Officials worry about innocents getting shot as more people arm themselves

A shattered window can be seen at the main entrance to Excel Industries in Hesston as investigators continue to work inside the building on Friday morning. Cedric Ford entered the factory and killed three people and wounded over a dozen others a day before.
A shattered window can be seen at the main entrance to Excel Industries in Hesston as investigators continue to work inside the building on Friday morning. Cedric Ford entered the factory and killed three people and wounded over a dozen others a day before. The Wichita Eagle

Marc Bennett arrived at work in Wichita on Friday. From his car, he saw a plainclothes law enforcement officer walk across the parking lot at the Sedgwick County Courthouse.

The officer had hung his badge from a lanyard so that it dangled over the center of his chest.

That necklace is a chilling detail, Bennett said. He knows the story behind it.

He’s the Sedgwick County district attorney. He believes in gun rights. He prosecutes gun-toting criminals all the time.

Only hours before this, a gunman in Hesston, less than an hour’s drive to the north, had killed three people and wounded 14 in yet another mass shooting. Bennett had sent Kelly Otis, one of his investigators, to help question wounded survivors.

The badge hanging on the lanyard caught his eye, he said, because it tells a story about the world we live in now.

Plainclothes police officers used to hook their law enforcement badges on their belts, he said.

But after mass shootings became common, Bennett saw officers switch.

They do that now to try to keep from getting shot accidentally by fellow officers, Bennett said.

Police officers are trained to shoot for the center of the chest if they ever get into a gunfight.

And so if they charge into a mass shooting scene, like Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder did on Thursday, seeing that badge hanging in the center of the chest may prevent an officer from getting accidentally shot by fellow officers making split-second decisions.

Mass shootings now happen with regularity, Bennett said. People will probably be more prone now than ever to get guns for protection.

And that worries him and others.

It’s not all about guns, he said.

As we arm ourselves, he and other authorities said, we’re increasing the chances that good people with guns might shoot other good people, along with the guilty.

Guns and ironies

People on all sides are increasingly frustrated about how to think about mass shootings, Bennett said.

Leaders don’t agree about what should be done.

“It’s been less than a week since a mass shooting tore apart a community, and now another,” presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted. “This has to end. Praying for Hesston, KS.”

“Obviously, we should look at whether we’re adequately funding mental health services for people who have mental illness,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “This particular individual I believe had a criminal record so the question is how did he get access to the guns that he used in the course of this mass shooting.”

But this is no time for that kind of talk, Gov. Sam Brownback said.

“This is a time to support the community, support the families, and that’s what we’re going to be doing.”

The Kansas State Rifle Association issued this statement: “There are laws currently in place at the state and federal level that prohibit the possession of firearms by criminals.

“It is also our belief, criminals will get their hands on weapons whether they be firearms or other instruments to perpetrate their crimes. Regardless of how many laws are written or ‘gun free zones’ established, tragedies as this one in Hesston will continue as criminals assault society in merciless acts.”

Peter Northcott, chief of staff to Kansas Senate majority leader Terry Bruce, said, “The Majority Leader is disgusted with the fact that some are trying to politicize the tragedy in Hesston. His heart goes out to the victims and their families.”

But Bennett and other authorities in Kansas who worry about that law, which Bruce introduced last year, can hardly be described as gun opponents trying to deprive gun owners of their rights.

Their point is that gun safety training is no longer required, as it was under the previous Kansas conceal-carry law.

One of the ironies of the new law, said Fairway, Kan., Police Chief Mike Fleming, is that “there are now more firearms restrictions on police officers than there are on … anyone else.”

Officers and innocent civilians could get shot by mistake, he said. Three things he’d love to preach: “Education, training and responsibility.”

It’s legal now in Kansas for people to walk around with weapons, Fleming said.

It’s also understandable that someone, seeing a man with a gun, “might freak out and call police,” he said.

“And we will always show up. But when we do, we have no way of knowing if the guy with the gun is a convicted felon, has a mental illness or whether he legally possesses that firearm.

“How are we supposed to assess everyone’s safety in that situation?”

Killing the innocent

Kelly Otis was a longtime Wichita police officer before he became Bennett’s chief investigator. He survived two shootings.

In 1989, he shot a man who had shot at him. His senses were so crazily distorted that he never heard the shots he fired from his own gun.

“I am a second amendment guy and believe firmly that anybody qualified by law should be able to buy a handgun,” Otis said. “But I think some people think that they can grab a gun, stick it in their pocket and think they are ready now to protect themselves. And that is a dangerous fallacy.”

“You can’t explain to someone what it is like to pull the trigger to shoot another human being,” he said. “People on a gun range can shoot a tight hole in a paper target, but in real shootings your reactions slow. Your senses and your aim get distorted.

“So you have to train how to shoot without hitting unintended targets. You have to make sure you clear your backstop, which means ‘look what’s behind you.’ You have to see your surroundings rather than just focus on the other guy.”

For years now, Otis has cajoled prosecutors and some defense attorneys (and some other critics of police officers’ use of force) to go out to the training facility where police train for shootings, including with video sophisticated and highly realistic urban shooting simulations.

In those training scenarios, Otis said, the trainees are given laser guns that show where they are shooting. The simulations are graphic, and complete with not only bad guys but good guys and children and sometimes crowds.

In those simulations, Otis has seen trainees, including experienced law enforcement officers, repeatedly kill innocent people by mistake.

Mixing guns with people

One community in Wichita mostly opposes the law allowing concealed weapons, but will adopt it anyway.

The Legislature last year mandated that state universities including Wichita State must implement a law that will allow most people to carry concealed firearms without a permit on campus. On July 1, 2017, campuses are required by law to open their institutions to concealed weapons.

“If you ask them, most people here feel like we don’t need guns on campus,” said David Moses, WSU’s general counsel. “Having said that, we will have guns on campus.”

Moses’ first 10 years as a lawyer were spent working closely with crime victims and police as a prosecutor in the same district attorney’s office that Bennett now runs. Moses’ wife, Terri Moses, is a longtime police commander. So he understands why people want guns.

But mixing guns with people is a complicated thing, he said. Preparations for the change at WSU have challenged the best intentions of administrators, faculty, staff and students, Moses said. They worry about the same dangers that Otis, Bennett and others are warning about. And they have a few more.

Campus police will quickly respond to any active shooter situation, he said.

But if other people have drawn their firearms, “how are campus officers supposed to know who’s the active shooter and who’s not?”

And how should WSU keep people safe during campus gatherings that put crowds together with alcohol, and now guns?

And how can WSU make students feel safe when they live in campus dormitories crowded with students, some of them now armed?

And what about safety in classrooms?

“Everybody on a campus has a bad day once in a while,” Moses said. “There are times when bad days are reflected in emotional outbursts. So if people have guns, and are upset with a faculty member about their grade scores, or about an issue that involves discipline … how do you react to that?

“And does this mean the faculty member might temper what they do about the grades?”

Contributing: Bryan Lowry

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl