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Essay on the Umpqua Community College Oregon Massacre

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America has seen in increase in mass shootings within the past decade. This edited research paper explores the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon.

The Umpqua Community College Massacre

October 1st, 2015, was the recent date of the Umpqua Community College massacre near Roseburg, Oregon. The shooter, Christopher Harper-Mercer, a student at the college, shot 18 people, nine of them fatally. After he was shot by two police officers following the incident, he killed himself with his own weapon, bringing the total dead to ten. According to Pia Carusone, the executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the Umpqua school shooting is one of 45 school shootings in the United States thus far in 2015. Harper-Mercer was 26 years old, and Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin initially refused to name the shooter, saying:

“I will not give him the credit he probably sought” (Ford and Payne).

After an “uncomfortable exchange” with the teacher of the course earlier that week, the shooter opened fire in Lawrence Levine’s Classroom 15 writing class in Snyder Hall of the Oregon community college, according to the New York Times. Levine was fatally injured in the shooting; the course itself had been underway less than a week, and another member of the class noted that Harper-Mercer had been a vocal student (Turkewitz).

Harper-Mercer entered the classroom at 10:30 or so, wearing a smile, black clothes, and a bulletproof vest along with six weapons. The first person he shot was a student in a wheelchair with a service dog, seemingly for no reason at all. Although Harper-Mercer did ask some of the victims if they were Christian, Tracy Heu, a survivor, noted that it didn’t seem to make a difference in whether or not he killed them. Despite the media attention focused on the shooter’s questions and comments about the religious orientation of the victims, Heu said:

“I don’t think Christianity or religion had to do anything with him killing people. If it really did have something to do with it, when he first came in, first he would have asked every single body to say what their religion was before he started shooting them” (Turkewitz).

Harper-Mercer handed Matthew Downing, a freshman at the college, a package with instructions to give to the police, and left a manifesto at the scene of the crime (Turkewitz). Less than fifteen minutes before the slaughter began, the gunman left the classroom and moved toward the outside of the building, firing at police officers Detective Sergeant Joe Kaney, and Detective Todd Spingath of the Roseburg Police Department. The policemen shot back and wounded the gunman in the side, whereupon Harper-Mercer returned to the classroom and fatally shot himself (Turkewitz).

What motivated Harper-Mercer to shoot fellow students?

After the gunman shot himself, Ms. Heu ran out of the classroom and into the men’s bathroom, where she found an open gun bag and a rifle on the floor of the disabled stall (Turkewitz). The police officers mistook Downing for the shooter but Heu corrected them, and his mother later stated that “my son is not a hero,” in an effort to keep media attention away during his recuperation. The world still does not have a real answer for the shooter’s violent rampage on the Oregon community college’s campus, and may never have one.

It was revealed a week later that the gunman had been discharged from Army basic training after one month of service in 2008, due to a suicide attempt. Former friends and neighbors described the gunman as “a disaffected loner who loved firearms and disliked religion,” according to a Wall Street Journal article (Frosch and Kesling). The lack of a court-martial, which is roughly equal to a felony charge for civilians, contributed to Harper-Mercer’s ability to purchase the weapons he used in the Umpqua Community College massacre. A court-martial would have disallowed his purchase of firearms under the federal laws in place, and possibly helped prevent the death of ten people. In addition to the five pistols and one rifle found at the scene of the crime, eight more guns were found in an apartment the gunman shared with his mother.

Laurel Harper: The shooter's mother

In addition to the information obtained about Harper-Mercer and his separation from the U.S. Army (the Army is unable to corroborate the police detective comments since privacy is required), a classmate of the gunman stated that Harper-Mercer attended a school for “emotionally troubled students” while living in Torrance, California. Laurel Harper, Harper-Mercer’s mother, was a 64-year-old nurse who “stockpiled guns in the apartment she shared” with her son. Harper stated that she brought her son to nature shows while the pair lived in California so he would “experience nature and feel responsible for it”. Both Harper and Harper-Mercer had Asperger syndrome, but there is not a violence link presented by the disease (Cleary).

Harper frequently posted on the Internet concerning medical issues, guns, and the difficulty of raising a child with Asperger’s syndrome. Harper was working for a local family, and the family’s mother told the New York Daily News

“I thought the whole situation was very strange. If you know your son has mental health issues, do you encourage a fascination with guns?”.

Cleary’s article drew similarities between the Sandy Hook shootings and the Umpqua shootings, citing similar mother-son relationships, the presence of Aspergers in both shooters, and the use of the mothers’ guns in the violent massacres. Ian Mercer, Harper-Mercer’s estranged father, stated that he has never held a gun and that stricter gun violence laws might have prevented his son’s killings (Cleary).

Did the shooter have Asperger's Syndrome?

According to an article in the Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, unique features of the adult Asperger’s Disorder

“may heighten their risks for engaging in criminal behavior…a predilection for intense narrow interests, when coupled with a deficient social awareness of salient interpersonal and social constraints on behavior, can result in criminal acts” (Haskins and Silva).

The same article noted:

"An inability to respond appropriately in social discourse” including improper “use of gestures, personal space, timing, topic selection, and recognizing humor, irony, or sarcasm” (Haskins and Silva).

The article also noted the “stereotyped, excessively focused, and repetitive activities” associated with Harper-Mercer’s and Harper’s fascination with guns. In addition, the study found that “many cases of Schizoid Personality Disorder meet criteria for Asperger’s Disorder…and that a recent study indicates that Schizoid and Schizotypal Personality Disorders are essentially indistinguishable from each other” (Haskins and Silva). The article concluded that male persons with Aspergers’ Disorder:

“are over-represented in criminal populations relative to their prevalence in the general population” (Haskins and Silva).

