When Steve Kazmierczak calmly walked onto the stage in Northern Illinois University’s Cole Hall on Feb. 14, 2008, people listening to an ocean sedimentology lecture were puzzled, not scared. But then he started shooting, and an eerily quiet chaos broke out. Those who thought fast enough darted for the doors, everyone a moving target.
In the months following that day, when Kazmierczak murdered 5 students, wounded 18 and killed himself, nobody understood what had happened. He seemed all right; as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois, he had made good grades and won the Deans’ Award. His teachers and friends said they never saw any warning signs. But David Vann, an associate professor of creative writing at the University of San Francisco, uncovered a lifetime of clues while investigating Kazmierczak’s life for a feature published in Esquire. Being a student at Northern Illinois was probably the best thing Kazmierczak could have done to redirect his life – which up to that point had been marked by depression, prescription drug abuse, death, suicide attempts and unstable relationships, especially with family members. But despite the positive influences of Northern Illinois and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Kazmierczak went to graduate school, Vann argues that all colleges could do more to prevent such tragedies.
In Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter (University of Georgia Press), out Oct. 20, Vann recounts Kazmierczak’s life and shows how in some ways, it was not so different from his own – or from many others. Vann responded via e-mail to questions from Inside Higher Ed about what all colleges can learn from Kazmierczak’s story.
Q: What is the significance of the book's title, "Last Day on Earth"?
A: “Last Day On Earth” is a Marilyn Manson song, the final song on Steve’s “Final CD” that he had in his car and presumably listened to right before the shooting. As I describe in the book, Manson spoke to much of Steve’s life, including his mental health history and medications and his desire to murder and commit suicide. Steve also saw neo-Nazis at a Manson concert a week before the shooting, and thought that one of Manson’s symbols looked like a Nazi symbol. And he liked Manson’s androgyny (and shaved his own pubic hair and eyebrows). Manson is also visually linked to the red, black, and white man-witch Billy-the-Puppet mask in the "Saw" movies, which were Steve’s favorite movies. Manson celebrates mass murderers, and so it makes sense that they should like him.
Q: Steve was successful in keeping secret his state of mental health. You imply that it's understandable that his friends and professors didn't see warning signs. What lessons does his story hold for college counselors and mental health practitioners? What about for the faculty members who work closely with disturbed students?
A: If universities want to know about mental health history, they have to require a background check of mental health history that will go all the way back (not limited to five years, as with the firearms identification card Steve obtained in Illinois). You can’t rely on self-reporting, and it’s difficult to know whether to trust the anecdotal reporting of others. When Steve arrived at Northern Illinois as an undergraduate, it seems that everyone around him recognized that he was severely disturbed. They called him “Strange Steve” in the dorm, he ate his meals alone, he talked incessantly about Hitler and other murderers, etc. There were a ridiculous number of warning signs available, but that didn’t lead to any reporting or intervention. And although he was suicidal then, he didn’t kill during that time period. It was later, after years of success, that he sank down again and headed toward murder. And he was no longer a student at NIU then (he was at UI, a few hours south, and returned for the shooting).
In the U.S., we don’t want to demonize the mentally ill. And we have good reasons for this. Encouraging students to seek counseling for depression can reduce suicide, for instance. And there’s often not much of a divide between those who are “depressed” or mildly mentally ill and those who are “normal.” Sometimes someone is just under a lot of pressure for a limited period of time. And these students won’t want to be recorded as having a mental health history that will show up in a background check.
All of this is to say that there’s no easy solution. And mental health practitioners are not reliable. One asked Steve whether he wanted to kill but didn’t ask whether he owned a firearm, for instance.
So if universities really want to limit shootings, they’ll have to take a lot of steps that I can’t imagine them taking:
- They’ll have to group together to fight the NRA and push for gun control, including the elimination of all handguns, since handguns are made to kill people.
- They’ll have to require mental health background checks.
- They’ll have to flag anyone who has served in the military or been in the prison system.
- They’ll have to use metal detectors, more police at campus borders, etc.
These measures would all help, but the effort to guard against campus shootings is very much the same as the Homeland Security Effort: expensive and almost entirely incapable of preventing a swift attack. So the best that universities can do, in my opinion, is to invest in fighting the pro-gun lobby.
Q: Why can't you imagine them taking those steps?
A: I think universities will wring their hands at school shootings, do what they need to do to cover their own liability, and not take any of the important steps, because the important steps all seem un-American. It seems ungrateful and unpatriotic, for instance, to flag veterans as potential risks, even though they've been taught to kill people without emotional or psychological response. It will seem politically unpopular and impossible to fight for gun control in many parts of the country. Background checks on mental health history will seem like an invasion of privacy and also will seem counterproductive to improving access to mental health providers. Universities already do spend more on campus police and are already installing more metal detectors, but this last line of defense is of course the least effective. We tend to want to buy solutions to our problems in the U.S. instead of dealing with the larger issues. What I'd like to see universities do is work together to lead the country toward gun control, because these shootings have offered them a moral imperative, but I think that's only a hope, not something that will happen.
Q: Virtually all college administrators oppose guns on campus, but there's no real concerted effort among institutions of higher education to fight the gun lobby (even as that lobby has been successful in getting campus weapons bans overturned in Colorado and, just last month, Oregon). You say the best thing they can do is to band together on this issue. So why aren't they? What would this require? And how much power do they really have to harness?
