Last Saturday morning’s fatal shooting at a popular Howard County shopping mall sent shock waves through the typically quiet suburb of Columbia, Md., with members of the area’s close-knit Jewish community joining their neighbors in mourning a sense of safety shattered by a teenager’s bullets.
Lynn Green, president of local Reform congregation Bet Aviv, shops at The Mall in Columbia nearly every day; she was inside the Macy’s department store at the other end of the mall when police say College Park resident and James Hubert Blake High School graduate Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, gunned down Zumiez employees Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mount Airy.
“All of a sudden, it sounded like cattle running through,” said Green. “All you heard were feet, and it looked like teenagers running through. I said to the cashier [that] it must be a flash mob.”
When a second group of people ran by yelling that there was a shooter, she knew what had happened. Aguilar later took his own life, according to police.
Even though Green did not see the shooter or hear any gunshots, it took her until late afternoon to fully recover from the shock.
“My heart was pounding the entire day,” she said. “I have never had that kind of experience in my life, and I take things relatively well.”
Green wondered why, with the mall being such a popular destination, especially on the weekends, and with what appeared to be an increased presence of security to handle the crowds, no one apparently spotted heavily armed Aguilar prior to the shooting.
Police accounts, through surveillance footage, determined that Aguilar arrived by taxi approximately an hour before the shooting. He was carrying a backpack filled with improvised explosives and a pistol-grip 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun.
Terry Erfer, who lives approximately two-and-a-half miles from the mall, had not shopped at the mall in about six months; she happened to be there that day nevertheless.
“I went with some friends to do some walking before the mall opened,” she said. “We got there at about 9:30 a.m. and then walked three times around [the mall] and left.”
Erfer said she felt lucky; she found out about the tragedy when her son called her from Texas to find out if she was all right.
“It’s scary because it could have happened half an hour earlier, and I would have been there,” she said.
Rabbi Susan Grossman, head rabbi at the nearby Beth Shalom Congregation, saw in the shooting a need to re-examine how the nation approaches gun control.
“How many more shootings will we allow to happen before we unambiguously enforce our gun control laws and create the proper checks and balances so that people who shouldn’t have guns don’t have them?” she asked. “In Judaism, if you’ve saved one life, it is as if you’ve saved the whole world.”
“I think that we in the Conservative movement have favored gun control,” she continued. “There are certain types of equipment that should not be sold, and there’s no reason not to have a waiting period before someone could walk out with a gun, so that their record could be checked.”
While surprise that such violence could happen in Columbia was a common refrain, many questioned the shooter’s mental state as well as the services available to those with mental health problems.
“I don’t think it’s possible to do gun control in this country anymore,” commented Elise Striz, a hydro geologist at the United States Nuclear Commission who the night of the shooting attended a concert at Beth Shalom with her family. “I think there are too many weapons out there, and we’re past the point of being able to control guns. I would have liked to have seen it earlier, but I think it [the window of opportunity] is done.”
“I don’t think that we put enough funds into mental health and into helping people who have mental health and anger management issues,” she added. “I wish we would put more funding into those areas.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Green, a retired middle and elementary school teacher.
“I feel very badly for the two people who got killed; I feel badly for their parents; I also feel badly for the shooter because — and I was a teacher for 35 years — if this guy is 19, he didn’t get meshugge overnight,” said Green. “There were kids [who attended my school] who committed crimes and you’d see it in the newspaper, and it didn’t surprise you because their personality showed this years ago.”
“I think we probably need to give some education,” she continued. “The schools give sex education, but maybe they need to give some mental health education.”
Despite what happened, Green will be back at the mall as usual on Monday. Striz, as well, doesn’t plan to let the shooting deter her from shopping.
“I don’t believe that in a free society you can ever really protect yourself from these kind of incidents, and I refuse to be frightened by it,” said Striz. “You have to go about your daily lives.”