#01: The Northern Arizona University Mass Shooting Case

Table of Contents:

State of Arizona v. Steven Edward Jones
The Northern Arizona University Mass Shooting Case—October 9, 2015
The Crime
Indictment
Guns In America
Criminal Cases & Civil Cases
The Civil Case Against Jones, His Parents, And Their Gun Company
The Civil, Moral, and Cultural Consequences
The Presence Of A Gun


State of Arizona v. Steven Edward Jones

The Northern Arizona University Mass Shooting Case—October 9, 2015

The Crime

I feel strongly about guns on campus and the risk they pose to everyone. This twelve-minute read is a short report on the only mass shooting on the campus of Northern Arizona University in its 116-year history. It may be the first time a student ever brought a gun on campus. It is the only time a student ever brought a gun to a fistfight. The criminal case against Steven Edward Jones was the first of its kind involving the public universities in Arizona.[1]

At approximately 1:20 a.m. on October 9, 2015 Steven Edward Jones, an eighteen-year-old freshman, left the scene of an altercation between two fraternities. Some students were drunk. Most had been drinking. A student Jones did not know sucker-punched him. He ran one hundred and fifty feet away from the fistfight and reached the NAU parking lot and his car. Once safely in his car, he retrieved his 40-caliber Glock semi-automatic from the glove box. After attaching his tactical light to the barrel, he chambered a round, walked ninety-five feet back to the end of the parking lot, and brandished his weapon commanding his fellow students to get down on the ground.

The tactical light gave him the ability shoot in the dark. His pistol had a fifteen shot magazine and a “competition extender” that expanded the magazine capacity to seventeen rounds. Jones had the magazine loaded with seventeen .40 caliber “hollow point” bullets. He also had 60 additional rounds of ammunition in the trunk of his car. He was an accomplished shooter, well trained by his father from age eight to eighteen.

Jones didn’t practice with traditional bulls-eye square targets; he used man-size human figures so he could shoot “center mass.” After activating the tactical light on the Glock, which blinded both student groups, He fired ten rounds of hollow point ammunition in “the area of” the unarmed students. At least seven of these rounds struck four students involved in the earlier chest bumping and sucker punching.  

No other student had a weapon. Jones knew that none of the individuals he shot or saw that night had a weapon. When he got within a few feet of two students he claimed lunged at him, he intentionally fired two shots at Colin Brough. Brough, a twenty-year old junior, took one in the right chest, and the other in the right clavicle area. The bullet that struck his chest went through the middle section of his right lung, then through the biggest vein in the human body, the inferior vena cava, and then through the aorta, the largest artery in the body. He bled out by bleeding inside his chest cavity and was dead within minutes of hitting the ground.

Seconds later he fired two more at Nick Piring, hitting him in the right upper arm and left hip area. Minutes later, two more hollow-points struck Kyle Zintek in the back as he was running away from the carnage. One bullet fired by Jones struck and went through Nicholas Prato’s neck, who was shot after trying to help Colin Brough.

Indictment

Jones was indicted by a grand jury and charged with first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter and three counts of aggravated assault. He was released on bond to his parent’s home with a GPS device attached to his leg. A year and a half later he was brought to trial. After five weeks of trial, and hearing testimony by thirty-eight witnesses, his jury deliberated but could not reach a unanimous verdict. The judge declared a mistrial and sent the jury home. Jones went back to his home to await a retrial. Two and a half years later he avoided retrial by pleading guilty to manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to six years in prison.

The legal consequences included intensely personal, anti-social, and life-altering changes to scores of student eyewitnesses, dozens of first responders to the crime scene, and nearly everyone in the close-knit campus community. Steven Jones kept his gun in the glove compartment of his parked car on campus. A gun his parents gave him to take to college just a few weeks earlier. The trial questions were narrow, focused on admissible evidence, and tightly scripted by the court and lawyers for both sides.

