The mood in the parking lot at Town Center Plaza in University City on Tuesday night, April 30, was one of confusion, but not chaos.
In the parking lot of O’Charley’s, media gathered, waiting for answers from representatives of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department or UNC Charlotte Police. A few hundred feet over, at the opposite end of the parking lot, CMPD set up a staging center and rendezvous spot for parents to meet with students. About 50 students milled around in the lot somberly, not knowing what was happening right across the street on the campus of UNC Charlotte.
They had all heard the reports of a mass shooter opening fire in a classroom on Kennedy. Most had heard that at least two people were dead and one person was in custody, but there wasn’t much more to be known at that point.
In the O’Charley’s lot, former state senator Malcolm Graham talked to reporters about Charlotte joining a long list of U.S. cities where similar random shootings have taken place. Graham knows what it’s like when a mass shooting hits close to home. His sister, Cynthia Hurd, was killed in Charleston during a racially motivated mass shooting in a church in 2015.
Graham scoffed at the notion that, just hours after the UNC Charlotte shooting, it was too soon to talk about the elephant in the room: guns.
“Unfortunately, public spaces aren’t safe anymore because of the proliferation of guns. We cannot say that it is not time to talk about that,” Graham said. “We say that after every shooting. So if we can’t talk about guns after what happened at UNC Charlotte today, let’s talk about the guns at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, since time has passed. Let’s talk about the guns in Pittsburgh; six months have passed. We don’t know the circumstances of what happened or why he did what he did, but we know this: two are dead, four injured at a university in a country that still stands silent and these mass shootings have become normalized.”
At around 8:30 p.m., UNC Charlotte Police Chief Jeff Baker addressed the media, which by then included reporters from throughout the state. Baker confirmed that a shooter had opened fire on students on campus with a handgun, confirming Graham’s statement that the shooter had killed two and injured four. He cleared up some rumors about the possibility of a second shooter and the location of the shooting, but could not share much else.
Following the press conference, Charlotte City Council member Greg Phipps, who represents District 4 where the university is located, said he was thinking of the school’s nearly 29,000 students, many of whom live on or near campus.
“Unfortunately, in our society today these things have become far too frequent,” Phipps said, “but for it to happen so close to home, right here in our city, that’s going to be hard to get through.”
In the days following the shooting, more details would emerge about what happened on Tuesday afternoon. According to police reports and eyewitness accounts, the shooter entered room 236 in the Kennedy building and began shooting without comment at about 5:45 p.m.
According to CMPD Chief Kerr Putney, he was met by 21-year-old Riley Howell, who took the shooter to the ground. When asked at a press conference on Wednesday whether Howell tackled the shooter, Putney said, “That would be an understatement.”
According to a firsthand account from Adam Johnson, the Anthropology professor leading the class at the time of the shooting, after the shooter was tackled, he emptied the magazine, laid the gun down and said, “I’m done.”
That is when Sgt. Richard Gundacker and officer Sarah Smyer with UNC Charlotte Police entered the room and subdued the suspect. Howell was shot and killed in the confrontation, along with 19-year-old Ellis “Reed” Parlier. Howell has since been nationally hailed as a hero.
The text alerts that go out to students in an emergency like the one that occurred on April 30 say, “Run. Hide. Fight.” Though Howell was already dead by the time the text alert went out that day, nobody had to tell him to fight.
“But for his work, the assailant may not have been disarmed,” Putney said on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, he gave his life in the process, but his sacrifice saved lives.”
When asked about telling students to fight a shooter in situations like the one Howell faced, Putney said it’s an unfortunate reality, but some students do need to make that decision if faced with it.
“If you want to close your eyes, hold your breath and pray, most likely you are going to die,” he said.
Howell, who’s from Waynesville, had aspired to join the military. He was buried on Sunday with full military honors.
Also injured in the shooting were Drew Pescaro, 19, of Apex; Rami Alramadhan, 20, of Saudi Arabia; Emily Houpt, 23, of Charlotte; and Sean DeHart, 20, of Apex. As of Queen City Nerve’s press deadline, Pescaro was the only victim who remained in the hospital, though he’s expected to make a full recovery.
