Did Sheriff Hanlin Know of Christopher Harper Mercer before His Massacre?

I read this passage — from the Sheriff in charge of the investigation into the mass killing by Christopher Harper Mercer the other day — several times.

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin told reporters it wouldn’t be strange for someone in the state to have so many weapons.

“In Oregon, this is a hunting state and firearms are possible in most households,” he said.

Investigators said it was too soon to identify a motive, although Hanlin earlier told NBC’s TODAY he wasn’t aware of any “specific red flags” for the shooter.

“He is a local resident and I know personally I haven’t heard of any warning signs coming from this person,” Hanlin said.

Because Hanlin said, “I personally,” I initially believed he meant he personally knew of Harper Mercer. But after re-reading it, I believe, though am not certain, that Hanlin meant only that in the time Harper Mercer has been living in town (about four years, according to reports) he has never come up on the sheriff department’s radar (or more specifically, Hanlin’s personal radar). In a town of 20,000 people, there’d be no reason for Hanlin to know everyone.

Still, I wonder, given Hanlin’s refusal to utter Harper Mercer’s name. Given that both are big gun enthusiasts (though as Hanlin noted, that’s fairly common in the area), it’s possible they’ve met. There’d be no fault in that, nor would Hanlin be at fault for not noticing the guy, because nothing we know of in his history should have tipped anyone but the people who were egging him on on 4Chan. But I bet a guy like Hanlin has a certain idea of who engages in senseless killing and it’s not a guy like Harper Mercer, no matter how much of a loner.

In any case, this passage, from a local editorial, got me wondering about that statement from Hanlin again.

The investigation, led by Hanlin’s office, has only just begun. In press conferences, Hanlin has been urging anyone who might have tips relating to the shootings to call 1-800-CALL-FBI. But as a practical matter, how are people who may have valuable information about Harper-Mercer supposed to call if they never know that he was the shooter?

They’re right: Hanlin’s dictate no one should name Harper Mercer makes it somewhat less likely locals would call in tips of any warning signs.

Add in Hanlin’s fierce belief that guns are under threat — extending even to Newtown trutherism — and I wonder whether he wants to suppress how much like Harper Mercer looks like any other gun enthusiast.

In general, I’m sympathetic to the idea that we ought to celebrate the guy who who tried to save innocents — Chris Mintz — rather than focus on the guy who did the massacre. I very much believe the entire country needs to look at how much it obsesses on these massacres, which encourages fly-by panic and may inspire copy-cats, but which has never led to policy changes.

But I also believe that this country needs to come to grips with the fact that a gun rampage is as likely — statistically more likely — to be committed by a guy like Harper Mercer or Dylann Roof or James Holmes and, especially, Adam Lanza as it is to be committed by a Muslim guy. Only then will we understand the problem is not terrorism, it’s that some young men channel their resentment and loneliness into guns in this country, regardless of what faith or color they are. And coming to that realization takes some details (details Hanlin may find uncomfortable) and a name.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

26 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    – to me the sheriff sounds like any other politician who is scared of the wrath of a fanatical group of voters and hence publicly voicing his undying love for hunting, even the hunting of college students.

    – as for not saying the killer’s name, not wanting an official mention to be replicated in media mentions and hence furthering closer attention, including that of other law officials, might be one motive. if there turns out to be a blanket policy among sheriff’s officers that would indeed be a curious thing.

    – i would expect a sherriff who is an active policing official (not all sheriff’s offices have policing responsibility) in a town that small to have heard of anyone who combined guns with personality peculiarities.

    – gun deaths are a preventable public health problem. the policy will change when politicians get unelected because more folks are unhappy with freedom-to-murder than are unhappy about putting limits on what guns and what ammunition clips can be sold.

    – gun exceptionalism is like anti-abortion exceptionalism, in both cases simple, powerful arguments against some guns and wholesale anti-abortion are simply not being made by politicians or by supporting groups. the entire intellectual process by which each citizen makes up her mind is one-sided and severely corrupted by irrelevant arguments and propaganda. in this context, the increasingly ritual media citation of public polls following another mass murder reflect no more than severe ingnorance of costs and benefits.

    • orionATL says:

      well, i’m seriously off-base about hamlin being just a politician worried about voters’wrath.

      he is the very model of the true believer.

      so why the strange behavior? maybe to avoid inciting similar incidents. maybe because he has something in his past he’d rather not have show up. maybe because the nra has a crisis couseling operation for true believing lawmen who find themselves in the sheriff’s position – looking down the barrel of a gun massacre.

      • P J Evans says:

        Hanlin apparently is a CT believer: he thinks Sandy Hook was a false-flag operation.

        A firearms-training business in the area turned the shooter away a while back: the owner/manager thought he was weird and didn’t like the way he wanted to go for advanced weapons training. I’ve see comments elsewhere that the owner/manager ‘should have reported’ the shooter – never mind that there’s neither a legal requirement nor any kind of setup for him to have reported it, and if it’s in that county, to that sheriff – would anything have been done?