The larger questions posed in the press and all over campus aimed at more abstract propositions. Did the prosecutors ask the jury to think about what might have happened if Steven had not had a loaded gun that night? Would he have run 150 feet to his car after being sucker-punched to call 911? Why did he leave the safety of his car to run ninety feet back across a parking lot armed with a gun attached to a flashlight? His lawyers argued he feared for his own life and felt a burning need to protect his fraternity brothers. Was it the raw excitement of getting a chance to use his gun on a live target instead of a life-sized paper one? Was he doing what his Dad had taught him to do since he was eight years old? Did anyone think after the trial about the inherent tragedy caused by the mere existence of a gun on campus? What role did alcohol play on NAU’s traditional party night, a Thursday, on campus?

This case presented to the jury highlighted the gun and spaced out the shooter and his victims in minute detail in hundreds of video and still camera images. While the testimony varied depending on location and memory, Jones’ .40 caliber Glock semi-automatic was always front and center. Both sides argued the harsh reality of teaching a young boy how to shoot “center mass,” and use the infamous “double tap” technique. The investigation, trial, mistrial, change of plea, and sentencing were important surface issues. But the deep issue is what all of that did to the shooter, his family, his victims, their families, the surviving student body, and the campus itself. How long will it take before another righteous shooter is punched, grabs his gun, and someone else dies on another college campus? What might we do to prevent that?

A dozen or more students survived Jones’ long walk back from the safety of his car as he aimed his gun with a classic two-fisted position. He showed them all he was armed and ready to fire. In gun culture, he was the man. He’s now in prison. The rest of the large student body in the parking lot and watching from a large dorm close to the crime scene now lead scarred lives. All because Jones ran away from a fistfight to get his gun, and returned to stand his ground. He shot four students, two running away from him. As for the student he killed, he would argue it wasn’t his fault. As for the three he maimed, he argued it was their fault for scaring him to death. The larger perspective of guns on campus and the SYG defense by an active shooter was headlined, broadcast, and the lead in the media, private social media feeds, and massive court filings.

Guns In America

The Stand-Your-Ground movement is the backstory. Upfront, the story was America’s fascination with guns. The daily footage was how Arizona’s criminal justice system dealt with its first mass shooting on a college campus. Just prior to this shooting, Arizona became one of forty-two states to change its laws and policy toward guns on campuses and gun violence in general. The changes made the prosecution more difficult and lessened the burden on active shooters. The case explains how and why America’s gun culture seems to dominate congressional largess, court rulings, and jury conundrums when faced with shooters who do not retreat. They kill, maim, and put unarmed victims on trial.

Criminal Cases & Civil Cases

The stark difference between criminal and civil litigation in America is neither novel nor hard to explain, because the essentials are embedded in the Bill of Rights. Civil litigation is a Seventh Amendment constitutional right. It codifies the right to a jury trial in certain civil cases and inhibits courts from overturning a jury’s findings of fact. Criminal litigation is covered in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. Collectively, they inhibit prosecutors regarding search and seizure warrants, custodial interrogations, self-incrimination, double jeopardy, and the right to counsel.

Criminal cases also differ in the source of law governing both substance and procedure. Criminal cases are statutorily brought, tried, and won or lost on what legislatures have decided. Civil cases are filed under common-law principles and process. In homicide cases, the criminal codes define the essential terms, like justification, mens rea, intent, guilt, innocence, enforcement, and prison terms. In wrongful death civil actions, the common law of negligence, civil verdicts, financial assessment, and debtor’s rights apply.

The Civil Case Against Jones, His Parents, And Their Gun Company

Besides his criminal case, Jones, his parents, and their gun company were sued in civil court in Coconino County for wrongful death, civil assault, and battery. The civil case was brought for the wrongful death of one student and personal injuries suffered by three others. The Jones civil case is a prime example of shifting the loss. In the criminal case, the outcome was prison for the perpetrator, albeit with a restitution order that may never be paid. In the civil case, the outcome was a financial settlement to the victims paid by the tort defendants’ insurance company. Theoretically, the award in a civil tort case is “paid” by the defendant. But as usual, this civil settlement was paid by an insurance company.  

