First interview: Hero in 2002 shooting dislikes gun bans

Mikael Gross has thought a lot about that terrible day at Virginia Tech. After all, he was involved in a similar incident at a Virginia college, a shooting where three people were killed.

The difference? Gross and another student drew their guns, and students subdued the gunman.

Gross says that in the days since the April 16 massacre, he has thought back to what happened to him five years ago, but until now he has turned down all requests for interviews.

He stipulates one ground rule in his first post-Tech interview to answer the key question posed by Randy Salzman's essay in this issue [see page 95]: "I have no problem talking about gun control as long as we don't pontificate on what could have happened at Virginia Tech."

Gross was a 34-year-old law student at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy on January 16, 2002, when suspended student Peter Odighizuwa went berzerk and fatally shot Dean Anthony Sutin, Professor Thomas Blackwell, and student Angela Denise Dales, and wounded three others.

Gross and Tracy Bridges were both police officers as well as students, and when they heard shots, unbeknownst to each other, they ran to their cars and retrieved their guns. A third student, Ted Besen, a former cop, helped subdue Odighizuwa with student Todd Ross.

"I was returning from lunch," says Gross, now legislative counsel for the North Carolina General Assembly.

"Initially," says Gross, "it was just a shock." He heard one of the first shots that killed Sutin. "Even when you have years of law enforcement experience, you never expect that– 10 minutes after walking back from having a piece of pizza."

Gross says he donned his bulletproof vest when he went to his car to get his firearm. "I'm sure Tracy [Bridges] or I could have shot or killed Peter Odighizuwa," says Gross, "but he had already put his weapon down." 

Not that Gross was entirely sure the killer was disarmed. "It's a mining town," Gross explains. "I didn't know if he had explosives."

Odighizuwa is now serving six life sentences. Bridges could not be reached by press time, and Besen did not return a reporter's call.

Gross insists that the shootings at Appalachian School of Law were very different from what happened at Virginia Tech. For starters, Appalachian is a much smaller school– 300 versus 30,000– and has fewer places for a killer to hide. And the tiny law school did not have a campus police force.

More importantly, says Gross, three of the four students who intervened were current or former law enforcement officers who had been trained in the use of their weapons.

"Citizens who have intervened in armed robberies, rapes, etc. have saved lives and property," says Gross. "These incidents are not well noted by the media."

On the other hand, Gross is the former chief of police at Brevard College in North Carolina, and he says keeping weapons off campus "makes perfect sense"– with exceptions: Off-duty cops and people with proper concealed weapons permits. 

People carrying concealed weapons should have some sort of safety training, he says, and know how to clean, load, and aim their firearm, and understand the laws of use of deadly force– "common sense" stuff.

He's not a supporter of cities with strict gun control like New York City or Washington, DC. Nor does he think gun-free zones work.

Virginia Tech "was a gun-free zone," he says. "I don't think the shooter had a lot of remorse for having a gun. I don't think he thought, 'I'm going to get in trouble.'"

He points out that both Odighizuwa and Seung-Hui Cho had "lawfully obtained" their guns weeks before their killing sprees, and they were depressed or mentally ill. 

Governor Tim Kaine signed an executive order April 30 closing the state loophole that allowed Cho to buy guns despite having been judged mentally ill and a danger to himself.  

Gross says he's not a member of the NRA– nor the ACLU. "I'm not radical right, as people think," he says, "but I'm not for taking guns away."

When he heard about the Tech massacre, Gross says, he was "extremely shocked" by the death toll and by the fact that Cho was able to go from room to room because gunshots can sound like innocuous pops, and few realized they should barricade the doors.

 "I know what gunfire sounds like," says Gross. "A lot of people don't, and by the time they recognize it, it's on them."

He calls the victims heroes: "Some of those victims died protecting other people."

Gross warns that it will take years and years for those who were in a classroom, who lost family members, or who were left for dead and managed to survive to get over that day.

"There is absolutely nothing you can do to prevent this type of attack when people have made up their mind to do it," says Gross. "This isn't a massacre– it's domestic terrorism."


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