A writer with adult Asperger’s Syndrome for Guernia Magazine quoted the Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE) following Sandy Hook media coverage that highlighted Asperger’s Syndrome:

“It is painful and frightening to feel associated by virtue of a diagnosis with someone who has committed such a horrific crime” (as cited in Devnet). Although Devnet sought another answer for the violence of Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook, the author does admit that “while I am not saying these [Asperger’s] conditions caused him to commit such a despicable and irrational crime, arguing that his autism had nothing to do with it may be a stretch” (Devnet).

Devnet further noted that the violent death of his neighbors instigated by their own son caused him to “reexamine” his tendencies, and hold “the reins a little tighter” on his emotions (Devnet). Devnet maintained that “Lanza’s planning was very un-aspie-like. It took deliberation and a degree of cold-bloodedness to…pack that arsenal into a family car and drive to town…to the local elementary school” (Devnet). He also noted:

“individuals on the autistic spectrum rarely commit preplanned, premeditated violence against strangers” (Devnet).

American gun violence laws

Carusone and President Obama agree that the United States needs to recognize the gun violence problem and make changes to gun laws (Carusone; Helsel and Grimson). Despite the federal gridlock over gun violence laws, which much of the Republic party is staunchly opposed to, Carusone noted that there has been some progress at the state level (Carusone).

Smartgunlaws.org noted that many states have passed sweeping gun laws concerning domestic violence (Indiana, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) and mental health prohibitions, as well as the emergence of national activist organizations like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Sandy Hook Promise, and Texas Gun Sense (all formed over the past few years) (“Tracking State Gun Laws: 2014 Developments”).

Smart Gun Laws noted that there are changes being made in the wake of the senseless violence and that the media tends to overhype the divide between pro-gun voters and anti-gun voters, further confusing the issue (“Tracking State Gun Laws: 2014 Developments”).

The 2014 Gun Law State Scorecard, issued by the Smart Gun Laws Organization, noted that 37 states have passed 99 laws to strengthen gun regulations in regards to mass shootings since Sandy Hook in 2012 (“2014 Annual Gun Law State Scorecard”). Some examples of the new laws include California’s Gun Violence Restraining Order law, AB 1014, which

“allows family members and law enforcement officers to seek a Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO) against people who pose a threat to themselves or others” as determined by family and a judge (“California’s New Gun Violence Restraining Order Law”).

The GRVO will temporarily prevent the person from purchasing or possessing firearms or ammunition; allow police to remove any firearms or ammunition in the person’s possession, and include procedures to allow the return of guns or ammunitions (“California’s New Gun Violence Restraining Order Law”). Other states have followed suit, and cooperation is increasing daily.

Gun violence danger decreasing

The danger presented by inefficient or unreasonable gun violence laws in the United States is slowly decreasing; most people of our nation would like to see the laws strengthened, and all would like to see the prevention of more deaths due to gun violence. As the nation and the world searches for answers, various avenues present themselves – from mental disorders to family norms to the prevalence of violence in American culture. The views on guns in America come from completely polar opposite sides, and makes enacting stricter gun control laws extremely tough.

At the end of the day, however, the deaths of the people responsible for these heinous crimes prevent further investigation into the real motives for the unprecedented violence brought about by improper and abusive gun use in our country. We don’t know the true reasons for the crimes committed, and we may never know, once the shooters are killed either by their own hands or by the law enforcement officials sworn to protect civilians in the face of these horrible crimes.

Increased gun violence laws which help prevent persons with mental illnesses and histories of domestic violence are an excellent and necessary place to start in the prevention of massacres like Umpqua Community College’s and that at Sandy Hook Elementary. Despite the well-intentioned drive to center investigations away from the Asperger’s Syndrome connection, any answers that are scientifically possible must be considered. Helping to define the mentality, thoughts, and predilection of the gunmen involved in these cases is key to the future prevention and understanding of gun violence in America. The studies must go on, and in the meantime, the media should focus on preventing glorification of these criminals and reporting the fair and balanced truth of the matter to the frightened American public.

Works Cited

Carusone, Pia. “45 School Shootings in U.S. So Far in 2015.” MSNBC. NBC Universal, 2015. Web. 3 October 2015.

Cleary, Tom. “Laurel Harper, Chris Harper-Mercer’s Mother: 5 Fast Facts you Need to Know.” Heavy. Heavy, Inc., 2015. Web. 6 October 2015.

Devnet, Charli. “The Dark Side of Asperger’s.” Guernica. Guernica / A Magazine of Art Politics, 2015. Web. 1 February 2013.

Ford, Dana, and Ed Payne. “Oregon Shooting: Gunman Dead after College Rampage.” CNN. Cable News Network, 2015. Web. 2 October 2015.

Frosch, Dan, and Ben Kesling. “Alleged Oregon Shooter Discharged From Army After Suicide Attempt.” Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones and Company, Inc., 2015. Web. 7 October 2015.

Haskins, B. G., and J. Arturo Silva. “Asperger’s Disorder and Criminal Behavior: Forensic-Psychiatric Considerations.” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 34.3 (2006): 374-384. Print.

Helsel, Phil, and Matthew Grimson. “Obama Meets with Victims of College Shooting in Oregon.” NBCNews. NBCNews, 2015. Web. 9 October 2015.

Smart Gun Laws. “2014 Annual Gun Law State Scorecard.” Smart Gun Laws. Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2015. Web. 12 December 2014.

Smart Gun Laws. “California’s New Gun Violence Restraining Order Law.” Smart Gun Laws. Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2015. Web. 30 October 2014.

Smart Gun Laws. “Tracking State Gun Laws: 2014 Developments.” Smart Gun Laws. Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2015. Web. 2 May 2014.

Turkewitz, Julie. “Oregon College Student Says Gunman Smiled, then Fired.” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2015. Web. 9 October 2015.

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