have left campus. Those of us who remain try to stay busy. We clean our apartments; we go grocery shopping; we meet up for dinner or drinks. None of us can focus on our readings or papers. Every now and then, we stop moving, and some kind of curtain seems to lift. In church yesterday morning, a little boy stamped his feet on the wooden pew, and several of us jumped. I can’t keep from looking over my shoulder when I head down the long hallway to my apartment.
So what do we do? It is only a matter of time until another man in a trench coat or wearing a ski mask aims his shotgun into a crowd of 18-year-olds. Maybe if some students had been armed, there would have been more deaths amid panicked crossfire. But really, how many are going to conceal and carry? And among those who would, how many will have the presence of mind to pull out their handguns and fire back? I’m guessing not too many. If we don’t allow our students to protect themselves, then we must train our faculty and graduate assistants to protect them.
Maybe looser gun laws and better protection won’t help. Where there is a will, there is a way. But I never want to feel again like I felt on Thursday. I never want to be locked in an office with nothing but a wooden door between me and a killer with a shotgun and four pistols. Maybe, if I had been carrying my own pistol, I wouldn’t have been so afraid. Maybe, if one of the students in that lecture hall had a gun, some of the others would have mustered the courage to fight back.
Logistically speaking, NIU was prepared. Police arrived within seconds of the first 911 call, closely followed by a host of city, county, and state police. Our faculty have been wonderful, opening their homes and offering their time to console students. The outpouring of emotional support and practical advice from the community, churches, and other universities—including Virginia Tech—has been a blessing to us all. And of course, with five weapons, the death toll could have been much higher.
But five students are dead, and I’m scared when I leave my apartment.