There is debate and horror-fuelled outrage following the shooting at a Florida high school last Wednesday, which left 17 dead and several more injured. But there’s another, quieter question so many of us are asking: How could he do it?
Sitting down for dinner with the people we love; saving leftovers for lunch tomorrow; watching our family and friends across the table or the sporting field or over coffee on the weekends – we’re all wondering How.
None of us know how a 19-year-old former student could walk into his old school carrying a semi-automatic assault rifle with the intent to kill.
But one person does. And now, he’s telling his story.
“I was almost a school shooter,” Aaron Stark begins his open letter to the world, published by Denver’s 9 News.
“I didn’t carry out anything, I didn’t hurt anyone. But in 1996, I almost did the worst possible thing.”
Stark’s letter reveals a horrific adolescence. Yes, he was bullied – “for being fat, for being smart, for not playing sports” – but his trauma ran deeper than that.
“I had a very chaotic and violent childhood, moving from place to place, having the people I was closest to be the ones who hurt me most,” his letter reads.
“I was shy, and sensitive, and smelled bad because I either had dirty clothes on that had not been washed in weeks or because I was filthy from not having a shower also for weeks at a time.”
Amelia Lester and Mia Freedman discuss the fallout from the Florida school shooting, and why this one could finally bring about change. Post continues.
He began hiding weapons at the places he frequented. He always had a knife or stick or brass knuckles close. At the height of his depression, Stark wanted the whole world to explode. And he was ready to make it happen.
“If you get told you’re worthless enough, you will believe it,” he told the station’s show Next with Kyle Clark.
“I tried to find an assault rifle. I tried to get hold of a gun. There was going to be a large explosion of pain and suicide. I was going to try and kill a lot of people and then myself.”
Stark knows the issue of mass shootings in America has a lot to do with mental health and he knows through experience how much good can come from kindness and love. From “giving love even to people who don’t deserve it”.
He thinks those who believe violent movies and video games cause massacres are “morons”.
But Stark knows there is one, glaring, factor that prevented him from acting like the Florida shooter did last Wednesday. From walking into his school or local supermarket and opening fire:
“I didn’t have access to an assault rifle,” he wrote. “I was almost a school shooter. I am not a school shooter because I didn’t have access to guns.”
According to TIME, Stark couldn’t access a rifle at the time due to the assault weapons ban, which was in place from 1994 to 2004 when it expired.
In a subsequent interview with MSCNBC, Stark said it’s time to have a “hard look” at the effect of guns – and the laws around them.
“Do we really need to have assault weapons? Do we really need to have people being able to go buy an AR-15 when they’re not able to even buy a pistol because they won’t pass the background checks?”
“It’s a multifaceted issue. And if you focus on just the guns, then you’ll ignore the rest — but if you focus on just the mental health, then you’ll have missed the gun part.”
Watch, in part, Aaron Stark talk to 9 News about “almost being a school shooter”. Post continues below.
There wasn’t a massacre at Denver’s North High School in 1996. And that’s because teenage Stark couldn’t get his hands on an assault rifle. Even though he tried.
He said it was strong friendships and one instance in particular – when a friend invited him over for surprise party – that pulled him through those dark, confusing years without harming himself or anyone around him.
“One night a friend took me over to their house and her mum made a blueberry peach pie and I didn’t realise it was for me. I got there and there was a party there for me and the pie,” he told Next with Kyle Clark.
“I was suicidal that night and I hadn’t told anyone, there were no signs, but that act of kindness saved my life.”
Now, Stark is married with four children and he is telling his story because his wife and daughter “kept saying how they could not understand what could make someone do this”.
He does understand. And he knows how lucky he is.
“If I had a rifle, I would have been a killer.”
“But if I had love, I wouldn’t have wanted a rifle.”
Read Aaron’s letter in full here.