Aired: February 22, 2020

Gun Sense



Close-up of hands firing a gun. Image source: Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels Licensed byCC0 1.0 Universal

  • Lesson Plan for Trauma (17 min.)

    With: Megan Doney (New River Community College)

    Student survivors of school shootings have made their voices heard, loud and clear. But the teacher’s perspective of school shootings is less common. Megan Doney is an English professor turned gun control activist who writes about her traumatic experience.

  • Community Policing (11 min.)

    With: Charlotte Gill (George Mason University)

    Research suggests that a police strategy called “community policing” benefits those with mental illness. Charlotte Gill rides along with a police officer and catches a surprisingly warm encounter. 

  • Crime-Solving Bacteria (12 min.)

    With: Amorette Barber (Longwood University) and Sarah Porter (Longwood University)

    Hunting for evidence at a crime scene? Try E. coli. Biology professor Amorette Barber is a 2020 Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award recipient. She and analytical chemist Sarah Porter are using bacteria to detect gunshot residue.

  • Profiling Mass Shooters (12 min.)

    With: Philip Mongan (Radford University)

    One of the biggest misconceptions of school shooters is that they are all mentally ill kids who are evil from birth. Philip Mongan says most of them live normal lives until they experience triggers and turn violent over months or years.


Gun-Sense, February 21, 2020. For a print-friendly version in PDF format, click here.


Speaker key:

SM: Sarah McConnell, producer and host

MD: Megan Doney

CG: Charlotte Gill

SP: Sarah Porter

AB: Amorette Barber

PM: Philip Mongan



[music fades in]

SM Gun owners in Virginia have been packing local government meetings to push for what they call gun sanctuaries, where police refuse to enforce any new gun laws. But others have pushed back. This community college professor experienced a shooting at her school, not far from Virginia Tech where 32 students and professors were gunned down years earlier.

MD [sample] And, like others who have come before me, I ask the board to consider what a 2nd Amendment sanctuary designation with symbolize to those who continue to suffer the lasting trauma of gun violence in a county that has suffered two school shootings. I can only speak for myself and say that calling a county a 2nd Amendment sanctuary is a perversion of the word ‘sanctuary.’ My classroom should have been a sanctuary. [music]

SM From Virginia Humanities, this is With Good Reason. I’m Sarah McConnell. Today, a school shooting drives a teacher to activism. Later in the show: when police encounter the mentally ill.

CG The other officer, who my colleague was riding with, came in on the radio to my officer and said, look, I have to tell you–we’ve been out to this guy three times in the past 24 hours. He is a really big guy, and he looks like he will probably rip your head off. And I want you to know that he’s not gonna do that.

SM But first, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, among many others, you’d expect to find a trove of literature from the perspective of the teachers who also endured these slaughters. But you’d be wrong. Megan Doney is an English professor at New River Community College in Dublin, Virginia. After a student opened fire there in 2013, she took to writing her own reflections to help her and other teachers cope. Megan, tell me about the day a student shot two women while you were teaching at New River Community College.

MD Um, this occurred on the afternoon of Friday, April 12th, 2013. And, on that afternoon, at about 2’oclock, I was in class with my students when we heard the first gunshot. And I initially thought that it was a car backfiring, but then we heard two more shots. I knew what it was. And, my classroom was just adjacent to an emergency exit. I threw the door open and turned to my students and said, “Get out.” And they leaped over their desks and streamed through this emergency exit into the parking lot at the New River Valley mall. Those who had been–had enough forethought–had grabbed their keys, and they jumped into their cars and peeled away. And, others of us who were out there with nothing but ourselves, hid behind parked cars. There were some of us who were welcomed into stranger’s cars in the parking lot. So, for a while, my sense of time falls apart a little bit. It seemed like it took forever but I’m sure that, in the scheme of it, it happened rather quickly. Um, but I stood outside for a whole, continuing to hear the gunfire from inside. But, no one else was coming out. And, in the moment, I wasn’t afraid. I don’t remember having any real fear at all. The fear came later. For a while, it was more just a shock and kind of a numbness. And I remember hearing the police officers say things like, “She’s in shock. You need to get her something to drink. Get her a glass of water.”

SM So you went back to school Wednesday, after the shooting. Did you talk about it with your students?

MD I did. I created a document that I titled ‘Post Shooting Lesson Plans.’ Nothing had prepared me to craft that document.

SM What did you learn about your shooter? This was an 18-year-old student, a guy, who attended a branch of the community college. You wrote about the shock people felt over discovering who this 18-year-old boy was, and how he might have done this. I mean, how he could possibly have done this.