        • orionATL says:

          another question – would not the sheriff have heard of this? of course he would have. he did, no doubt. and having heard, he did nothing – that’s my current guess.

          after all, the shooter had a ton of weapons. assuming they were legal, then they were registered. the sheriff may well have received notices of these. but formal notice from state or federal agencies or no, the sheriff would have heard local talk from gun folks – he had to have; he had to have known about the killer before he became the killer.

          so my assumptions of a compliant politician above would not just be off base, but 180° in error.

          since this sheriff seems a gun-nut in sheriff’s clothing, he could have been an elder/coach/adviser to the killer without actually inciting him.

          e.w.’s conjecture really does need checking out.

  2. orionATL says:

    take a quick look at this post from democratic underground re another one of our crackpot sheriffs. i want to draw your attention, hoever, to the mordantly humorous “disclaimer”:

    http://www.democraticunderground.com/113510560

    the gun-control exceptionalists and the anti-abortion exceptionalists share a similar tactic, intimidation.

    where intimidation exists in validating cooperation with laws and the law, intimidation of media and media personalities is highly effective.

  3. galljdaj says:

    Its called “trickle down” like money from the wealthy to the poor! And its called “a shame” or worse when its an “example” from the top down!

    The lawyers runny our country are all “adversarial”! And it continues from the court houses to everyday trickle downs!

  4. seedeevee says:

    “I very much believe the entire country needs to look at how much it obsesses on these massacres, which encourages fly-by panic and may inspire copy-cats, but which has never led to policy changes.”

    Not to beat a dead horse, but this sounds like how Obama has acted. and Bush. and Clinton. and Bush. and Reagan. and Carter. and Ford. and Nixon. and Johnson. and Kennedy. and Eisenhower. and Truman. and Roosevelt. and and and and

    Our Nation and Obama, personally (or at least, publicly) obsesses on how stupidly and poorly we have been running our foreign policy violent streak. We never change. Let’s go blow up another hospital/wedding party/country and blame it on someone else. and then point the finger at guns.

    Our country loves violence.

  5. John Casper says:

    Nice catch on Hanlin, as per usual, hadn’t seen that in any other coverage.

    Surprised law enforcement doesn’t understand that part of the C&C movement is to reduce their numbers.

  6. greengiant says:

    Any discussion of either gun violence or gun control in the US that does not talk about the role of SSRI medication is an abject miss. The other side effects of SSRIs are bad enough, but the tendency of them to increase violent thoughts and behavior is the price the US will pay.
    Yes, brought to you by the same people who brought you torture in Iraq, Gitmo and Afghanistan, and by the same profit first, so what if people will die, corporate culture of tobacco, automotive, chemical, etc etc etc. These corporations hire so many shills and social media adds that all you have to do is post a statement on the subject and you will get comments and suggested shares that all support the corporate profits.

        • P J Evans says:

          I am very reluctant to toss a set of drugs that work quite well for many people, just because some people can’t use them. It would be like tossing all antibiotics because some people react badly to one or more.

          What I’m getting out of this is that some doctors prescribe them for people who don’t need them, and probably don’t check with the patients to see if they’re working well or at all. A lot of stuff depends on individual biochemistry, so what works for one person could easily be exactly wrong for another. My understanding is that they’re supposed to be checking with the patients every three-to-six months to see how they’re doing, and not issuing prescriptions that last longer than three-to-six months. (My personal experience with SSRIs is that they can help quite a bit, but they become less effective over time, so a person who isn’t well advised could decide to up the dose and get into Bad Idea range quite easily. Some of the side effects are useful, too – I have a weird dermatitis that responds to SSRIs but not steroids.)

      • greengiant says:

        The research on SSRIs is paid for by the drug companies and has the same quality as all the research done to show how tobacco was harmless and how mankind is not causing ocean acidification or global warming. If you have no idea how the sausage is made, then read Upton Sinclair. I have knowledge of this crap that is too close hand to talk about.

  7. orionATL says:

    there is a big difference between people who like to hunt and people who collect gun and gun-nuts. the sheriff elides wide spread enthusiam for hunting in his area with a strange dude owning a collection of pistols.

    the media term “gun-enthusiast” is a camoflaging euphemism. mercer was not a gun-enthusiast, he was a gun-nut.

    http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/10/2/several-firearms-recovered-in-oregon-shooting-probe.html

    the guy had a bit of a history, too.

    http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/10/3/oregon-gunman-committed-suicide1.html

    i think it unlikely a police officer with hamlin’s own gun-nut background and in command of a number of policemen (deputies) would never have heard a word about mercer.

  8. Bill Black says:

    Would be interesting to know if Harper – Mercer had seen sheriff’s Facebook post regarding Sandy Hook.

