Seeking the shooter’s motive at Seattle Pacific University?

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This time, it appears that a lone gunman acting for some unknown, mysterious reason decided to gun down students at Seattle Pacific University, an evangelical campus that is part of the 100-plus member Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (the global network in which I teach).

This means that religion is part of the story, right from the beginning. It also means that reporters are going to dealing with quite a bit of religious language and information, when hearing from witnesses and campus leaders.

Early on, the wire-service report I kept seeing was produced by Reuters. Other than the emerging details of the shooting, what was the crucial information that readers needed to know, according to this very early report? Check this out:

Seattle Pacific University is a Methodist liberal arts college about 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Seattle’s downtown, with about 4,000 students enrolled. The college website said students are subject to disciplinary action for such behavior as extramarital sex or homosexual activity and for the possession or use of alcohol.

Students could be seen embracing and otherwise consoling one another on campus, some crying as they recounted hearing a gunshot. An evening prayer service was being held at a campus church.

“We’re a community that relies on Jesus Christ for strength and we’ll need it at this time,” said Seattle Pacific University President Daniel Martin.

One journalism professor sent me that clip and focused on the discipline code reference with this simple question: “Relevance?”

Good question. I realize that the Reuters team was working at the online-research stage of reporting and, thus, the college website was right there and easy to find. But, with an off-campus shooter, was the basic Christian (and evangelical) doctrine reflected in that code relevant to the story? (Also, Seattle Pacific is a Free Methodist school — not to be confused with the much larger United Methodist Church.)

Was the Reuters team, essentially, saying that this was one of those strange right-wing campuses that might attract someone who was angry at intolerant right-wing Christians? Surely not.

The New York Times offered a much calmer — denominationally accurate, I might add — take on the school’s worldview:

The school, which was founded in 1891 by Free Methodists and promotes a Christian educational outlook, has about 4,000 students on a 40-acre campus about 10 minutes from downtown.

But back to the motive question. At this point, the most provocative information I have seen was placed right at the top of this Washington Post story, which came hours into the news flow after the event itself. Another hint at why the gunman targeted SPU?

Two young men — each vastly different from the other — will forever share a tie to the Seattle Pacific University shooting: one branded a suspect, the other hailed as a hero.

The suspect in the shooting at the university Thursday afternoon that left one dead and several others injured was obsessed with the Columbine High School shootings, unnamed police sources told KIRO 7. The station said the man, 26, had even visited the Colorado site where two student shooters killed 15 and injured 21 classmates in 1999.

Stay tuned. It may take time for reporters to find witnesses who could describe whether the gunman said or did anything symbolic during his attack.

As you would expect, The Seattle Times report is much longer and more detailed and, thus, contains more faith-centered material. Read it all.

This chunk of the story really hit home for me, as an educator who has taught on two CCCU campuses:

The shooting occurred on the second-to-last day of classes at the Free Methodist school on the north end of Queen Anne Hill, where there are 4,270 undergraduate and graduate students.

A prayer service was held Thursday evening at the campus church. …

SPU President Daniel J. Martin said the emergency-response system that was activated when the shooting occurred has been in operation for several years.

“Certainly, I think that Virginia Tech heightened the awareness of all campuses to be prepared for an event like this to occur,” he said of the 2007 shooting in which a gunman killed 32 people before taking his own life.

Martin said that students and faculty members have drills in case a shooting occurs, and cited those drills as one reason the shooter was apprehended and first responders arrived so quickly.

The students who helped apprehend the suspect “acted without regard to their own safety on behalf of others,” Martin said near Otto Miller Hall.

“We are a community and we care for others,” Martin said. “Those that were involved did just that.”

Stay tuned and please let me know, in the comments pages or through the GetReligion “Submit” button, if you see any additional material that is relevant to religion-beat work.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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