MD Yeah. A lot of people in communities where this happens fall back on a statement like, “This isn’t who we are.” Because the event itself is so alien, and such a profound violation of what they believe to be true about themselves and about the community. But, when the people who commit these acts are members of our communities, it is who we are. I don’t know that we can distance ourselves–I’m not sure that that helps us to tackle the real problems of disaffected people with access to weapons and an intent to harm.


SM Tell me a little bit about what your shooter left behind, or what he said about his intentions that was reported in the media.

MD My understanding is only that he posted on 4chan that he was going to go into the college and do this. I found out later that he had also created videos in which he said that it was too easy for people to get guns.

SM Where did he get his gun?

MD My understanding is that he purchased it at Walmart, legally.

SM Was it a rifle or a handgun?

MD It was a shotgun. I think that there’s a real misperception that people who commit rampage acts of violence just snap. And, the evidence just doesn’t bear that out. Many of them think about this for a long time, make elaborate plans, leave behind letters, or diagrams, or videos, and so forth.

SM So much has been written about the students’ experience of these violent attacks at schools. But you found very little about what teachers go through.

MD I did, and this was a particularly devastating aspect of the aftermath of the shooting. I went to the library to try to find research or memoirs or, you know, studies about what happened to educators who had witnessed or survived an act of violence at school. And, again, this was 2013. This was after Columbine, after Virginia Tech, after Sandy Hook. I remember typing in as many permutations of search terms as I could think of, and came up with nothing really. And so, I guess I decided that I was going to have to write those things, not just for myself, but for the educators who came after me, because I knew that they were going to feel the same kind of loss, and dislocation, and confusion, and violation. And I just thought, I just got to–I have to create what I needed when it didn’t exist.

SM You took some time off teaching after this. Why?

MD Um, I went on sabbatical at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. There’s a wonderful quotation from the book, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, by the army veteran and journalist, David J. Morris, who writes that, “The urge to travel or to lose oneself in a distant place is written across the lives of so many survivors. I had wanted to go there because it was home to the Institute for Trauma, Reconciliation, and Forgiveness studies, and it was headed by a woman who had served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I was very interested in learning about how the act of public witnessing and storytelling might be applied in an American context to survivors of gun violence or mass violence.

SM And that year, and subsequently, you have devoted your life to gun violence prevention.

MD Yes. [laughs] I was–I spoke in Pittsburgh in October, after the release of an anthology called If I Don’t Make It, I Love You. And, I and one of the victims of the New River–the shooting at New River–are profiled in this book. And someone asked me, you know, what I want, ultimately. And, really, all I want is for nobody else to have to live with this. I don’t know how to–I can’t make it any clearer than that. I don’t want any other educator to have to write post-shooting lesson plans.

SM What have you learned in your search, about gun violence?

MD Um, well, I’ve learned that a lot of the clichés and the tropes that you hear in the public arena are just not borne out by evidence. In the United States, most people who keep a gun in the home cite protection as their primary reason for having one. But, there’s considerable evidence that shows that the presence of a gun in the home elevates the risk of harm to everyone–certainly the masculinity aspect is another one that I have spent quite a lot of time diving into.

SM You’ve actually written an essay about how all of these school shooters have been men–none of them women.

MD Yes. This is a fact that continues to confound me, the fact that the vast majority of these tragedies are perpetrated by men and boys is almost completely ignored in the media. I feel confident that, if women and girls were doing this, you would hear an awful lot about what’s wrong with women and girls and why they are committing these kinds of acts. The masculine aspect is really overlooked. We might talk about people or perpetrators, when, really, we’re talking about men and boys.

SM A lot of people say, well maybe it is influenced by violent videos that these young men are playing, or they’re taking Prozac for some other ailment.

MD There’s no evidence of that, and women and girls also play violent video games. They also take medications, they also experience bullying, they also experience romantic rejection, they also experience trauma or disruption in the home, they have the same access to firearms, and they don’t commit these acts.

SM You’ve been going to gun shows. What’s that like?

MD Uh, it’s been very eye-opening. I really felt that, if I was going to speak with any authority on this subject, I needed to go to a gun show to see what actually happened. And, at one of the gun shows, you know, I stopped by a table and there were AR-15s for sale, and these were for sale by a private seller, so that means that I could’ve simply paid cash for it and walked out with that gun. Um, I did not have–would not have had to go through a background check, again, because it’s a private sale. I really wonder what it means to be a responsible gun owner, because, if I had done that, that would have been perfectly legal. But, there is no universe in which I am the person to handle that. I don’t understand why that is okay. So, at another gun show, a vendor told me that, because I was a small woman, I needed to be carrying all the time. Otherwise, I really put my husband in a very difficult position having to protect me all the time. The implication is clear, that if something happens to me, it is my own fault because I chose not to carry a gun to protect myself. It’s not the fault of the person who attempts to mug me or rape me. I wish that people were more aware of that kind of implicit victim-blaming that goes on.

