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October 24, 2011

Making Sense of the NIU Tragedy

Back in August 2008, Bullet Counter Points talked to journalist/author David Vann about a fascinating article he had just written for Esquire entitled “Portrait of the School Shooter as a Young Man.” The article dug into the past of Northern Illinois University (NIU) school shooter Steven Kazmierczak, and what it uncovered was truly frightening. Kazmierczak had attempted suicide three times, taken eight different medications for mental illness, and been institutionalized on five different occasions. Despite this history, he was still able to legally buy guns in Illinois and then kill 6 and wound 18 in a gruesome mass shooting at NIU on February 14, 2008.

But the information Vann had uncovered was far too extensive for just a magazine article. So he set about to write a full-length book about Kazmierczak and the massacre at NIU. It was released on October 20 and is titled Last Day on Earth (after a Marilyn Manson song that Kazmierczak listened to just before the shooting). We were able to ask Vann a few questions about his book and this horrific tragedy and here are his answers:

Going back to your original article in Esquire, why did you decide to learn more about Steven Kazmierczak and the horrific mass shooting at NIU?

I wanted to write an article about how armed suburban youth are. I inherited my father’s guns after he killed himself with a gun, when I was 13, and I led a double life in which I was a straight-A student by day, then wandering our neighborhood at night with his .300 magnum rifle (a rifle for hunting bears), shooting out streetlights and sighting in on the neighbors through their windows. I think it’s frightening how many kids and teens have access to guns in America, so I wanted to write about that. But my editor at Esquire suggested I look at Steve’s story, since he was an A student and everyone seemed very surprised by his shooting.

Why did you decide to contrast your own life with Kazmierczak’s in Last Day On Earth?

I wanted to try to answer the question of why Steve crossed the line and I didn’t. When I was 13, I was angry, alone, and had access to all these guns. Looking back, it seems possible I could have ended up killing someone, but I didn’t. I wanted to understand why I didn’t and why he did. What I found was that there were half a dozen strong influences on Steve’s life that made his shooting possible, influences I didn’t have in my own life. These included military service, time in the mental health system, libertarian politics, a mother who loved horror movies, etc.

The picture painted of Steve’s parents is one of indifference—two people who were more than happy to place their son’s care into other hands and be rid of him (He “was a pretty good guy,” was all his dad would say after the murders). But we know surprisingly little about Steve’s mom, who perhaps was the most powerful figure in his life. There are hints of serious mental health issues, but why is she so shrouded in mystery?

Steve’s sister Susan wouldn’t talk with me. I do have transcripts of all the interviews that law enforcement did with her, so I know everything she told police. And I asked Steve’s high school and junior high friends and girlfriends about his mother, and I have his own comments about his mother in his emails. He said, for instance, that she never forgave him, despite his earning nearly perfect grades in college. And, as I describe in the book, I have the accounts of his mental health history, in which he ran away from the institution in the Chicago area and begged his mother to take him back; accounts of his fights with her in which he called her a whore; his godfather’s claims that Steve’s mother was mentally ill, etc. So there is quite a bit about her in the book, and her death was perhaps the main event that precipitated his regressive slide into becoming a killer. But I wasn’t able to meet or interview her, since she was dead, and Susan wouldn’t talk with me, so I can’t provide a full portrait. I was very careful in the book not to make anything up or to try to draw conclusions that would go too far. I stuck to the 1,500 pages from the police file and the interviews, and the book, as a result, is a mountain of thousands of facts you can rely upon. But sticking to the facts also means there are gaps in the narrative.

Steve’s infatuation with violence starts perhaps earlier than his depression, with the abuse/sodomy of animals, shooting at cars, bombmaking, etc. Like the Columbine story, you wonder why no one picked up on these obvious red flags in his background—that perhaps he was not only a threat to himself, but others. Yet that element seems to be absent from his experience with mental health treatment as a teenager. How could they have missed it?

His parents knew he was mentally ill and asked the high school for help, but they refused. Soon afterward, Steve attempted suicide. In the bombmaking episode, which is earlier, in junior high, another kid was the instigator and had told a dozen kids how to make the bombs. The police saw Steve as a frightened, repentant kid. And the truth is that Steve was always afraid of getting into trouble and he wasn’t as scary as many of his friends. At least three kids in his neighborhood became drug dealers, for instance. There are so many violent, frightening kids in America, it was difficult for someone like Steve to stand out. Even in the end, after the shooting, many at NIU were surprised to learn the shooter was Steve because they had assumed the shooter must have been one of several other grad students who were scarier.

