I Fired a Handgun For the First Time on the Same Day Nikolas Cruz Shot and Killed 17 People in Florida

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

The first day I ever fired a handgun, a lunatic shot and killed 17 people at a Florida school.

What started out as an empowering new adventure turned into a complex — and, I think, ultimately good — examination of some cultural truths as they relate to what happened in Florida, and Vegas before that, and Newtown and all the rest stretching back to Columbine. But more on that in a minute…


That day was, of course, February 14, 2018 — Valentine’s Day — and today is the day after. No one’s healed or processed the death of innocence yet, but there’s already a good deal of discussion online and in the media about what needs to be done (good question and one we should try to answer). The President is speaking live about the shootings as I write this, news of which was met with the usual inappropriate cynicism because people apparently can’t put their personal animus away for even a day despite the unadulterated tragedy of what took place in Florida (seriously, save your snark. It’s extra ugly today).

And we’re slowly learning about the perpetrator, a 19-year-old kid depressed about his adoptive mother’s death and possibly an ex-girlfriend, with known behavioral problems, who had been on both police and school radar.

Nikolas Cruz was apparently obsessed with weapons and had made some disturbing YouTube videos to that effect. He legally purchased the rifle he used Wednesday in the attack. He had also been expelled from the school that he ultimately returned to with that rifle, where he pulled a fire alarm to draw his victims out of rooms and then peppered them with gunfire. Then, like the coward he was, he ran away.


Behavior which makes tweets like this from avowed liberal actor, and very likely rabidly anti-gun advocate, Michael Ian Black all the more twisted, inappropriate and downright infuriating:

The entire thread is something else, blaming men (and firearms themselves) for the behavior of a broken boy. I get it, liberals, you like socialism and the collective a whole bunch. Even to the point that you would have everyone share the blame for the degeneracy of Cruz. If I weren’t a lady, I’d tell you where you can stick that for trying to blame good people for the deaths in Florida. Men are not broken, Michael Ian Black. But Nikolas Cruz was. And if we want to “do something” about these school shootings — and I think everyone does — the place to start is figuring out what was broken about him as an individual. And I bet, as we discover what those things are, we’ll see more than a few common threads — or broken things — between all these mass shooters.

Firearms is of course one of them. As mentioned, I fired a handgun for the first time yesterday as part of a concealed-carry training course I’m finishing up. I’ve fired a rifle before, but never a handgun. My first day at the range — where I learned I’m a pretty good natural shot — was exciting and euphoric because I found out I was good at something. And then, upon learning of the Florida school shooting, those feelings were immediately complicated and I felt nearly guilt-ridden as I saw blame (as it always is) heaped on the National Rifle Association. I had just been at their range in Virginia.


What no one tells you about a gun range is what it smells like. Gunpowder. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever smelled before and it hangs in the air. And how loud a range is. Very, very loud. Particularly when there’s a young man of about 19 or 20 two stalls over firing a rifle, which there was Wednesday as I trained. And as I looked furtively at him — it takes some getting used to, the knowledge that any person in that room has the power to turn around and kill anyone else — I felt uneasy and wondered how such a young person had the means to own a piece of equipment like that. And if he should. And why he would want to.

But then, one stall over from him, were two gentlemen, clearly military, practicing with their own rifle, from their stomachs and in a ready standing position. And my uneasiness abated immediately. Because I knew they were good guys. My instincts told me. And something about that strikes me as a decent metaphor for the gun debate in the age of school shootings: good guys with guns isn’t just a thing people say to selfishly protect their 2nd Amendment rights and their right to own firearms. It’s a defense against the broken people. People like Cruz.

And it occurred to me, after giving it a lot of thought yesterday watching the reports out of Florida: I’m ready to accept the responsibility of being one of the good guys. And I’m thrilled I’m a good shot and could possibly be of some use if the worst were to happen.


And so my crisis of conscience was addressed, but the nation still has to, as this young teacher begs, “do something.”

And, as easy as it is to blame the teachers and the community since they apparently knew Cruz was a threat, she’s right: it’s time to start looking at those links, those commonalities between these shooters, of which a fascination with firearms is undoubtedly one.

Which makes the FBI’s recent diversion — their job being to police these kinds of things by tracking and monitoring guns sales etc. — into helping pick our politicians that much more disturbing. They must get back to their role as a line of defense and protection, and readdress their diligence in maintaining databases and monitoring background checks. The nation depends on their work recognizing disturbing profiles. And the community must help them. It’s a balancing act between civil liberties and security that will be hashed out in debate over legislation — because you can be sure that’s coming — but it’s time we had that debate.


But there are likely other links between these shooters that go beyond an interest in firearms, including mental illness and the thing that goes hand-in-hand with it and that no one no one likes to talk about: medication.

A caveat here: there is no report indicating that Cruz was medicated. But it would be unsurprising if it turned out he was. He was reportedly seeing a therapist to help him deal first with his behavioral issues and then with the depression over the death of his adoptive mother in November.

I’m not sure why the prevalence of medication, particularly of SSRIs, is downplayed as relates to these shootings, but it always is. I suspect it’s because people are worried that if mental health medication takes a share of the blame, those meds people rely on might be regulated and harder to come by. And there’s certainly a reason for concern there.

However, just as an observer having never been medicated (which might be why I’m comfortable talking about it), there has been, since the early 80s, an unbelievable growth in the use of SSRIs (antidepressants) in this country, with many children being medicated at a very young age. As far back as 2011, Harvard University was talking about the growth in the use of this class of drug:

  • 23% of women in their 40s and 50s take antidepressants, a higher percentage than any other group (by age or sex)
  • Women are 2½ times more likely to be taking an antidepressant than men (click here to read a May 2011 article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter about women and depression)
  • 14% of non-Hispanic white people take antidepressants compared with just 4% of non-Hispanic blacks and 3% of Mexican Americans
  • Less than a third of Americans who are taking a single antidepressants (as opposed to two or more) have seen a mental health professional in the past year
  • Antidepressant use does not vary by income status.

With the rise in diagnoses of things like ADHD and autism in children, to the point that the CDC has been issuing warnings about overmedicating, it’s a fair bet that many, many of the kids you know take some kind of medication before their brains even finish developing.

In short, there’s going to be a lot of talk about gun control in the wake of the Florida shooting. There always is, and thankfully there’s already legislation to shore up background checks that has a chance of being debated (and that may keep the next kid like Cruz from purchasing a rifle like the one used in Florida). Let’s hope Congress takes it up.

But that’s only one element that needs addressing if we’re to get serious about this problem before us. We must change as a culture in more ways than tightening up on the ease of obtaining firearms. Our reliance on arguably unreliable medication to address mental health problems must be examined. Our federal police force must get back to the work of protecting the nation rather than helping choose who leads it. And communities must find the strength and courage to recognize evil, point a finger at it, take it seriously, and rationally (without overreacting) work with with the community forces that keep them safe if we — collectively — want to keep our children safe.


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