SM Ironically, the experience of the shooter at your school in 2013, this happened not far from Virginia Tech, where a student gunned down 32 students and faculty members in 2007.

MD Yes.

SM And, yet, your county, Montgomery county, where both of these horrible shootings took place, is one of dozens of counties in Virginia where gun owners are now flocking to local government meetings, demanding that they become gun sanctuaries to at least symbolically block passage of a lot of gun measures.

MD Yes. In the last few months, I’ve attended a couple of board of supervisor meetings in Montgomery county about that–about that issue. In one of the statements that I made, I said that I thought it was a dubious distinction that Montgomery county had been home to two school shootings and that designating it as a 2nd Amendment sanctuary was gravely insensitive and insulting to the number of people who have struggled and continue to suffer from the effects of gun violence in that county.

SM What was the crowd like in the meetings you attended in Montgomery about this issue? Was it, sort of, evenly divided on the gun issue?

MD The first meeting was extremely heavily weighted towards the pro-gun side. The second meeting, in December, had a greater turnout for people arguing against that–against that measure. But, still, the number of pro-gun rights supporters was greater at both meetings. I try to remind myself that they believe in their position as deeply as I believe in mine.

SM You’ve told me that, these days, you’re struggling with empathy. What do you mean by that? Who are you trying to empathize with?

MD Um, well, I do struggle to empathize, I think, with some of the more heated and sometimes violent rhetoric that comes out of the pro-gun rights side. It’s important to me to make sure that I don’t dehumanize the other side. Um, spending a year in South Africa, and studying, you know, reconciliation and the history of apartheid really made me think quite a lot about how dangerous it is to dehumanize other people, even the ones with whom we deeply disagree. And I just am–find myself continuing to struggle with that and to try to–to understand where others are coming from and why.

SM Why do you think your pain over this has lasted so long for you?

MD Um, I really think that teaching and learning are holy. And, when we enter a classroom with students of any age, we’re asking them to rethink what they believe to be true. And so, a classroom is really, I think, a crucible of change and vulnerability. And so, when an act of violence strikes at that place, it is a spiritual and moral crisis. [music fades in]


SM Megan Doney is a writer and English professor at New River Community College. When someone calls 911, police are usually the first on the scene. But, what if it’s a mental health crisis. Charlotte Gill, an Associate Professor of Criminology at George Mason University, is working to build understanding and positive relationships between communities and police. Charlotte, you have worked with police departments trying to reduce the amount of time police spend on calls with people who have mental illnesses. Why does that matter? Do police spend a lot of time with people who have mental health crises?

CG They do typically. There’s maybe about 7 to 10 percent of all calls for service tend to have some kind of mental health issues. But the real big deal here is that, a lot of these cases result in a higher risk of use of force, and the police just spend more time on these calls. They spend more of their resources…we found in one department that calls involving someone having a mental health crisis typically took about 25 percent longer than other types of calls.

SM Do you think police officers are frustrated with how often they end up being first responder in what is really a medical or a mental health medical issue?

CG I think they are. I think most police officers, obviously they’re compassionate people, they want to be able to help and do the best that they can, but this is just really not the kind of thing that they’re trained for. They’re not necessarily equipped to deal with somebody who, maybe they’re dealing with somebody who is putting themselves or other people in danger through their behavior. It’s an incredibly stressful and difficult process for the police to have to deal with.

SM What sorts of training do you think police officers routinely get when it comes to mental health issues?

CG So, the most common kind of training that’s happening in many departments now is called crisis intervention team training, or CIT, training police in de-escalation tactics, making them aware of different types of mental and behavioral health issues, you know how some of these symptoms present–what kind of medications people might be taking, and so on. But, one of the frustrations that I’ve heard from police officers with this training is that it doesn’t necessarily equip them to know what to do when they’re confronting one of these situations. It’s one thing to know, you know, what is autism, what is schizophrenia, what kind of medications are people on. That’s all useful information. But when I’m in a situation where somebody’s in crisis and I have to handle it, it doesn’t necessarily matter to me what those distinctions are. I just need to know what to do. A lot of police training is very tactical focused, and I think there’s a case to be made for practicing those kind of people skills as well–to actually spend time in dialogue and being exposed to people who have mental health issues or their family members, and actually being able to sit down and talk to them and understand, what are some of the kind of things that trigger this kind of behavior? What are some of the kinds of things that we might need to know to help calm you down? For example, some people with autism don’t like to be touched. They process touch and pain very differently. So, even a police officer coming in and, you know, putting their arm around somebody to try and comfort them or just putting a hand on their arm to try and move them out of the way–that could be incredibly triggering. So, if they realize something’s not working, they can say, “Oh, is it just because this person’s being a jerk and not listening to me? Or perhaps it’s just that they don’t know how to process this command that I’m giving them?”


