Today is Palm Sunday, a day when people celebrate Jesus as the Prince of Peace. While I am not a Christian, I’m joining today’s Peace Walk and praying (in my own way) that we be filled by the spirit of peace, the will to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. I’ll be sharing these words.
As our nation struggles with what to do about guns and gun violence, I want to keep the shooters in mind. These people are caricatured as just monsters, just monsters. We need to recognize that easy access to guns distorts and dehumanizes shooters so that they distort and dehumanize others. Whether they seek revenge, are steeped in their own depression, are persuaded by hatred, their conviction to use a gun to kill themselves or others has unending repercussions. Our permissiveness of lethal technologies helps make damaged people into killers.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this because I knew a shooter, Jillian Robbins. Not really well. We were in math class. I remember her as a generally quiet and quirky girl who wore flannel shirts and drew pictures of faeries and magical worlds. She painted a really great mural in our school, the Delta Program. If my memory isn’t faulty, it was a Robotech Beta Fighter in battloid mode. After I graduated from high school I saw her at the Old College Diner from time to time and we had some mutual friends who played roleplaying games.
On the cool damp morning of September 17, 1996, dozens of students milled near Penn State’s HUB. Some headed home after their first class, others went off to get breakfast, some headed to their next class. Administrators, staff, and professors were walking to work or looking down on the lawn from an office. I was half-heartedly starting a Music degree and had just finished either theory class or ear training. It was a lovely morning in Happy Valley.
Jillian was hidden in a cluster of thick shrubs and trees. She could see out on the lawn but no one could see her unless they were looking for her. Briefly, she was an Army reservist; she was discharged after failing to graduate from high school. Intense psychological problems plagued her. She was filled with “insane rage.” “When I woke up that day, I decided I was going to die. I could not handle the stresses of life. I could not handle the hallucinations, the delusions any more.”
She was armed with a 7mm high-power Mauser rifle she’d gotten from her father. She took aim. Robbins murdered Melanie Spalla, 21, with a shot that entered Spalla’s back and exited her neck. Nick Mensah was injured. A couple of backpacks. A building.
21-year-old Brandon Malovrh found Robbins, ultimately disarming her after she tried to stab him but stabbed herself. The police arrived. The community was shocked.
The Texas tower shooting was decades past, a thing we learned about in sociology class as an aberration in American history. Columbine came soon. But the assault weapons ban was in place. Now it’s gone and our nation has how many of these guns?
What if Robbins had an AR-15? Her five shots could have easily been dozens. She would have murdered 8, 10, or 15 people before Malovrh took her down…had he been able to. The easy access to rapid-fire weapons would have made the HUB lawn shooting into the HUB lawn massacre.
How senseless. I imagine what Jillian would feel from such an act today, or what punishment we would have meted to her. Today, she is serving a 30- to 60-year prison term in a place none of us would call peaceful. Would she have been executed had she had an AR-15? Would she have killed herself? One more senseless death.
I can’t help but wonder about Jillian sitting in Algebra in 11th grade, wracked by hallucinations and stressed by her broken home. It’s heartbreaking to think of the profound failures of so many people to bring peace into Jillian’s life. Some of those may have been insurmountable. But we are fortunate that she was unable to get an assault-style rifle.
Today, she could.
*This post was corrected. It had said 1992.