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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tell Me Again Why 19-Year-Olds and Guns Are a Good Combination

Big funeral in Madison today. Police are planning on 1000, maybe 1500 people coming to the Dakota Prairie Playhouse (ugh, there's an awkward name for a funeral site) to pay their respects to Deputy Chad Mechels.

That my wife wants to be a pastor defies and shames my understanding. Tomorrow a pastor has to find the right words for a grieving wife and two bewildered children... and do it in front of a big audience. Not a job I could do...

...and not a job I'll pretend to do. If you're looking for such words here, read no further.

Deputy Mechels was killed Sunday in the line of duty. He was responding to a call about a young man who was threatening to kill himself after a fight with his girlfriend. That young man, 19-year-old Ethan Johns, apparently shot Deputy Mechels. At least that's what Johns appears to have told a 911 dispatcher immediately after the shooting.

Investigators and the court have no pleasant task ahead sorting out what happened. I can find no good side to it. A senseless death. A widow, two kids with no dad. One young man (the classic profile: never saw it coming... wouldn't hurt anyone... good, dependable friend...), one weekend gone bad, now going to prison, forever.

The story will evolve, but for now, let's take it as we have it: a 19-year-old, emotionally upset, has easy access to a gun. He kills a trained, experienced policeman... over what? a fight with his girlfriend? anger at a cop coming to his door?

I'm not going to make excuses: if Johns did what he said he did, he's guilty, and deserves the full punishment of the law. But I am going to state a biological/psychological fact, based on my experience as a teacher and as a one-time teenager: even good kids do stupid things. Even at 19, their brains haven't matured. They'll take some perceived slight or momentary setback and turn it into a personal catastrophe, a desperate cosmic battle of good and evil, cause for some grand melodramatic gesture.

Or they just won't think. They fail to think past the moment, past themselves. Consequences don't register in their hormone-addled, still-forming brains. They just act. And if the wrong thing is close at hand—a razor blade, a gas pedal, a gun—someone ends up dead.

I'm not going for a big gun control argument here. There is no gun law I'd support that would have stopped what happened Sunday.

But the next time a legislator makes the argument that we ought to give emotional, impulsive 19-year-olds even easier access to firearms in public places, expect me to mention Ethan Johns and Deputy Chad Mechels.


  1. Life is sacred, fragile, precious and needs to be fiercely protected by common sense and law. There is no sense to be make of killing the innocent and no justification for it. Ever.

    Time doesn't heal this kind of thing, only God does. You are right, the job of a pastor is very difficult in these situations. I also know that the entire law enforcement community in a three state area hurts right now and needs our prayer support.

  2. Let's hope protocol changes across South Dakota for responding to a situation like this. No less than two officers should have responded to this call because a weapon may be involved, regardless if it is rural. In larger cities, one officer never responds to domestic disputes. The cost of waiting until a backup unit could arrive would be minimal. Maybe SWAT should have been called in. Worst case scenario, the young man may have shot himself. Had this person shot himself rather than an officer, we would be saddened, but not grieving near as much as losing a peace officer, a father and husband. In the midwest, our trust needs to be tempered with caution and tighter protocol to minimize the opportunity for this to ever happen again. What a sad day for the Mechels family and friends.

  3. Interesting. You have titled your post "Tell me again why 19-year-olds and guns are a good combination." Then state "I'm not for a big gun argument here." So what was your point? This was a very sad event. Someone has died. The verdict is not in. Yet you seem to be using this as a platform for something else. Not cool!

  4. Let's take this time to remember a dedicated family man and lawman and pray for the family... there's plenty of time for platform-standing and pontificating later.

    Let's turn our attention to his family, who could use all the love they can get during this difficult time.

  5. That's why I said what I said at the top, Matt.

  6. Anon 10:27: The point was exactly what the headline asks: is easy access to guns for 19-year-olds a good idea? The big gun control argument that I don't go for would be, "Let's ban all private ownership of firearms." I'll be happy to provide any further clarification you need.

  7. Orphaned - Deprived of parents by death or desertion

    Cory, I don't think using the term "Orphaned" would fit here. Both parents are not gone.

  8. This blog is just sickening.

  9. As a retired Sheriff's Deputy in California, I am saddened by Deputy Mechels untimely death. We are all searching for answers as to the why and how this could have happened. Having been involved in two shootings, it usually comes down to who is the one that is going to go home tonight. Dispatch becomes critical in domestic violence situations. Thay take the initial call. When an officer responds to an address, hopefully not parking in front of the subject property, but close by, a minute or two can make the difference where he listens to what is going on inside. The element of surprise is golden. Still, the odds are against peace officers on these calls. Had Deputy Mechels ended up shooting and killing suspect Johns, everyone would have been outraged. "Killing a teenager" etc. So the painful lesson here for the remaining officers is to proceed with a heightened sense of caution, and don't be afraid to pull out that weapon to gain compliance. Mechels widow and your loved ones deserve that measure of safety. We pray for the family of deputy Mechels and urge that the community "back the badge"...even when it seems unpopular, because, these officers are the last line of defense to their safety.

    Steve Urner, Retired Senior Deputy,
    Kern County Sheriff's Dept.
    Bakersfield, Ca.

  10. Point taken on word choice, Anon 6:58. Consider it fixed!

    Point not made, Anon 9:19. If you take the time to explain yourself calmly, your words might actually carry some weight.

    Point well taken, Mr. Urner. But trust me, if Deputy Mechels had killed Johns, I don't think you would have heard any outcry from his friends and neighbors. He'd have shown us the boy's rifle and the bullet hole in his police vehicle, and we'd have said, "You did what you had to," case closed.

  11. Point not made cheidelberger. Wrong time, wrong place. Show some class.

  12. I beg to differ. I said nothing derogatory about Deputy Mechels or his family. I made no excuses for the shooter. And the point stands: emotional 19-year-olds and easy access to guns are a bad combination.

  13. Thats fine Cory. I can see what your priority is. You of course are right and you of course win, congrats.

  14. It's not a question of being derogatory, Cory. Rather, it's a question of timing. It hasn't been a week since this man was killed and now we're brining this stuff up.

    This has been such an emotional turmoil for the past few days, the appropriate thing is to wait at least two weeks. By then emotions will have settled and people will possibly be more receptive to what you have to say.

  15. You said "I'm not going to make excuses: if Johns did what he said he did, he's guilty, and deserves the full punishment of the law."

    Johns is charged with 1st degree murder. The full punishment of the law is the death penalty.

    So, if Johns is convicted of this crime you are saying you would support the death penalty in this case? Please correct me if I am wrong.

  16. Clever, Anon. You've been paying attention. No excuses... but I'll still work on changing that law.

    Jackrabit1, we all deal with grief and try to find meaning in loss in different ways. I prefer to figure out what events mean in the grand scheme of public policy and the general welfare. As I said at the top, if you're looking for something else, read no further.

  17. As a spouse of a law enforcement officer, I am saddened that this is how you recognized the death of Deputy Mechels.

    His death shouldn't be a platform for something else. He was an officer that tried to save someone else's life, and paid the ultimate price for it.. his own life.

    RIP Deputy Mechels. You are truely missed.

  18. And I hope that when you recover from your sadness, you'll recognize there is an important public policy lesson to be learned here. In future debates at the Legislature, Deputy Mechels's death will inform discussions of public safety regulations.

  19. Corey,

    I understand where you are going and I respect that.

    That being said, please respect the law enforcement community and what they are going though. Losing one of their own is not only tough on the officers, but their families. Chad's death has caused spouses of law enforcement to really stop and think about all of those things that we try to put in the back of our minds.


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