SM Community policing is a concept that’s been with us for quite some time. Is it–is it enjoying a resurgence now, would you say?

CG Pretty much every single police department in the U.S. says that it’s doing community policing in some way, shape, or form. I went to a training a few years ago just to observe the day of the training academy where they cover community policing. And, I thought that was really interesting, because community policing, at its heart, is meant to be a philosophy. It’s not a tactic; it’s not a strategy necessarily. It’s meant to be a holistic approach to policing that departments adopt. And so I thought it was really interesting that, within this 20-week academy, they had the community policing day. And it struck me, and I obviously didn’t go to the whole academy, so I can’t say for certain how much it was reinforced throughout the other 20 weeks, but it certainly didn’t seem like this was something that was, kind of, a thread that was running through the whole academy experience.

SM You had a very telling experience, when you were riding along with a police officer responding to a report that a man was off his meds and behaving violently in a group home?

CG Yes, um, that was working with one of the police departments that I’ve collaborated with. So, this man, as you’d said, had been off his meds. He had become violent and he had punched a whole through the wall of his bedroom in the group home. And, as we were driving there, we had the flashing lights going, you know, we were driving fast, and the other officer, who my colleague was riding with, came in on the radio to my officer and said, “Look, I have to tell you. We’ve been out to this guy three times in the past 24 hours. You know, he has some kind of developmental disorder, and he’s obviously having some kind of issue with his medication right now. So, I just want you to know, when you get there, he is a really big guy. He looks really scary, you know, he’s like 6 foot 4, he’s really big around, and he looks like he will probably rip your head off. And I want you to know that he’s not gonna do that. He is actually, you know, a real softie.” And he said one of the things that really helped calm him down the last couple of times was police badge stickers. So, you know these police stickers that they give out to kids. And, he said, “Do you have any with you? Because I’ve given him all of the ones that I had in the last few times that I’d been out to him.” And so my officer said, “Of course, yeah, I’ll make sure to bring some in.” So, when we went into the house, the guy had actually kind of calmed down on his own by this point, but he was sitting on the sofa. He was crying. He wasn’t particularly verbal, but the officers just kind of got down on their knees so that they were at his eye level. They sat with him, they comforted him, and they just asked him if he was okay, what was going on. And it was just such a warm interaction. And I just wondered to myself, “what would this have looked like if the other office, who was riding with my colleague, hadn’t been on duty at that time?” That could’ve gone very very differently. So, that kind of information-sharing, um, and just knowledge and compassion and, you know, nuance, really, um, I think it’s just the nuance of understanding that somebody’s who’s being violent, somebody who’s engaged in an act that we would generally think of as being, you know, this is bad behavior, there may be many many layers going on beneath the surface.


SM Tell me about the notion of fear in policing–fear, when police officers and responding as they so often do, to the unknown. In this case, there could have been fear on the part of an officer, thinking, “Oh no, here’s this man acting violently, punching holes in walls. What’s gonna happen when I get there?”

CG Absolutely. Police are human too, you know? They want to get home to their family at the end of the day. They’re concerned about their own safety, obviously. Um, so I think it’s absolutely natural to assume that police are going to be fearful. Um, I think that one of the challenges is that there’s a lot of emphasis on this idea of getting home safety, which I think absolutely there should be. But sometimes I think that can kind of creep into creating a sort of us and them mentality between police and the community, so that police are perhaps thinking that everybody they come across is going to hurt them in some way. To some extent, the police are only dealing with people at their worst, for the very most part. Nobody calls the police because they’re having a great day. The fact that the police are dealing with people when, you know, they’ve committed a crime or something terrible has happened, something tragic has happened, they’ve been victimized, they’re in crisis–they are seeing people at their worst and so I think that having more of an understanding, more opportunity to actually interact and have dialogue with the community and to understand things more from that perspective is really important.

SM Going back to the original study that you did with a couple of police departments–one on the west coast and one on the east coast of the United States, do you think that reducing policy interaction with people who have mental illness would also reduce fatalities and injury to both sides?

CG Yeah, that’s a great question, and I think it’s not necessarily just a question of reducing–the police are almost always going to still be the first responders to situations where people are in crisis. In the project that we’ve been doing with the shoreline Washington police department, we looked at, essentially, pairing officers with a mental health practitioner. She was able, just from her own knowledge and very different training from what the police have, to be able to direct them to services or treatment that they might need. And that’s obviously something that the police are not trained to do and I don’t think it’s realistic to expect them to do. So, I do think that initiatives like that where police are still doing police work, right? They’re still responding to emergencies, they’re still responding to 911 calls. But then they can call in somebody who actually has that expertise, has a massive potential to reduce–to reduce injuries, use of force, you know, it allows the person to get the help that they need and reduces the likelihood that they’re going to call again.


