Jeffrey Johnson Empire State Shooter: Lessons From Tragedy Outside of Hazan Imports


It used to be that when you drove into my hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona, you would be greeted by a large orange sign reading “Ruff’s Drive-Thru Guns & Liquor.” 

I always held that sign as evidence that the Southwest is a bizarre place to live; a place in which you ostensibly could drive around drunk with a handgun without having to even step out of your car. I made countless jokes about the sign — saying that whenever I saw it, I knew I was truly home  — to friends not from Arizona; jokes about the rough-and-tumble West, where the men are men, the ties are bolos, and everyone is terrified of being profiled by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

My jokes became a lot less funny in 2011 when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson. Friends of mine had worked for Giffords; everyone I knew was incredibly upset by the shooting and worried about their friends and family in southern Arizona. 

For a while, the Giffords shooting sparked a national debate about gun regulation, a discussion which has continued recently after the Aurora shootings and the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin.

On Friday, a high profile shooting in Midtown Manhattan, just blocks from the PolicyMic office, left nine bystanders wounded and two people, the shooter and his target, dead. All nine bystanders were shot by police officers, according to recent updates. Now, I am forced to reconsider what effect these kinds of high-profile shootings really have, and what effect this shooting will have on me.

To be honest, I haven’t yet had enough time to process the fact that I could have easily walked through this shooting on my way to work. I haven’t had enough time to think about the shooting cogently, to express my sympathy for the victims, or to prepare an argument about gun control, police ineptitude, or the structural violence of our economy.

Some politicians have. Their responses largely express sympathy for the victims and their families and friends, a sentiment I would like to express here as well. Experts have also concluded that tourism will not be heavily affected by the shooting, something I can’t say I was particularly worried about.

Arguably, this shooting will re-invigorate public interest in gun control. (But the Aurora shootings didn’t really do that, or else we wouldn’t need another shooting to do the same.)

Arguably, the fact that Jeffrey T. Johnson shot his former boss after losing his job at "Hazan Imports" could be used to say something pithy about workplace violence and our dire economic straits. (But I’m not sure exactly how you can psychoanalyze Johnson, or extrapolate from his case to the hundreds of other unemployed people in New York City who did not choose to shoot someone.)

Arguably, we should be just as upset about the many other gun crimes that occur across our nation every day as we are about this one. (But being upset about every single thing bad that happens in the world might lead to catatonic depression.)

In fact, I’m not really sure what you can say about the shooting, beyond that it happened, and that it was a tragedy.

I understand the impulse to use Friday’s shooting as a case study. It provides some meaning for what happened to nine people who did nothing wrong other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It helps us process what happened, emotionally distancing ourselves from it by making it a lesson to be learned. Instead of asking the frightening, overwhelming question that I am thinking – Why didn’t it happen to me? – I can just ask why it happened. And then I can try to answer that question, instead.

There is no good reason it didn’t happen to me. It easily could have. It still could.

I’d like to say that I seriously reconsidered my position on guns after the Giffords shooting. I’d like to say that in the light of this New York shooting, I will become some sort of passionate advocate, as if my actions might matter. I did, actually, engage in several spirited debates about gun control, and I’m sure I’ll engage in more, but ultimately I have no idea how to solve the problem. I have no idea how to end violence, full stop, and some part of me is resigned to thinking that we never will.

I’ve reverted to making the same joke about “Ruff’s Drive-Thru Guns & Liquor,” although after losing their liquor license a few years back, they changed their name “Ruff’s Sporting Goods.” I sort of miss the old sign. My stupid joke about it was all that kept me back from being incredibly afraid of the violence of my own home.