Saturday 21 April 2018

'It's my son's birthday,' father-of-one shot seven times pleaded with Oregon shooter

Chris Mintz and Jayme Skinner with their son Photo: Facebook
Chris Mintz and Jayme Skinner with their son Photo: Facebook
Slain gunman Christopher Harper-Mercer
EMPATHY IN ACTION: People take part in candlelight vigil following the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon
Memorial flowers are seen outside Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, United States, October 2, 2015. Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
A woman cries while holding her daughter during a vigil in Roseburg, Oregon
U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement about the shootings in Oregon from the White House in Washington

Harriet Alexander, Roseburg, Oregon

Jayme Skinner sat on the veranda of her clapboard bungalow and hugged her knees close to her chest, exhausted.

Twenty four hours previously, the father of her child, Chris Mintz, 30, had been shot in the back, abdomen, hands and hip by Chris Harper-Mercer, the British-born Oregon school gunman. Both his legs were broken during a rampage that killed nine students.

But, after nine hours of surgery on Thursday evening, Mr Mintz was recovering in hospital, and lucky to be alive. And Miss Skinner, 34, was calling for change.

“If we had more guns, this wouldn’t be happening,” she said, shaking her head. “We need to be able to protect ourselves.”

Her logic may sound strange, given that there have been 293 mass shootings in the US this year – more shootings, in fact, than days.

But it is one which is shared by all the top Republican presidential candidates. Donald Trump, the presidential front-runner, on Friday night said stricter gun control would not work because “people are going to slip through the cracks” while Ben Carson said tighter laws would not stop “crazies”.

Jeb Bush also spoke out, using the somewhat ill-advised phrase "stuff happens" - which was seized upon on social media.

"Look, stuff happens, and the impulse is to do something - and it's not always the right thing to do," he said.

And their arguments resonate deeply through the valley in which Roseburg sits - a town of 22,000 people 180 miles south of Portland, nestled beside the Umpqua river and beneath the richly-forested Callahan Mountains. The town was built around timber, and huge trucks bearing felled trunks thunder through. The people are hunters, shooters, fishermen – and survivors.

President Barack Obama’s angry and exasperated address to the nation on Thursday had little impact on them.

"Somehow, this has become routine,” he said. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. We become numb to this.

“We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston,” he said, noting that there is about one gun for every man, woman and child in the United States.

"How can you make the argument with a straight face that more guns will make us safer?"

But in Roseburg, about as far geographically and culturally as it is possible to get from Washington, that was indeed the argument that was being made.

Harper-Mercer, an IRA and Nazi-obsessed loner who specifically targeted Christians, could have been stopped, people in Roseburg believe.

Born to a British father, Ian Mercer, and American mother, Lauren Harper, he moved to the US as a young boy. Initially he lived in California, where until 2009 he attended the Switzer Learning Center, which caters for pupils with special needs ranging from learning disabilities and health problems to autism and Asperger's Syndrome. Two years later he moved with his mother, by then divorced from Mr Mercer, to Oregon.

And Harper-Mercer was a deeply troubled man. In a note written shortly before the shooting, the 26-year-old wrote that he would be "welcomed in Hell and embraced by the devil" and described being depressed, as well as lamenting the fact he had no girlfriend.

On Thursday morning he arrived at the school where he was a pupil, entering Snyder Hall – where English and creative writing classes were being held – and killing eight pupils and a teacher.

Among them was Jason Johnson, 34 - “proud to be a Christian,” his family said in a statement on Friday night. Quinn Cooper, 18, loved dancing and acting, and was murdered on his fourth day at school.

The Eibel family simply stated: “We have been trying to figure out how to tell everyone how amazing Lucas was – but that would take 18 years.”

On Saturday Harper-Mercer's death was ruled a suicide by the coroner.

Remarkably, not one of the families in this deeply Republican rural region used their statements to call for gun control - as many did after the Sandy Hook school shooting.

Indeed, the Cooper family even warned against gun control.

"We are hearing so many people talk about gun control and taking people's guns away," they said. "If the public couldn't have guns it wouldn't help since sick people like this will always be able to get their hands on a gun(s).