The civil case was easy to settle because the proof against Jones and his family in tort was self-evident—he admittedly shot one student and wounded two others—there is no such thing as “justification” in civil law. The civil case against his parents and their corporate business was not complicated and did not need to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt; a preponderance of the evidence was sufficient. To prove the case against his parents, the plaintiffs asserted three theories of liability—all sounding in the common law of negligence. First, they alleged the parents and their corporate entity negligently entrusted the .40 caliber Glock handgun to Steven Jones. Second, they alleged the tort of negligent supervision and training. Third, they alleged an esoteric tort known as negligence per se.

For their negligent entrustment claim against Warren Jones and his company, Shooter’s Choice of Arizona, LLC, the plaintiffs alleged that they supplied Steven Jones with the .40 caliber Glock pistol and the seventeen-capacity magazine loaded with hollow-point bullets for his “use while at NAU.”[2] They said Warren Jones and his company knew or should have known that “Steven Jones was likely because of his youth, his immaturity, his propensity for outbursts, and his lack of respect for authority, to use the .40 caliber Glock 22, magazine and hollow-point bullets in a manner involving an unreasonable risk of physical harm to others. Warren Jones and/or Shooter’s Choice knew or should have known others would be endangered by its use. Steven Jones did in fact use the .40 caliber Glock 22, magazine and hollow-point bullets in an unreasonable manner and as result endangered and caused harm.”[3]

Because this was a civil case, the plaintiffs took special care to define both Steven and Warren Jones in the larger context of guns and gun safety. They detailed relevant background for both father and son. “Steven Jones’s father Warren Jones is a gun owner, gun enthusiast, and claims to be a former certified firearms instructor. Warren Jones was also the sole member of Shooter’s Choice of Arizona, LLC, which appears to have been a firearm supply and/or firearm-training business he operated out of his home. . . . Warren Jones enrolled his son Steven Jones in firearm training beginning when Steven was age eight. When Steven was about fourteen or fifteen years old, Warren Jones began teaching Steven personal firearm defense ‘techniques.’ These ‘techniques’ included what Warren Jones described as a ‘standard tactical response for a deadly force encounter,’ and this tactical response includes the firing of two rounds in rapid succession at the center mass of a target. Some firearms instructors and/or law enforcement agencies refer to the firing of two rounds in rapid succession at the same target as a ‘double tap’ technique. Steven Jones stated that since age eight his father had trained him to aim for center mass and to use a ‘double-tap’ technique in which the shooter draws and fires two rounds at the same target in under a second. Warren Jones estimates that Steven completed between ten to twelve shooting competitions during his teenage years.”[4]

The Civil, Moral, and Cultural Consequences

The core truths in the Steven Jones’ criminal and civil cases are still in motion because American law and culture are siloes. Progressives in one, moderates in both, and conservatives in the opposing silo. The pinpoints in the court cases are pitchforks in the country. The truth did not sway Steven Jones’ criminal jury. All twelve knew Steven Jones had a unique weapon—very expensive and focused on killing rather than maiming. It’s not the kind of gun you take out into the desert and plink ten cans.

They also knew he had an extended magazine, giving him seventeen rounds of hollow-point ammunition. He had a tactical light, enabling him to shoot in the dark. They knew he was trained by his father, using man-sized targets to master the now-famous double-tap technique. Maybe the saddest truth they learned in the criminal case is he loaded his gun with hollow-point bullets for a reason. When a hollow-point bullet strikes a soft target, like human flesh, the pressure created in the pit forces the lead to expand outward, like a mushroom. It stays in the body, doing the most harm in the shortest time. The greater frontal surface area of the expanded bullet limits its depth of penetration into the target, causing vital and extensive tissue damage along the wound path. It is designed to kill, not wound.