    • orionATL says:

      it would indeed.

      it occurs to me that the sheriff muzzling his department might have something to do with liability law.

      what better camoflage for keeping a dept. employee from yapping publicly about mercer, apart from the shooting, than to silence employees with the ostensive purposs of not publicly recognizing the killer. when you stop and consider, this is an inane edict on the surface since the local population will have watched teevee, listened to radio, read the newspapers, or talked with someone.

  9. Peterr says:

    Somehow, turning Mercer into a real-life “He Who Must Not Be Named” guy doesn’t strike me as a useful thing, if you are trying to avoid glorifying him.
    .
    Naming him robs him of his glory. It does not celebrate it.

  10. Giles Byles says:

    When will we find out what prescription “medications” Mr. Mercer was taking?  Never.  & what of the other shooters, what were they on?  Sorry, we don’t talk about that.

    • orionATL says:

      now that is a very interesting question.

      it is possible no shooter-killer was, but it is possible some or all were.

      one would think we, the citizenry, would be entitled to that info (and that the nra would be screaming for it to pin the blame elsewhere), but silence.

  11. pdaly says:

    I thought this was an interesting coincidence (?):

    Alex Skarlatos, one of the Americans on the train to Paris who thwarted the terrorist attack by a shooter this summer, attended and was to resume attending the college in Oregon attacked by a shooter.

    I read elsewhere the shooter in the college handed a USB flash drive to a spared victim that reportedly contained a manifesto. I wonder if the attention Alex brought to his college after the foiled train attack influenced this shooter’s targeting of the college.

    http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20957515,00.html

    • orionATL says:

      wow!

      maybe the storyline wil get a bit more complicated – how some angry, envious young guys get attention.

  12. Evangelista says:

    First, MW appears to have gone a little goofy in attempting to paint Hanlin’s use of the word ‘personally’ up to flap as some kind of red-flag. ‘Personally’ means one’s self, whoever uses the word, whether they have advocated for guns or have advocated against guns.

    Second, personally, I advocate for guns. The looneys who are obsessed with guns are the looneys who advocate against guns. They are looney because they have shut their minds off to yell their lungs out, like people who close their eyes to shout louder at sport events. Yes, anti-gun howling is sport for the howlers. They get off on their outrage; they are oblivious to all peripherals.

    Among peripherals are, 1. the United States Constitution: You cannot eliminate one component of the United States Constitution without placing everry other component on the block for others to eliminate. Right to bear arms means right to bear arms. It incorporates, both implicitly and specifically, for the reference to “a…militia” (not multiple militias) the responsibility of arms bearers to control themselves and their weapons. “Arms”, incidentally, are weapons for use against enemies; they are not weapons used for hunting, but they can be those weapons when they are carried for a ‘militia’ purpose.

    Peripheral 2. Where you have homicidal loonies on rampage Guns are a plus, not a minus. Think about it: A gun spits one missile at a time, in one direction and the most guns any looney can make spit missiles at one time is two. Guns are not bombs that can be made to spit hundreds of missiles in sixty minutes of three-hundred-sixty directions all at the same time.

    And so what if Harpy-Mercy had thirteen guns? Thirteen guns is not thirteen bombs, which any baboon can make using readily obtainable materials (anything with nitrate and anything with carbon). Thirteen guns cannot be made, by one person, to all go off at once, in one place or in several, or spit missiles more than one direction.

    Peripheral 3. Consult a trauma surgeon who has worked in a war zone, or somwhere people have been driven looney by oppression and repression (such as the prolipheration of looneys in the U.S. today is indicating the U.S. to be becoming), where guns have not been readily available, or where guns and alternatives (e.g., machetes, axes and any other immediately handy sharp or blunt-and-heavy tools) have both been in use. Ask which kinds of wounds he/she prefers to deal with, bullet punctures (relatively clean and relatively small) or gashes and slashes, smashed and crushed, and, where bombs, Hellfire missiles and such are weapons of choice, burns and dismemberments. Gashes, slashes, chops, cuts, blown apart or off body parts tend almost authomatically to get dirt in them and get infected.

    In all, the best is to maintain your society in a way that minimizes madness and lunatic eruptions, including the “berserker suicides” that are becoming ‘hallmarks’ of American culture, such as Harpy-Mercy and precedent school shooters example. And then, especially if you cannot maintain civility in your society, advocate for guns to be what’s cool, so the inevitable looneys will opt for guns, instead of machetes and bombs. yes, you are going to buy your right to be arrogant and demeaning to those around you in your society with blood, that is the way the world is; you can read history to learn it for yourself, but if you also glorify guns you can minimize the blood your predilection for an antagonizing society brings to be shed, at least on a per-event basis. As always, the more events your predilections induce, the more dead and wounded you will have, whatever the choice of weapons.

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