SM But, of course, that takes us to the depressing area where we all are, which is, there’s just not enough money either in policing, police training, or in medical facilities for people dealing with mental health crises, right?

CG Absolutely, that’s a huge issue and not only do you need somebody who’s an amazing mental health professional. You also need somebody who knows how to navigate that police culture, who can take care of themselves in a potentially dangerous situation–who’s not going to be an additional burden to the police officer. I think, just, one last thing to say about just the challenge of policing–it’s really really difficult to have to make a split second decision that could be the split second that determines whether you or somebody else lives, dies, becomes injured–you know, yes, in a democratic society, the police have the ability to use force where other citizens don’t. Maybe they should be held to a higher standard in some regard. But they’re also human beings and so there’s a lot more nuance here than I think a lot of people realize.

SM Charlotte Gill, thank you for sharing your insights with me on With Good Reason.

CG Thank you so much for having me–it’s been an honor. [music fades in]

SM Charlotte Gill is deputy director of the Center for Evidence Based Crime Policy at George Mason University. She was named an outstanding faculty member by the state council of higher education for Virginia. [music fades out and in]

Welcome back to With Good Reason at Virginia Humanities. Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia is not a research institution. But that didn’t stop two intrepid professors from workshopping a synthetic biology project and involving their students in the creation.

SP Right, I remember asking you, so I know you’re a chemist, but what exactly do you study? I think you said, “Oh, I study gunshot residue detection. But you probably can’t make bacteria do that.” And I said, “Yeah we can. Let’s look it up.”

SM Sarah Porter is an Associate Professor of analytical chemistry at Longwood. She and Amorette Barber, an Associate Professor of biology there, brought their two fields together to test out the use of bacteria to detect gunshot residue, and it worked! Amorette, you and Sarah invented a new way to detect gunshot residue for forensic scientists, out of bacteria, e coli, no less, and all of this came from a workshop you and Sarah attended, where you were to practice making tools out of synthetic biology. What is synthetic biology?

AB It’s kind of like genetic engineering. And so basically, we take different pieces of DNA and then you could just, it’s like cut and paste. You just basically glue them together the way you want and then you can make new types of little machines.

SM It’s so interesting. I can’t imagine taking DNA and manipulating it. I mean, I know we do, but the idea that people had not done this before, can do it together, is fascinating.

SP Yeah, so, and as the non-biologist, my take on synthetic biology is, like, taking an organism and making it do something that you want it to do. So they can take these little pieces of DNA and insert them into some organism and then make the thing do something–like, whatever you want it to do–whatever you can dream it can do.

SM And this is widespread and popular now?

AB It is, it’s very widespread. Scientists use it for all kinds of things like making malaria medicine, um, detecting minefields–landmines–out in different war-torn countries…

SM How can a bacteria detect landmines?

AB [laughs] Yeah, I know, it’s wild, and so, basically, they’ve made bacteria and, often times, they also use plants. Um, so, you can genetically engineer plants to do this, where then basically, in the presence of the different chemicals and landmines, the plants turn red. And so then you can grow a really spread seed of a really fast growing plant, and then the plants will grow red and turn red, and you can detect landmines quicker and much safer, um, for the troops. And so, this is just one example, but there’s lots of them out there.


SM How is this different from genetic engineering?

AB There are a lot of times you’re just taking one thing and making, you know, just using one piece of DNA. And so, with synthetic biology, you’re using lots of pieces of DNA, and it incorporates a lot of the principles of engineering involved in it too, in how you design these things. So it’s kind of like a more complicated version of genetic engineering, or like the next generation of genetic engineering.

SM So, not long ago, the two of you decided to go to a workshop in Maryland where you heard that they were going to teach professors how to genetically design these little tools.

AB Mhm, right. I really wanted to go to teach my undergraduate students this new technique that’s really becoming popular. To attend the workshop, though, the requirement was the have a geneticist, which is me, and a chemist. And, so, I knew Sarah Porter, just down the hall from me at Longwood University, and so I shot her an email and said, “Hey, do you want to go to this conference with me in Maryland?” And she said, “Sure!”

SM And what was the prompt? They said, “Okay, pairs, here you are.” Make what?

SP So, they gave us, on the first day, like, come up with an idea where you’re gonna use synthetic biology to create something that does something. So we had to think about what the thing was we wanted to make, and then what the thing we wanted to do.

SM How’d you come up with gunshot residue detector?