You hint briefly at Steven’s embrace of libertarianism as a factor that drove him to commit the murders. What role do you think it played?

Libertarianism favors the individual or small group above society and is therefore antithetical to most of what holds our society together. It’s very frightening. Most of our mass murderers have been libertarians. It’s the perfect political belief for them and fits well with Nietzche’s concept of the “superman,” someone above moral code. I don’t think Americans realize how frightening and dangerous libertarianism is. I would count it as the number one warning sign for a potential shooter, and it’s particularly dangerous when combined with former military service.

There is a fascinating chapter in your book where you talk about entering your neighbors’ houses during the day while they were away and looking for their guns. How often did you find them? Does it give you any perspective on the problem of gun theft today?

In 1980, it was very easy to get into someone’s house. Most people didn’t have answering machines yet, so I’d let the phone just keep ringing while I was in their house. And I didn’t have to break anything, because they all left their bathroom windows open a bit for air. I didn’t steal anything, but I did look through all their stuff, and they all kept their guns in the same places: in their closets or under their beds. It was very easy to find the guns, and they weren’t locked, and they had ammunition available. Nearly everyone had several guns in their home. The potential for gun theft is frightening, as is the access kids and teens have to guns. Even locked and hidden guns can be a problem. I know someone whose daughter committed suicide with a pistol that was locked with ammunition in a separate location. Over time, she was able to find the key to the lock and where the ammunition was kept.

What role does Steve’s taste for men play in his psychological make-up? Why did he hide his bisexuality/homosexuality so carefully? Did he reach a point where the sexuality of his partners no longer even mattered?

Last Day On Earth has much more information about Steve’s sex life than my Esquire article had, including the creepy emails he exchanged with one of his girlfriends which were a confusion of sex, mass murder, and racism. By the end, sexual despair was an important driving force for him and he was exhausting himself. One night, he had sex with at least three different women, for instance. He may have been sexually abused before junior high, but I wasn’t able to find any proof, only hints. Sex was secretive and shameful for him from the first, though, and he was attracted later to Marilyn Manson’s androgyny. He shaved his pubic hair and eyebrows and wanted to be dominated. He was with men in high school and also near the end, and part of his love of the movie “Fight Club” was a denial of his homosexuality (that movie is about the denial of homosexuality through a hyper-heterosexual alter-ego, played by Brad Pitt). Steve’s sister Susan is gay, and he told her near the end that he thought he might be gay, and I think this was a move in a good direction for him, accepting his sexuality, but it didn’t last long. He went back into denial. I want to be clear in this answer that I’m not saying homosexuality was a problem for him, only his denial and shame around it. And there’s too much in the book about his sexuality to really summarize effectively here.

Steve’s racism also had a conflicted feel to it, particularly since he apparently dated (and really cared for) an African American girl at one point.

I think Steve’s racism was an important part of how he was able to commit mass murder. As James Baldwin pointed out so well more than 50 years ago, you can’t be racist without hating yourself, and Steve’s final act was one of self-erasure in more ways than just his suicide and the killings, but also in staging it in the one place where he had succeeded and made something of himself. And racism is of course always conflicted. One of his college roommates reported to police that Steve struggled to recover from a former relationship with an African-American woman, a relationship that ended because of stress and strain over race.

Steve’s interaction with the military is almost exactly the situation we saw with Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter. They bring these young men in, determine that they have severe problems, and then discharge without notifying any other federal agency of these issues. So both are free to buy guns legally—and in Steve’s case, he’s also been taught to kill without emotion because he’s completed Basic Training.

The Army realized Steve was a danger to himself and others, so they kept him in a psychiatric ward with precautions against suicide and then dumped him in his hometown, Elk Grove Village, without any notifications to anyone that he might be a danger. I think we should consider this a criminal act and work to prevent the military from doing it. People discharged from the military in this way also should of course never be able to buy a gun. But it’s important to remember the larger problem here. Most of our mass murderers who were old enough to have served in the military did. And this is because the military teaches not only how to kill a person with a gun but also how to do that killing without feeling anything, with no emotional or psychological response. Steve explained this to his best friend. He mentioned several times that he’d been trained to kill without feeling anything, and indeed in the mass murder he committed, he appeared to feel nothing at all. The teacher in the classroom said that when Steve pointed the pistol at him, it made him think of someone who’s painting a room and realized they’ve missed a spot.