On May 5, Pescaro posted a picture of himself in his hospital bed next to Carolina Panther wide receiver DJ Moore, who had gone to visit him. “Huge thanks to Carolina Panther DJ Moore for stopping by and brightening the day #charlottestrong,” he wrote.
The shooter, a 22-year-old white man, was enrolled in the class but withdrew in January, according to Johnson. No motive is yet known for the shooting. According to multiple news reports, while he was being brought into custody the shooter told officers, “I went in and shot the guys.”
According to Johnson, at the beginning of the semester the shooter was a “completely typical” student who was engaged with the course material and asked and answered questions in class. His grandfather has told media that the idea of his grandson being a killer is “foreign” to him, and that he does not know what could have led him to such a violent act.
Campus on Wednesday, May 1, was quiet. The shooting occurred on the last full day of classes, and campus remained closed on Wednesday. Some students hung around in the Student Union in the afternoon, while downstairs the staff at the student-run newspaper Niner Times continued reporting on the tragedy on their campus. They regularly checked on the status of Pescaro, a sports writer for the paper, while they worked.
Just before 6 p.m., students began streaming into the James H. Barnhardt Student Activity Center for a vigil honoring the victims.
Inside the center, Halton Arena filled quickly as students showed up to pay their respects. Students stood on the track that circled the arena and filled each staircase looking down on the stage, where graduating senior Kristine Slade, student body president Chandler Crean and Chancellor Philip Dubois waited to speak.
“Yesterday’s violence and the loss of Riley and Reed cut us to our core as a university,” Dubois told the crowd. “We’re heartsick to believe that anyone would act with such complete disregard for human life, and we hope beyond hope for the full recovery of Drew, Sean, Emily and Rami.”
Crean, who broke down during Dubois’ speech, addressed the crowd tearfully.
“We come together as a community and a Niner Nation family, standing together with love and support because no one should go through this alone,” Crean said. “As a student here at UNCC, it is hard for me to stand before you, knowing that this incident occurred on our campus. Yesterday’s tragedy was a complete shock and the saddest day in UNC Charlotte history … Please know that this does not stop here. It cannot stop here. No matter what happens, we will keep moving forward.”
Following the vigil inside, students poured out into the courtyard surrounding the student activity center and lit candles while a student choral group sang songs.
Two days later, students held another rally, this one more political. The UNC Charlotte chapter of March for our Lives held a rally on campus on Friday that attracted about 150 students, staff and others. Students spoke about voting for stricter gun laws to help stem the wave of mass shootings around the country. Police have confirmed that the shooter legally purchased the firearm he used in the shooting.
Government representatives addressed the crowd, including Charlotte City Council members Braxton Winston and Dimple Ajmera, Mecklenburg County Commissioner and UNC Charlotte professor Susan Harden and U.S. Rep. Alma Adams. One speaker read a letter from Gov. Roy Cooper addressed to the students that read in part, “We all must work together to address this crisis and keep North Carolina safe.”
Later in the day, many of the same students joined other organizers at a Stop the Violence rally at Romare Bearden Park in Uptown organized by the local chapter of the NAACP. Organizers at the Uptown rally presented a petition to make April 30 a “Day of Remembrance” in Charlotte to honor the victims of Tuesday’s shooting.
Counselors on campus have been offering services to anyone struggling with the effects of Tuesday’s shooting. Students were given the option of accepting their grades as they were on the final day of classes rather than take final exams with the potential of being retraumatized by returning to campus.
While no one has all the answers, Johnson looked at the systemic issues behind the trend of mass shootings through an anthropological lens in his blog post, before making a call to action.
“I believe that addressing the structural issues that allow for mass shootings to be the consequence is key to preventing them in the future,” Johnson wrote. “We have a moral obligation to each other, our children, and future generations to tackle this now and head on. Reducing inequality, providing our citizens with security in life, and coming together to strive for a better future for all is our duty as citizens of our country and the world.”