SP [laughs] Um, at the time, I was working on a project, analyzing gunshot residue using some alternative methods, and so…

AB Right, I remember asking you, “So, I know you’re a chemist, but what exactly do you study?” And I think you said, “Oh I study gunshot residue detection. But you probably can’t make bacteria do that.” And I said, “Yeah we can. Let’s look it up.” And so we found, went through the process, and it worked out well.

SM So, Sarah, did you have background in this as a forensic scientist?

SP Uh, yeah, so actually, before I got my PhD in chemistry, I have a Master’s degree in forensic science and I worked for a couple of years for the state.

SM How do we currently detect gunshot residue?

SP The current method is a procedure called scanning electron microscopy. And it basically looks at the particles that are left behind on your hands and looks for signatures of certain elements, which is lead, barium, and antimony, and so they used three different substances, because, you could have one or two of those just from contact with other things. But, having all three of them is what they use as indicative of gunshot residue.

SM And how handy is the current test? Is it like litmus paper?

SP It’s very expensive and very specialized, and so most forensics labs that actually do gunshot residue testing will have one person and that’s what they do. And so it’s a really specialized, very expensive… So I had gotten into it the summer before thinking, well maybe we can come up with a less expensive, less specialized way to do this.

SM How do you get the sample from somebody’s hand to detect gunshot residue? Do you have to have the person and their hand in their with you?


SP Yes. And they have special little sticky tabs so these little black circles with carbon-based sticky tape basically. So they’re very specialized little kits you have to buy and you stick the little sticky tab all over the back of your hand and the front of your hand, and that goes off to the lab and gets analyzed.

SM So you pretty much need to have the culprit or the alleged culprit right after the incident.

SP Yes. If you want to get it off of somebody’s hands or their body, and they can get it off clothing too, but that’s less common. Typically what they would be looking for is gunshot residue on your hands to indicate that you’d either fired a gun or handled a gun.

SM So the two of you are sitting here at this workshop and you said, “Yup, let’s detect gunshot residue.” How did you know what piece of bacteria or living organism you would use to try and detect it?

AB So, we first chose e coli just because that is so commonly used in synthetic biology and genetics and so, since we wanted to, I wanted to put this into my classes, I wanted to teach my students some of the common types of techniques. So we chose e coli–it’s cheap, it’s fast growing…

SP And it’s safe.

AB Yeah, it’s safe, it’s really easy to deal with.

SM Lemme just say, I only think of e coli as something to stay away from. It’s fecal material.

SP Yeah. [laughs] I thought the same thing at first.

AB Right. There are hundreds of different types of e coli, and so you’re right, there are some that are harmful, but that’s about 0.1 percent of the e coli out there. And so, most of the time, it’s completely harmless and so it’s easy to deal with and we use it a lot. It might not be the best organism if this ever went to forensic types of techniques. But, for the meantime and for teaching purposes, it was a really great organism.

SM Were you guys proud of what you did? Did you think, “We onto something. This worked”?

SP I was–I mean I thought, I thought the cool thing was that we actually went and did it ‘cause, you know, you just don’t think that at workshops and it’s like, “Oh let’s come up with an idea so that we can get paid for our workshop” and we did our homework and…but as we were driving back we were like, “I think we could actually do this.” And as kind of a collaborative thing where her students–Amorette’s students would make the bacteria and do the synthetic biology piece and then my chemistry students would test the bacteria and do all the analytical testing on it. And we developed the method–the analytical method that we needed.

SM Can you explain very simply what you mean by taking e coli and making something with it like this?


AB What you can do is you can have just DNA in a tube and you can cut it basically, with different, they’re called enzymes. They’re like little scissors that you can use to cut DNA. And then there’s other enzymes that are like glue, that you can add so you can glue your little DNA pieces back together. And so imagine a tube that’s probably less than an inch tall. And so my students always look in the tube and it has, you know, a microliter of liquid so imagine like a drop out of a droplet of clear liquid in a tube and they always look in the tube and say, “Is something happening?” I said, “You have to trust it. Trust the science. Alright, we will test it, but trust the science.” So it’s hard to see. But once you add it to the e coli, the neat thing is that if it’s working, they turn bright red, and so you have this plate or this tube of this, you know, kind of muddy yellow-ish liquid with all the bacteria growing, but then you add in your gunshot residue and then after four hours, the tube turns red. And so, it’s really neat to see that type of change so that you can actually tell it’s working.

SM So was it proven: yes in fact this is an alternate way and in some ways a good way to detect gunshot residue?

SP I think we’re not quite yet at the stage of ‘is it better.’ I still think there’s some work to be done.

SM What are the limitations?

SP Mostly it’s the time is the limitation. Uh, just in how long it takes the bacteria to respond.

SM You all published your creation–this invention.

SP Twice actually.