Steve’s decision to go to NIU was a double-edged sword. On one level, it allowed him to leave his past behind to a degree and define a new, more satisfying life for himself. On another, as a therapist had warned, it allowed him to ignore his mental health issues and eventually led to a “hard crash.”

The mental health system did not serve Steve well. I think it only amplified his problems. And though one therapist did warn him against setting out too quickly, I hate to give the therapist any credit, because the fact is that Steve became worse in the mental health system, not better, and he did improve in all ways at NIU. I think there was no downside to his success at NIU, and I think if he could have stayed at NIU longer, without moving to the University of Illinois (UI), he might not ever have killed.

The double life Steve lived at NIU is fascinating. His professors and many of his friends knew him as this quiet, incredibly polite, well groomed young man who was thoughtful, sensitive, highly intelligent, and always eager to help other students. In reality, he spent much of his time obsessing over mass shootings, playing first person shooter video games, trolling for sex on the internet, fighting with his family, and agonizing over his mental illness. Only a select few knew about this side of him.

In the book, I describe the timing and all the transitions, and the timing is very important. When these professors and friends knew him, his life actually was better. And as his life took a dive, he was more removed from them and moved away at UI. The key is that he was regressing to who he was in high school and junior high, and that former life really was perfectly shaped for mass murder. His professors and friends at NIU, with the exception of Jessica Baty, didn’t know this past, so they couldn’t get the Steve they knew to fit with this killer. There was a 5-year gap they couldn’t cross. The FOID card he acquired for buying guns legally only checked the past 5 years for mental health history, so that system also couldn’t know who he really was. Background checks obviously have to go all the way back. If we learn one simple thing from his story, it should be that. But of course the gun nuts will howl and claim we’re taking away everything American.

In your life, you experienced a turning point when you were able to escape your teenage angst and let those emotions go. Kazmierczak seemed so close to that at one point in NIU after being given the Dean’s Award and graduating, only to fall into despondency and insanity again when he just can’t make it in a work environment and his mother dies. It’s perhaps the most tragic and powerful moment in your book—that thought of “what could have been.”

Steve had this tremendous drive to reshape himself—the true American dream—which is not really about money, but about the larger reshaping of identity and worth. And it’s amazing he could get that Deans’ Award after his terrible mental health history and the years in which it seemed he had no future at all. And I do think he almost made it. The combination, though, of his mother’s death and the move to UI was just too much. His last semester at NIU, his grades didn’t matter (they wouldn’t transfer over to UI), so he started going to the shooting range instead of classes. From my own experience of shooting things for three years after my father’s suicide—years in which I told everyone he had died of cancer since I was so ashamed of his suicide—I think that guns are a dangerous substitute. I don’t think guns are ever really about guns but always about something else; and those who want guns are in denial of that something else.

Another fascinating discovery is that Steve was a proud NRA member who bragged about this affiliation to his friends. Steve’s comment about Illinois’ FOID licensing system is also telling, particularly since it never stopped him from buying guns: “It’s back to the days of the Hitler regime. The government is trying to track us.” He reads gun magazines, indulges conspiracy theories about Timothy McVeigh, cites the Turner Diaries. This kid was fully submerged in the gun culture and its extreme ideology.

Steve’s views really were right in line with the views of the pro-gun lobby, with his libertarianism, paranoid beliefs about the federal government, desire for secrecy, love of guns, interest in crime, etc., but he actually thought it was ridiculous that he was able to buy a gun legally after his terrible mental health history. He wrote a paper titled “(NO) Crazies With Guns,” and here’s an excerpt: “I have only five words for you: From my cold, dead hands. Those words spoken by Charlton Heston, and immortalized by the popular press, have come to symbolize the pro-gun lobby’s arguably firm and unshakeable ideology with respect to their opposition to anti-gun (whether real or perceived) legislation. With that being said, what if those so-called cold, dead hands happen to not only contain a firearm, but also a half-filled bottle of anti-psychotic drugs?”

It’s a telling statement about our country that Steve and Seung-Hui Cho both purchased weapons/apparel from the same online gun dealer, Eric Thompson, who was totally unrepentant and went to Virginia Tech AFTER both tragedies to promote his business to students. You can’t help but think, too, of the t-shirts Steve wore—like the one of the handgun superimposed over the American flag.