A: When you think of how many universities there are in this country, and how important they are in their communities, and when you add all the community colleges and high schools and think about the political power they could wield if they came together clearly on an issue such as gun control, that's an enormous amount of power. It's enough power, certainly, to unseat any politician who would be stupid enough to still say "guns save lives" in the face of the facts. And it wouldn't be hard to do. All it takes is a willingness to be clear and uncompromising in the message, with a commitment to communicate that message to elected representatives until they produce effective change. What's difficult in the end game is the Second Amendment. At some point, we have to decide to be sane instead of following a document that's unclear and outdated. And this could happen, with enough unified political pressure. Americans could decide to stop being ruled by insanity. But I'm not holding my breath. I have residency in New Zealand, and I'm spending only a couple weeks in the U.S. this year.
Q: You discuss in the book your father's suicide, and say that contributed to your desire to write a more sympathetic piece about Steve. (Though you also acknowledge that this was before you discovered that he wasn't just a sweet graduate student who suddenly snapped.) How did the suicide influence your initial perspective on the Northern Illinois shooting, and how did that perspective change throughout the course of your reporting?
A: I still believe we should think of school shooters as suicides. I believe suicide is usually the primary motivation. What this means is that when we look for warning signs, we’re not looking for a sadistic killer but instead for someone whose life is falling apart, someone who is suffering. We can look for them using risk factors such as poverty, depression, former military service, mental health history, sexual despair, isolation, gun ownership, interest in death and killers, racism, libertarianism, falling grades, etc. The combination of risk factors that I would most want to flag would be poverty, libertarianism, and time spent in either the military or the mental health system. I don't think schools currently think of shooters as suicides, and I think they should. Mass murder is such an extreme act, it erases everything else, and that's why we don't think often enough of mass murderers as suicides. But if we think of them as suicides, they become easier to find and change.
Writing about Steve as a suicide rather than as a mass murderer made it easier for me to talk with his professors and friends. It also helped me to understand all the pressures in his life that built toward making his final action possible. If I had thought of Steve only as a murderer, I would have missed most of the narrative.
Q: Steve was in many ways successful in college; he won the Deans' Award, and had friends who considered him close. But were there ways in which the institution of higher education -- not necessarily Northern or Illinois, but the broader system of higher education as a whole -- contributed to Steve's falling apart and, ultimately, his decision to commit mass murder?
A: Steve’s life improved greatly as an undergrad at Northern Illinois. His transformation was remarkable, really, from being barely functional, overmedicated, and suicidal in the mental health system to winning the Deans’ Award, getting good grades, being off medications, etc. He was even helping other students as a tutor. In tutoring other students, Steve found something engaging and helpful to do with his life. He became part of a community. Shooters become isolated, unengaged, angry, and limited in their options. Universities open up options and connections. He’s a testament to the great positive change a university can make in a student’s life. But he had trouble with transitions, as many with mental health issues do. Moving from Northern Illinois to Illinois caused enormous stress because he was losing his community of professors and friends, had to restart in a new environment, and also was dealing with the death of his mother. The transition was what made him regress to his high school and junior high life, a life perfectly shaped for mass murder, but universities nearly succeeded in keeping him from being a killer.
Q: In the book you ask, "How much have things really changed" since 1966, when the Texas tower sniper murdered 16 people from atop the administration building at the University of Texas at Austin. Almost immediately after the Northern Illinois shooting, the Illinois legislature struck down a bill that would have limited handgun purchases. Wisconsin and Mississippi recently passed laws allowing concealed carry of weapons on campuses. It seems that after every major school shooting, including the one at Virginia Tech, where 33 people died, there is a lively debate about gun control that ultimately results in no changes. How would you answer the question you posed? What role -- if any -- have these shootings played in public and political opinion of gun control?
A: It’s important to understand that the pro-gun lobby in the United States has as its basis the paranoid belief that the federal government wants to enslave us all and is going to take away our guns as their first step. This is insane, and it shouldn’t be a mainstream force in our national politics, but it is. After a school shooting, there’s a lot of hand-wringing and grief and reassertion of our goodness, helping each other out. We want to forgive and understand, etc. But instead, we should get very angry and demand gun control. That could actually prevent future shootings. Steve was someone who was afraid of breaking the law. He was always very nervous about getting in trouble. So I don’t believe he would ever have bought a gun illegally. In our country, though, it was legal for him to buy multiple pistols, ammunition and spare clips, holsters, etc. all in a short period of time, much of it online. He bought from the same online supplier that the Virginia Tech shooter bought from, and this supplier gave a lecture at Virginia Tech two months after the Northern Illinois shooting supporting student concealed carry of weapons on campus. When do we stop being insane? The only really surprising thing about school shootings is that they don’t happen far more often. As I write in the book, it’s an American right to buy a Glock 19 with extra clips and ammo to go shoot a bunch of people. Why do we allow this? Do we really believe we need militias for defense, or any of the other hogwash of the pro-gun lobby?
Universities in this country have the power to change this. They should have banded together in 1966 to fight for gun control, and it’s a crime that they didn’t. But starting now is better than starting next year or never.