ROSEBURG, Ore. (Reuters) - The gunman who went on a deadly rampage at an Oregon college was heavily armed and equipped with extra ammunition, authorities said on Friday, and he might have killed more people were it not for the heroism of a military veteran in an adjoining classroom.
A day after the shooter killed nine people and wounded nine others at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, authorities sought a motive for this year’s bloodiest mass shooting in the United States, where such massacres have grown all too common.
Local broadcaster KOIN reported on Friday that the gunman, identified by law enforcement sources as Chris Harper-Mercer, 26, was a student at the college and enrolled in the writing class where the shooting took place. The television station did not state the source of the information in its Twitter post. Reuters could not immediately confirm the information.
The gunman, who was killed by police, carried six guns, body armor and five magazines of bullets with him to campus, according to Celinez Nunez, assistant special agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Nunez said seven more firearms were found with a significant stockpile of ammunition at the apartment the suspect shared with his mother just outside Roseburg, a former timber town about 180 miles (290 km) south of Portland. All the guns were purchased legally, she said.
The gunman stormed into a classroom on campus, shot a professor in the head and then ordered cowering students to stand up and state their religion before shooting them one by one, according to survivors’ accounts.
As the gunman moved toward an adjoining classroom, Chris Mintz, 30, a U.S. Army combat veteran who served in Iraq, tried to stop him, Jamie Skinner, the mother of Mintz’s 6-year-old son told Reuters. The gunman opened fire, striking Mintz.
“When Chris hit the ground, he told him it was our son’s birthday yesterday. He took a couple more rounds after that,” Skinner said, adding that the gunman then changed direction and entered a different room.
“The assailant was not able to make it into the classroom, because Chris stopped him,” she said, noting that Mintz was hospitalized with two broken legs and seven bullet wounds.
The Oregon shooting, the latest in a series of high-profile mass killings across the country, has led to fresh demands for stricter gun control in the United States, including an impassioned plea by President Barack Obama for political action, and statements by some Republican presidential candidates supporting the right of Americans to bear arms.
The latter is a position championed in the past by Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, who has refused since the shooting to comment on the gun control debate and has repeatedly declined to name the gunman during press conferences.
“Media and community members who publicize his name will only glorify his horrific actions,” Hanlin said. “And eventually, this will only serve to inspire future shooters.”
The sheriff on Friday identified the dead as Lawrence Levine, 67, the professor, and eight others who are believed to have been his students: Quinn Cooper, 18; Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, 59; Lucas Eibel, 18; Jason Johnson, 33 or 34; Sarena Moore, 44; Treven Anspach, 20; and Rebecka Carnes, 18; and Lucero Alcaraz, 19.
Although authorities have disclosed scant information about the gunman, they appeared to be learning more about him and why he might have opened fire.
Numerous students, former students and victims’ friends interviewed by Reuters have said they did not know of Harper-Mercer or that he was a student.
The shooter left behind a “multipage, hated-filled” statement in the classroom, according to a Twitter message from an NBC reporter, citing multiple law enforcement sources who were not identified. CNN, citing sources, said the statement showed animosity toward blacks.
Hanlin declined to comment when asked about the writings at a press conference.
Harper-Mercer was born in the United Kingdom and arrived in the United States as a young boy, his stepsister Carmen Nesnick told CBS Los Angeles.
His parents, Ian Mercer and Laurel Harper, divorced in Los Angeles in 2006 when he was a teenager, according to public records, and he continued to live with his mother.
Harper-Mercer, who identified himself on a blog post as “mixed race,” enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for about a month in 2008 before being discharged for failing to meet administrative standards, military records showed.
He graduated from the Switzer Learning Center in Torrance, California, in 2009, according to a graduation listing in the Daily Breeze newspaper. Switzer is a private, nonprofit school geared for special education students with a range of issues from learning disabilities, health problems and autism or Asperger Syndrome, according to the school’s website.
At some point, Harper-Mercer appears to have been sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army, a militant group that waged a violent campaign to drive the British from Northern Ireland. On an undated Myspace page, he posted photos of masked IRA gunmen carrying assault rifles.
Not counting Thursday’s incident, 293 U.S. mass shootings have been reported this year, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker website, a crowd-sourced database kept by anti-gun activists that logs events in which four or more people are shot.
Hours after Thursday’s shooting, a visibly frustrated Obama urged Americans to press their elected leaders to enact tougher firearms safety laws.
“Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here, at this podium, ends up being routine,” he said. “We’ve become numb to this.”
Gun control advocates say easy access to firearms is a major factor in the shooting epidemic, while the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun advocates say the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans the right to bear arms.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown on Friday declined any comment on gun control or other ways of preventing future shootings.
“It is going to keep happening until we decide that we want them to stop,” she said. “There is no single solution that will prevent every shooting but we must and we will do better.”
Both the governor and the sheriff said the gun control conversation would have wait for another day and instead it was time to focus on providing the support and condolences to help the community heal.
A month after the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Hanlin wrote a sharply worded letter to Vice President Joe Biden saying he would never enforce a federal law that violates the Constitution.
“Gun control is NOT the answer to preventing heinous crimes like school shootings,” Hanlin wrote in the letter, dated Jan. 15, 2013.
Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Doina Chiacu in Washington, Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Jane Ross in Roseburg, Shelby Sebens in Portland, and Katie Reilly and Angela Moon in New York; Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Frank McGurty, Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Shumaker