These facts were easily grasped by insurance companies in the civil cases. But no one knows whether these facts influence criminal juries, and if so, in which direction. Owning a gun is a right. Using it in self-defense is permitted. Loading it with seventeen hollow-point bullets is well beyond ownership rights, self-defense, common sense, or even justice. It says something about the shooter that deep down, we don’t want to talk about. And it says something about how an eight-year-old boy was trained to shoot—not in competition, but in real life. Presumably, he had never taken a punch. He won’t ever again react to life’s struggles the way he did at 1:20 a.m. on the morning on October 9, 2015.

Due to life choices both made independently of one another, Steven Jones and his victims are forever linked. One victim’s short life ended when Steven killed him. Steven’s life, however long it turns out to be, will never be the same. He will never legally own another gun. They encountered one another in a way and at a place neither could have imagined in their wildest dreams. They met only by chance—only for the fewest of minutes. That chance meeting cost one his life and the other his freedom.

The criminal case jurors experienced the trauma of decision-making in a teeth-grinding, stomach turning, day-by-day experience over five terrible weeks in court. They winced at photographic exhibits, the gun, its tactical light, the extended magazine, the hollow point bullets, terrorized students, heroic crime scene testimony, and blood stains. They learned about forensic analysis, forensic pathology, post-mortem blood draws, trauma surgery, and making decisions about life, death, and our vaunted burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And when it counted most, they tired of arguing and went home.

Nothing could have prepared the shooter’s family or the families of his four victims for what they endured over five weeks of trial and error. They came face-to-face with the inherent randomness of trial by jury. Our criminal justice system delegates to juries the power to decide life, death, guilt, innocence, and lethal force as self-defense. Chance favored no one, especially not those twelve lonesome souls in the jury room.[5]

What made the jury collapse into mistrial? Was it college kids drinking? Was it a college kid exerting his constitutional rights? Was it a toxic mix of adrenaline, epinephrine, hormones, youthful decisions, and exuberance, laced with alcohol and recreational drugs? Was it gun training since the shooter was eight years old? Was it his parents fault? Were both fraternities complicit? Was it a clash of values in America’s 2015 divisive and politically unstable reality? Was it a lack of moral judgment, or any judgment? Or was it just another night in America—gun violence run amuck?

The Presence Of A Gun

The sole explanation for what happened that night is the presence of a gun. But for that, no one there that night would have died, been maimed, gone to prison, or later committed suicide. The town and gown communities would have gone about their merry way, learning to live an educated and fulfilling life. The Constitution would be honored, both in its original intent and in its well-interpreted modern reality.

Steven Jones eventually withdrew his justification argument and pled guilty to assault. Can you imagine what might have happened if he had an AK-47 in his trunk, as a backup to the semi-automatic pistol in his glove box? What would have happened if he stayed in his Mustang? His three friends would have driven home with him. No police officers would have screeched into Mountain View Hall’s parking lot with flashing lights and rifles at the ready.

The debate about gun ownership is over. The debate about gun violence is ongoing. Gun violence should be curbed, even if it means modest, practical changes in gun sales and availability. These notions are not contradictory, but the debate about them is often delusional. Avoiding the consequences of gun violence by insisting on unfettered gun ownership is beyond delusional. Both sides of the debate are led by sane people. Both sides live in fragmented, compartmentalized silos. We seal ourselves off to avoid the consequences. The utter absurdity of arguing, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is a prime example of delusion. We ignore death by guns in order to live by guns.


[1] State of Arizona v. Steven Edward Jones. In the Superior

Court for the County of Coconino, CR-2015-00862. Hon. Dan Slayton, Presiding.

[2]. In the Superior Court of the State of Arizona, in and for the County of Coconino, Case No. CV2017-00310, Complaint, pages 9-10.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid. at 4-5.

[5]. There were fourteen in the jury box for the entire trial. Two were dismissed at the end of the trial and before deliberations started because the statutory number of jurors in criminal case is twelve. The two randomly chosen jurors became alternate jurors and were spared the agony that hallmarked the Steven Jones jury.

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