"We need to be able to protect ourselves as a community and as a nation. Please don't let this horrible act of insanity become about who should or shouldn't have a gun."

Neither did the governor call for stricter laws.

"Those are conversations for the days ahead," said Kate Brown, the Democrat ruler of Oregon. "Right now I'm focused, along with Oregonians across the state, on supporting the community."

Indeed, John Hanlin, the sheriff of Douglas County, has long been known as a staunch supporter of the right to bear arms, and after the Sandy Hook massacre was one of hundreds of sheriffs around the country to vow to stand against new gun control legislation. In a January 2013, letter to Joe Biden, the vice president, he wrote, "Gun control is NOT the answer to preventing heinous crimes like school shootings."

Behind the counter of his vast gun emporium, Tom felt that was quite right.

“It’s idiotic to talk about banning guns,” he said. “There are way more deaths from cars but we don’t try to outlaw them.

“And just look at China – they use knives to kill dozens of people. There will always be madmen, and the answer is to have more guns to keep us safe.”

His shop, Waldron’s Outdoor Sports, was indeed a temple to guns.

Beneath a giant stuffed bear rearing on its hind legs he sold all manner of hand guns, rifles, bows and arrows and camouflage clothing. Petite Ruger pistols were popular with the ladies, he said – perfect for their handbags. Heads of moose, elk and deer decorated the walls, beside wolf pelts, and row upon row of ammunition.

Harper-Mercer had 14 legally-held guns – six on him when he died, and eight at the flower-filled flat he shared with his mother a short distance away. Some neighbours reported regularly seeing the two of them coming and going from the second-floor chalet apartment with black gun cases. The 26-year-old was said to enjoy target shooting.

On Saturday, his father said he "has to have some kind of issue" with his mental health to have killed nine people execution-style and wondered how he amassed such a large cache of weapons.

"How on earth could he compile 13 guns?", Ian Mercer told CNN during a televised interview.

Back at the gun store, Tom said: “9/11 changed America in many ways, but our love of guns and hunting runs deep,” adding that Harper-Mercer did not buy the guns from him. Wal Mart is the biggest retailer of guns in America, he said, and handguns can be picked up for as little as $300, provided you have proof of residency and a Federal background check.

“The problem is not lawful gun owners. And it’s is terribly sad. But it’s the price of our freedom.”

Back on the veranda at the foot of the Callaghans, Miss Skinner - despite Mr Mintz’s terrible injuries - agreed.

“Gun control is just not the answer,” she said, speaking to The Sunday Telegraph in her only British interview. “We can’t allow fear to take away our logic.”

Mr Mintz, a former marine who served in Iraq, was in his second year studying to become a fitness trainer at Umpqua Community College. He was shot while trying to prevent Harper-Mercer entering the classroom, and as he lay on the floor told the gunman: “Don’t shoot me – it’s my son’s sixth birthday today.”

A crowd-funding site set up to raise money for his medical costs had raised almost $600,000 in its first 24 hours – smashing its target of $10,000 in minutes.

“I’m absolutely not surprised he got involved,” said Miss Skinner, who herself works as an armed guard and tactical weapons trainer. Mr Mintz moved from his native North Carolina to be with her. “It’s who he is.”

She said that as soon as a friend called to say there was a shooting, and Mr Mintz didn’t answer his phone, she knew he would be in the thick of it. She went straight to the hospital, and was by his side as he came round from the almost ten hours of surgery.

“He’s tough. He’s going to be OK.”

Questions of security at the college had been raised earlier this year, with the campus divided on whether to bring in armed guards. Roseburg had suffered a college shooting before – in 2006 – although no one was killed.

“We most definitely need armed guards at our schools,” said Miss Skinner. “We need to make sure we can protect ourselves. Why have people there as guards to protects our security, when they can’t do it properly? We are allowing harm to come to people who are there trying to better themselves.”

Guns, she said, are simply “a tool” which can be misused if they fall into the wrong hands. Better, she said, to make sure they were liberally carried among correctly-trained people. It was all about protection.

“You wouldn’t take the antlers from the antelope to stop it being eaten by the lion.”

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