Valentine’s Day 2008 started out as a day like any other for Joseph Peterson, but in a matter of minutes, it turned into a day that will be ingrained in his memory for the rest of his life.
Peterson was a graduate student at Northern Illinois University working toward his Ph.D. He was teaching an oceanography class for non-geology majors when his life was forever changed.
With about 10 minutes left in his lecture and about 200 students packed in the lecture hall, the door behind him opened, which wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It was the middle of winter, and Peterson said it was common for students to try to cut through the lecture hall to avoid the bitter cold.
When he turned to tell the man entering to leave, he realized it was far worse than a student trying to keep warm. “I was just turning to say, ‘We need to wait,’ and he started firing into the auditorium with a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun,” Peterson said.
The first thing that went through his mind was, “This has to be some kind of drill.” He didn’t want to believe what was happening. It was Valentine’s Day and he had married his wife a few months earlier, so his second thought was, “If I die, my wife is going to kill me.”
He was on stage, 15 feet away from the gunman who was dressed in all black with a shirt that had an AK-47 on it and the word “terrorist” scrawled across the top.
The gunman didn’t say a word, he just fired and kept firing. Peterson’s first move was to try the door opposite the gunman, which was locked.
“I later found out it was a closet so it wouldn’t’ve helped me,” Peterson said.
He then jumped off the stage, crouched behind a podium, looked out into the crowd and saw students running for their lives.
Peterson said, “It was just completely congested, people were crawling on their elbows, trying to escape.”
The gunman fired four more times, and as he started to reload, Peterson made a break for it. “I kept my eye on him the entire time and we made eye contact,” he said.
As he ran for his life, the gunman dropped the shotgun, pulled out a GLOCK 9 mm, and shot Peterson in the shoulder.
“I realized I’d been shot, and I realized I wasn’t dead, so I kept running,” he said.
He made it out of the building and ran next door. He said that once he was inside he went running down the hallway of that building, telling everybody in every classroom, “Lock the doors, turn the lights off, call 911.”
He eventually ran into an office, where he handed an intern a notepad and pen, telling him to write down everything he told them. He told the intern everything he saw.
“I didn’t really know a lot about guns at the time, so I was like ‘tactical shotgun,’ I didn’t even know what that meant, but that’s what I told him,” Peterson said.
Peterson waited about 30 more minutes until the police arrived. They pulled him into another room where he told the story again. He said they didn’t notice his wound at first.
“The gunshot wound that I sustained was luckily a graze,” Peterson said.
He was then taken to the hospital and later discovered that it was only his classroom that was attacked.
“He wasn’t a student of mine,” Peterson said. “He was a former student from NIU who graduated, who had gone down to central Illinois for grad school.”
He said the shooter was battling mental illness, had 18 prior suicide attempts and had been in and out of mental health institutions.
“The reason he chose my classroom on that day at that time is because when he was a student, he was a teaching assistant for a class in sociology in that building, in that room at that time,” Peterson said. “He knew on this day there’ll be about 200 people in that room.” Because the shooter used to teach in that exact room, he knew the back way in.
Peterson said minutes after he got out of the lecture hall, the gunman jumped off the stage, walked down the aisles and shot 13 more students, killing five before taking his own life.
Peterson spent the next few months going to counseling. He said after struggling through this experience, he thought to himself, “All right, I need to get back to life; otherwise, this person’s taken more.”
He said the experience sticks with him.
“It’s always there, but you learn to manage,” Peterson said.
Peterson said he doesn’t have flashbacks or breakdowns because of the incident, except during the beginning of the semester when a student walks in late.
“It’s been 11 years, so I’ve really kind of worked through a lot of it,” Peterson said. “But it is frustrating to read on the news when another one happens.”
Peterson said because of how often he hears about shootings in the news, he wants to use this negative experience to do some good by educating people about how to respond to active threat situations.
He now holds active threat training seminars with University Police Capt. Chris Tarmann. Before those training sessions, Peterson tried to get involved in groups to raise awareness about gun violence. He said everything ended up being very political.
“This whole gun violence issue is something that shouldn’t be political,” Peterson said.
He said with mass shootings it is extremely difficult to point to one thing as the direct cause.
“You’ve got people on the right blaming mental health, and the media for over-hyping it; and people on the left blame how easy it is to a obtain firearm, and how lax some laws can be,” Peterson said.
He said that cable news finds the loudest squeaky wheel on both sides of the political spectrum and puts them in a screaming match. He said the blame doesn’t solely fall on media coverage of mass shootings because they’re responding to what people want to read and want to watch.
Peterson said he believes that mass shootings can be caused by a variety of issues and are often too boiled down when discussed. He said that America has always glorified criminals, such as Annie Oakley, Billy the kid or Bonnie and Clyde.
He believes that we live in an age where in America, fame and notoriety are the same thing.
“I think it’s a trend. These [mass shootings] become a means to an end for some people,” Peterson said.
He said that culturally, things have to shift in order for this issue to change.
“Do we need a better mental health system? I think so,” Peterson said. “Do we need to not glorify actual real, not cartoonish, but real violence in the media? That would probably help. Do we need to maybe make guns not so easy to get a hold of? Maybe that would help too. Maybe it’s all of these things.”
Peterson said it is beneficial to talk to people to overcome differences.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people that, I think, initially we really didn’t agree on much when it came to gun laws,” Peterson said. “I’m finding that you get a lot further just talking to people. Turn off the cable news and go outside, and talk to somebody who has a different opinion than you. And I think you’ll find there’s more overlap than there is difference.”