Saturday, October 3, 2015

Umpqua Shooter Revealed

*UPDATE* Click for an interesting, albeit slightly disturbing account by Associated Press reporters.

Police have identified 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer as the shooter who massacred at least 10 students in a community college in Oregon at around 10:38 on Thursday morning.
Chris Harper Mercer posted this picture on MySpace.
He is holding a gun.

According to students present at the scene, Mercer entered the classroom with a gun and told the students to stand up and state their religion. Then, he started firing. 

A comprehensive article by the New York Times fleshes out a fuller picture of Mercer. His parents were divorced. He graduated from a private school for students with learning disabilities and emotional issues. He left the army before finishing basic training, and he didn't have a girlfriend. His mother was overprotective. He and his stepfamily had moved to Oregon recently. His online posts suggest that he sympathized with mass shooters. 

"On a blog post linked to Mr. Harper-Mercer’s email address, an Aug. 31 entry expresses sympathy for Vester Lee Flanagan II, a dismissed television reporter who killed two former colleagues during a live broadcast in Roanoke, Va.: 'I have noticed that people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are.' The entry continues, 'Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.'" 

Mercer is also said to have expressed extreme dissatisfaction with organized religion. He didn't talk much, unless the topic was on guns.

Although the amount of guns Mercer brought with him on campus suggested that he expected to be under siege for a long time, he died on the scene. I am nothing but supportive towards those in class who professed that gun control legislation should include a provision for stricter background checks. 

But consider that such a background check had been performed on Mercer. Where then would we draw the line between prejudice and "safety"? Discriminatory background checks could pose a whole other set of issues about our attitudes towards the mentally ill, soldiers and veterans, and lonely people in general, most of whom do not kill. Not to mention the pervasive internet privacy debate. One might have pointed to Mercer's blog posts as the linchpin for the denial of a gun, but not so if his posts had been "private." 

What if you were in the place to deny or allow Mercer a gun based on his background? Would you have pegged him for a potential killer? What is the correct formula upon which we might base your decision?


Danny Halawi said...

The situation is really tricky, and coming up with an adequate formula that will minimize gun abuse (that's not prejudice) is definitely not an easy task.

Allowing Mercer to own a gun was not necessarily a mistake. If you to take a closer look at Mercer's post, one cannot surely say that Mercer was completely sympathizing with the killer. If you take a look at the text, one could say that Mercer was simply relating to the killer because Mercer himself does too find himself to be lonely. For Mercer to relate his loneliness to another man, does not necessarily and explicitly mean that Mercer supports the killers actions and is able to kill himself.

However, on the other hand, there is no doubt that Mercer's comment and previous actions in his life could let someone think that Mercer might abuse a gun. But establishing a just system in which people get judged equally seems to ideal. People, by nature, are going to complain and rebel if many people start to get denied the right to have a gun because people might feel like they're not being judged fairly.

In conclusion, I believe that we should have a deeper background check, but for the sake of being practical, I don't think there is any way to implement a new system without getting some sort of backlash from the people.

Monika Kepa 1 said...

Even if a background check would have been done what are the chances that it would have been in depth enough to encounter what he had been saying online about deadly shooters. I agree something should change but I cannot find a simple solution and I doubt the government will change anything.

We all know that people who want to get their hands on a gun, will. The "bad guys" will always find a way, if gun laws were more strict the most that would change would be that the black market for guns would increase.

Why do we all notice when someone shoots up a public place yet the news gives no care about those who die in drive by shootings, or gang related shootings every day, where most of the guns were obtained illegally.

I agree things need to change. I agree that this violence and bloodshed helps no one and should stop. Yet I encourage you to see that this is not so simple.

Janet Liu said...

Precisely my point. Being a theoretical exercise, it would have been interesting to consider how we might go about implementing the "stricter background checks" that we all like to point to as the solution, but as Monika Kepa said, things are never so simple.

Australia came up in class too, and something happened there this weekend...(

Meghan Hilbert said...

According to this news article,, Mercer had a clean slate as a citizen wanting to purchase a gun, so there was no real way for one to conclude that he was a "potential killer". Therefore, if I was in the position as the man selling him the gun, I would most likely condemn it. There is no real, successful way to do a strong background check on someone with mental illness, and the problem is, is that there might never be.
I agree with Danny's viewpoint that creating a formula that correctly regulates background checks without prejudice is nearly impossible. In a perfect world, a background check could have the capability to check what kind of medicines the customer is taking, or what possible mental illness they could have. However, that is considered an invasion of privacy, so there might be no way of knowing when allowing someone to purchase a gun. Although, a background check could possibly include an extensive questionnaire asking the gun purchaser what they intend to do with the gun. If their reasoning appears questionable, then the gun owner could decide whether to sell it or not.

Janet Liu said...

A smart man once told me that the Google algorithms which run AdSense (the ability, for instance, for an Amazon listing for mats/props to end up on a Bikram yoga site = intuitively KNOW what ads you'd like to see) depend on how certain vectors line up.

Let's say you visit the Bikram yoga site 20 times a day, but you also do a fair amount of shopping for women's yoga apparel. Google algorithms set up two vectors: one that indicates how much you like Bikram yoga and one that indicates how likely it is that you are female. Neither vector points intuitively at a Lululemon ad on said Bikram yoga site, but put together, the algorithm can predict, based on the interaction of multiple vectors, that you're likely to want to see such an ad on said site.

You get it--in real life, there are lots of vectors, lots of potential indicators of gun violence. I'm purposefully skirting around the privacy issue, but could Google put its technology to work and do the rest of the "prediction" for us?

(By the way, if you like math and know that I explained this completely wrong, please do harshly correct me.)