AB Right, and one of the exciting things is that our students were authors on the publication, and so they were really–our students in our classes were very involved. It was really great to see that, you know, the scientific community reviewed this and accepted this as really valuable, interesting new forensic science and synthetic biology. And our students got to help.

SM Both of you have such a wonderful emphasis on teaching your students and seeing their scientific interest just explode. How much did students enjoy making this product?

AB I know my genetics students really loved making it. In the past, we had done more of the cookiecutter types of experiments. They learned techniques but we already knew how the experiment would turn out. So this was something really new and different where they got to create something. A lot of my students are interested in forensic science. They see the TV shows, it’s a possible career for them. And so learning the background of that was exciting. And they got to make something, and so, and then see it tested. And it worked. And so, it was really really, I think, exciting for them. And I know my genetics biology students really like seeing the chemistry students then be able to test it. So, they saw what they made was important for other students too. So they liked that collaboration.

SM Is this exploding? I mean, is there so much to be done, we’ve barely scratched the surface?

AB I think so, absolutely. There’s so much to be done. If you can dream it, I think you can build it.

SM That’s so neat. Well, Amorette Barber and Sarah Porter, thank you for talking with me on With Good Reason.

SP Thank you for having us.

AB Thank you. [music fades in]

SM Sarah Porter is an Associate Professor of analytical chemistry at Longwood. Amorette Barber is an Associate Professor of biology at Longwood University and has been named an outstanding professor by the state council of higher education for Virginia. Coming up next, identifying the young adults who become mass shooters. Philip Mongan has done extensive research on the phenomenon of mass school shooters. He’s an Associate Professor of social work at Radford University and he says we can predict which children might open fire, but it’s not that simple.


PM What I look at and what I’ve been finding is that kids can have a seemingly normal life and, through a number of years or at least a number of months, kind of transition from the seemingly normal to a killer. There’s very few that you would find as sociopaths. Strangely, a lot of the times we think of outcasts. A lot of our perception is based on the Columbine–the trench-coat-wearing, Gothic, emo kind of kid. But, the very first one is a good student who was part of his school rifle team. He went up into his school and used his rifle and just started shooting people below. Nobody could believe it was this kid. Everybody thought he had friends, he was doing well in school. It was a surprise to the people that knew them, which is very common. It’s not just one of those things where other people think, “Oh, that was the kid–I would’ve picked him out of a lineup.” It’s surprising most of the time.

SM Was it long before somebody then picked up weapons to do something like this again?

PM Yeah it was quite a few–I think the 80s it started again, and then of course in the 90s. That is really when the phenomenon came to everybody’s mind. People started to think–maybe there’s this phenomenon, this trend here that’s happening. And there’s something different.

SM Wouldn’t you say that indeed it was a trend? To some extent it was copycatting?

PM The copycat–I don’t like to use that word, more than it’s a cultural script that we like to refer to it as. It became an option for students who felt marginalized. To an outsider, some of these students aren’t marginalized. They have friends, they have significant others. But, to themselves, they feel marginalized.

SM Could you give me examples into how they felt–whether it was to things that they said to others or writings?

PM Oh yes, I mean probably the easiest is Columbine, because the evidence is out there for people to read and look at. And there are journals–they meticulously journaled and created videos. A couple years earlier, the papers they started writing for school–you can see one where they talk about guns in school. And then it kind of started spreading and they talked about how they were being bullied, people were excluding them. And how they wanted to start getting back at them. And you can see kind of the level of anger and frustration in their writings increase.

SM Why do you think school shooters have been boys, not girls?

PM That is the million dollar question. I think, and what the research has looked at so far, at least on a theoretical level, is that there can sometimes be this view of masculinity that is toxic–that the only way to assert yourself as a man is through violence and power. And when I talked about bullying, the type of bullying that they do is through attacking their manhood. When you look at specific cases where bullying did play a role, it always is that type of bullying. And so, the shooters will see weapons and see attacks as a way to gain power and manliness.

SM You know how they say in the case of the Virginia Tech massacre–that shooter was known to his family to have had difficulties from a rather young age. But you say that’s less likely to be the case in most cases.

PM In terms of having a mental illness or emotional difficulties?

SM Yeah.

PM When you look back at the 31 cases of the primary and secondary school shootings, very few of them had a previously diagnosed mental illness. And I know, as a society, when something horrific happens like this, we think they have to be crazy, right? That’s just the thought that nobody in their right mind would do this. And then there’s a habit of going back after the incident and using the incident as a way to diagnose them. But typically, that isn’t the case in terms of primary and secondary school. When you start going on to the university level, or mass shootings as an adult, then mental illness does come into play, more previously diagnosed mental illness. But overall, people who have a diagnosed mental illness are less violent than the population that does not. And so even if there is a diagnosis of something, that doesn’t immediately make them more susceptible to violence in that way.

