It was a day that could have been explosive, a story that could have resonated with shades of Sandy Hook and Columbine, flashed with familiar images of grieving parents, terrified children and ever-more repetitive volleys of “when will the carnage stop?” Instead, it became a story of heroism, quick thinking, and what turned out to be the best possible weapon against a mentally-ill man armed with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition: a compassionate, very brave, and unarmed woman named Antoinette Tuff.
Tuesday, August 20th unfolded like any other day in Lithonia, GA: a warm, summer afternoon, early in the new school year at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, where elementary-age children sat at their desks and parents bustled in and around the school office taking care of last minute details. It was behind one of those parents that 20-year-old Michael Hill is presumed to have slipped in, taking advantage of the buzzed-open security door to enter the school and begin what will likely be his last day of freedom for a very long time. But whatever Hill might have had in mind, what he couldn’t have anticipated was school clerk, Antoinette Tuff. And while she surely couldn’t have expected the scenario in which she found herself, her response to Hill’s clear and active threat no doubt saved the lives of a great many people.
‘He had a look on him that he was willing to kill – matter of fact he said it. He said that he didn’t have any reason to live and that he knew he was going to die today,’ Ms. Tuff told WSB-TV.
‘I knew that if he got out that door he was gonna kill everybody.’
Which is when Tuff started what would ultimately be 24 minutes of brilliant, beyond-the-book hostage negotiations that would not only prove effective, but could stand in stunning comparison to anything a trained law enforcement officer might have done in the same circumstance. From the ABC News interview with Diane Sawyer:
“[I saw] a young man ready to kill anybody that he could and take any lives he wanted to,” Tuff said.
Tuff said the suspected gunman “went outside several times and shot [six shots] at police officers.” He also ordered staffers to call a local television channel, ABC affiliate WSB-TV, to request that a camera crew record him “killing police,” WSB reported.
“He told me he was sorry for what he was doing. He was willing to die,” Tuff said. The school clerk said she tried to keep the assailant calm by asking him his name but, she said, at first he wouldn’t tell it to her.
Then, he began listening to her tell her life story. She said she told him about how her marriage fell apart after 33 years and the “roller coaster” of opening her own business. “I told him, ‘OK, we all have situations in our lives. I went through a tragedy myself,'” she said. “It was going to be OK. If I could recover, he could too.”
Then Tuff made the request that she said helped end the standoff. She said she asked the suspect to put his weapons down, empty his pockets and backpack and lay on the floor. “I told the police he was giving himself up. I just talked him through it,” she said.
And, indeed, she did. In an amazing encounter that stunned police, Hill ultimately followed her instructions and, once unarmed, told her she could call the police to enter the building, which they did, taking him into custody. It was later learned his backpack contained 500 rounds of ammunition. He’s been charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, terroristic threats, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Officers had acted swiftly to get children out of the school and away from the shooter’s car, which they feared had a bomb (it did not); no children were hurt and, despite shots fired, no police officers were injured. It was a remarkable conclusion to what could have been an immensely tragic story.
It turns out Michael Brandon Hill has a long history of mental illness, described by those who know him with the familiar characteristics of school shooters: seemingly no friends, insular, troubled; taciturn. His brother, Timothy Hill, from whom he is estranged, confirmed his brother’s fragile and very disturbed state of mind. From The Daily Mail:
‘I honestly can tell you he has got a long history of medical disorders, including bipolar, and that could make you snap on a dime. My mom’s almost looked like a drugstore at one point. There was so many different medications he was on.’
[Timothy] Hill, 22, said he is not close to his brother and last saw him in January 2011. He did not reveal exactly what his mental health issue is but said he was taking drugs for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder since he was six-years-old.
“I had a feeling he was going to eventually, one day, do something stupid, but not of this magnitude,’ he said, adding that he once threatened to kill him.
But the magnitude of what Michael Hill might have done was ably thwarted by the composure of Ms. Tuff. Beyond her courage and facile thinking was one of the other more salient points of this story: that an unarmed woman was the ‘weapon’ that stopped a heavily armed and violently predisposed man. At a time when NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre is still promoting arming teachers and staff at schools to protect students, propelled by his motto, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the stunning reality is that, in this case, the only thing that stopped a bad guy with a gun was a good woman without one, who, instead, relied on her wits and sense of compassion to disarm a shooter.
The transcript of Tuff’s conversation with Hill should become a training primer for law enforcement, security guards, and anyone in positions of authority who might find themselves in similar situations. It was brilliantly instructive, particularly in regard to the power of compassion. In our ever-more gun-soaked culture, and despite the pervasive memes of ‘safety, protection and defense’ that drive the passion for more guns, bigger guns, faster guns, and all the ammunition one could possibly want – this scenario in Lithonia, GA disproves the thesis as absolute bullpuckey; instead making clear that there are other ‘weapons’ in the arsenal of human interactions that can protect and defend more effectively than a gun.
Antoinette Tuff was on the phone with a 911 operator throughout the event, keeping the line open even when she put the phone down to engage with Hill. That call in its entirety is below and, when you listen, you will hear a woman doing everything right. The lives of the children and adults she saved are proof positive of that.
Here’s the 911 audio:
Editor’s note: If the right-wing sticks to type and this story reaches national level, the character assassination of Ms. Tuff should begin almost immediately. First, with the insistence that what she did was foolhardy and she would have been better off armed, eventually degenerating into a vicious dissection of her personal life if the earlier attacks do not work. Here, we celebrate her instead.