The Glock 19, which Steve and Cho both used (and which Jared Loughner in Tucson also used), is made to kill a lot of people very reliably at close range in a short period of time. Mass murder is an American right, and there are lots of weapons to choose from: We have high-capacity handguns; short-barreled riot shotguns; assault rifles that can easily be converted to machine guns; .50-caliber sniper rifles, etc. It’s the Wild West but with better equipment. In some states, it’s now legal to wear a pistol on your hip in a bar. We just had a mass-murder in California yesterday, and we’re going to have more. One weekend while I was in DeKalb investigating, April 19-20, 2008, there were 36 separate shootings in Chicago, with 9 homicides. Weapons included an AK-47 assault rifle. Is it “media spin” to mention this?

What role did high-capacity ammunition magazines play in the NIU shooting?

Steve bought several 32-round magazines for the shooting but ended up not using them. I think this was because he wanted to begin with the “shock and awe” of the shotgun first, which wouldn’t kill anyone (he was using only birdshot) but would create confusion. In order to use the shotgun first, he had to tuck the pistols away, and I think there was no way of doing that easily with the longer magazines. But the Glock 19 has a high-enough capacity standard magazine to be very deadly. It killed everyone in Steve’s shooting, and it killed most of Cho’s victims at Virginia Tech. We should of course step back a moment and wonder why we want citizens to have high-capacity magazines. In what situation do we want a citizen to be able to kill a lot of people quickly, without having to change magazines? What is the situation, exactly, that the gun nuts are imagining? Invasion by zombies is the only one I can think of.

Steve told Jessica “If anything happens, don’t tell anyone about me.” And she hasn’t. It’s obvious in the book that disturbs you deeply. It’s the moment in The Last Day on Earth where it’s clear this book is personal to you. Your fury at her is barely veiled, and you go as far as to suggest that she is as mentally ill as he was. It’s almost as if you’re bitter at these people—Jessica and many of Steve’s other NIU friends—for defending someone they considered a friend even after he takes so many innocent lives in a cold-blooded way, even after all the facts about Steve’s past are laid bare to them. And yet even you express sympathy for Steve in the last two lines of your book.

I do have sympathy for all who were affected by Steve’s shooting, including Jessica. And as I mention in the book, I have sympathy for her especially because of the Valentine’s Day gifts he sent to her, one of them an engagement ring. She thought she was going to be proposed to, and instead he committed mass murder. But I don’t like lies, so I don’t like that she lied to me and tried to cover up the story. I don’t have any negative feelings toward his professors and fellow grad students at NIU. They really didn’t know who he was. He had reinvented himself in the previous five years and kept his past a secret from them. And I certainly have full sympathy for anyone going through suicide bereavement. I have sympathy, also, for Steve, who really struggled and almost succeeding in escaping his terrible past, and I think the end must have been bitter to him. But of course our sympathies in the end have to be with his victims—including the larger community affected—and by the time I finished writing the book, I couldn’t help but think of Steve as a monster, despite all my attempts to remain sympathetic. He planned the killing at least 11 days in advance, and he was chirpy in his emails and such right up to the end, so that makes him a monster.

It’s interesting that the owner of Tony’s Guns & Ammo, the place where Steve purchased some of his guns & ammo, voluntarily surrendered his Federal Firearms License after the murders. To your knowledge, what were the police or ATF investigating him for at that point?

It seems it was because Steve traded in his old guns at the store and Tony didn’t report this to police. I think it’s possible the ATF is hiding something, too, since their initial reports and all witness reports are consistent with a Remington 870 shotgun but they later claimed it was a Sportsman 48 (and perhaps this is what Tony put on the sales form). Perhaps they were just covering up the fact that gun forms could go through with the wrong model listed, or perhaps I just don’t have the full information, but it’s very strange.

What ultimately can we take from Kazmierczak’s story? Is there anything positive to learn from this tragedy? Could it have been prevented?

If the FOID card had checked lifelong mental health history instead of just five years of history, I think the shooting could have prevented, because I don’t believe Steve would have obtained firearms illegally. There are many other lessons we could learn from this shooting, also, as I’ve described above in answer to other questions. Because I had access to the full 1,500 pages of the police file, we have a very complete portrait that can help us identify risk factors. But the biggest risk factors (such as gun ownership, libertarianism, poverty, former military service, an interest in horror movies, etc.) are major currents in American culture, so unless we can change our entire nation in fundamental ways, we should expect many more shootings to come. One positive part about Steve’s story is seeing how close education came to preventing the shooting. Education does lead people away from all of the risk factors.

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