SM The period over which they go from being relatively well-adjusted young people to envisioning and then executing with violence, can you describe a series of steps that take place over a short or longer period?

PM Oh, absolutely. I would say every kid comes into the process with a different background. Some have parents who you would say, this is a healthy family life. Others come from broken families. Some do have a diagnosed previous mental illness, others do not. But what enters them into the process is they first start contemplating, what would it be like if I did this? They start playing with that idea. And then it kind of transitions to putting more information around themselves that involve that idea. They start reading about past shooters, they start to idealize past shooters, they start to think, “How would I get guns?” And the more they surround themselves with the information, the more it gives them kind of a cathartic emotional release, because they feel to them it gives them power. And then they start changing their behaviors. They start surrounding themselves with information that only supports this idea of getting back–of revenge. And then they start to go trying to buy weapons and rehearsing the attacks, and that gets them to a place where it’s not inevitable, but they’re moving downhill quickly to that place.

SM How do we prevent the person from turning over that period of months or years that you were describing?

PM Um, I’ve always liked the idea of having either school social workers or school counselors work with students who may be showing difficulties. Also, peer meditation works wonders. I mean, not only for this topic but for school culture in general. Having peer mediators, those types of things, as well as educating students about the seriousness of threats. There used to be this culture of silence, where students wouldn’t tattle on one another. And then afterwards, well yeah he told everybody that he was going to do this. We just didn’t think he was serious. And now, students I think have taken it to where this is a serious thing. And so that helps. Additionally, just everybody paying attention to certain surroundings. There was potential for a really awful school shooting in Minnesota where a woman noticed this young looking guy messing around near a storage shed, and it was suspicious so she said, “let me call the police and have them check it out.” What they found in there was a large cash of weapons and everything else and he was planning very soon after that to go to his school and engage in a school shooting. And just her paying attention, seeing something weird and calling attention to it prevented that.


SM Have you come up with any useful theories that would help all of us identify earlier so that we can turn back the clock before the clock hits it?

PM That would be the ultimate goal. Prediction with violence is always really tricky, especially with youth, because they don’t have a long history behind them, necessarily, of violence. The danger in that is that there are a lot of students who like dark things, who write dark stories, who play violent video games, who would meet a quote-on-quote profile that has been set up, and aren’t actually violent. They may actually be marginalized from school, so to select them and say, well, you fit these categories could be dangerous to them, because you’re further marginalizing them. I know in the past I get asked about violent writings, say in a creative English class. That in and of itself doesn’t give us much information. But, if it were to come to somebody’s attention, and then you start piecing other things together. Maybe they’ve been having other problems at school with peer group. Maybe their grades have dropped–maybe they’re having some violent writing, some problems at home. Then talk to a student and feel where they’re at.

SM You’ve said that these young shooters often have other shooter heroes names on their lips that they identify and emulate. Is that always the case, are we finding?

PM Yes, pretty much always. Especially after Columbine. Well, even before that, when you can get to Pearl, Mississippi, Springfield, Oregon, or some of those cases. Paducah, Kentucky, Jonesborough, Arkansas, they all refer back, and it’s morbid, but there is a counter-culture where students who do feel marginalized often idealize shooters. And you’ll notice a change in the media, which I greatly applaud, where many reporters will no longer say the names of the people who are shooters. And that is for a purpose. That’s because, when you take away their name, you take away something to idealize. Instead of it being a body count, which others try to emulate and one-up, it turns into focusing on the victims of the tragedy. But they absolutely idealize, and you can see almost every case, when they find their YouTube videos, or they find their journals, or their Twitter, or their Facebook, they’ll always talk about Columbine, or Virginia Tech, or Newtown now, and why they wanted to one-up them or idealize them. And you can even look in popular culture. Zero Day is a movie that came out, I think, a good while ago. It is literally taken from the basement tapes of Columbine. And so, in some ways, even though I don’t think the movie idealizes those shooters, you could see how a student could watch that movie and actually feel like, “oh my gosh, will they make a movie about me? Who will play me?” Even one of the shooters from Columbine talked about, “I wonder who would write a book about me?” And it is a counter-culture that some people idealize and want to become a member of, if you will.

SM Well, Philip Mongan, thank you for talking with me today on With Good Reason.

PM Oh, thank you for having me.

SM [music fades in] Philip Mongan is an Associate Professor of social work at Radford University. Major support for With Good Reason is provided by the law firm of McGuireWoods and by the University of Virginia Health System, With Good Reason is produced in Charlottesville by Virginia Humanities. Our production team is Allison Quantz, Allison Byrne, Matt Darroch, and Jamal Millner. Some of the music is by Blue Dot Sessions. For the podcast, go to I’m Sarah McConnell. Thanks for listening. [music]


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