Accent Signage survivor speaks out

"We must take action," said John Souter, the only wounded survivor of the September shooting.

Survivor John Souter joined Mayor R.T. Rybak to call for universal background checks on all gun sales. Credit: Michelle Bruch

Still feeling pain from bullet wounds that punctured his lung and crushed his ribs in the September shooting at Accent Signage, John Souter spoke March 28 at a press conference calling for universal background checks on gun purchases.

Souter has largely avoided the spotlight, and he said his hands were shaking as he stood before the podium. He praised the first responders who entered Accent Signage on Sept. 27.

“They gave no thought for their safety. They didn’t know where the shooter was — was he behind this corner, that corner, they had no clue. Yet, they came in. And that’s what saved my life,” he said. “…Coming around the corner I saw a police officer with a gun, and the words ‘Minneapolis Police’ just raised my spirit.”

Souter said the shooting has changed him, and the effects will be long-lasting.

“I’m not the same person, that’s for sure. I don’t laugh like I used to,” he said. “These things are with you every day, every single day. Every night I go to bed thinking, ‘Could I have done it differently.'”

The press conference took place in Minnetonka, the district home of U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen. Mayor R.T. Rybak, Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight and Souter called on Paulsen to support federal legislation requiring universal background checks for all gun purchases.

Paulsen’s office did not return a call for comment.

“I always found it strange that you could buy a gun on Sunday afternoon, and not a bottle of wine from the supermarket,” Souter said. “I looked at some statistics before I came here — being a scientist, I have to have numbers or something in front of me otherwise I’ll go crazy. In 2012, there were seven major events across our country that qualify as mass murders. Mass murders are defined as more than four people shot dead. It’s horrendous when you think of that. In 2012, 66 people died of mass murders.”

Souter said he grew up in a rural area of the United Kingdom, and learned to use a shotgun at the age of 11 to shoot rabbits and pheasants.

“People are making this about the Second Amendment. It’s not,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing to curb this kind of violence.”

The National Rifle Association does not support universal background checks. Past NRA president Marion Hammer has argued that laws already on the books are sufficient, and more checks amount to “backdoor gun registration.”

“This agenda focuses on peaceable citizens, not violent criminals who obtain guns on the black-market to carry out unspeakable crimes already prohibited under federal and state laws,” Hammer wrote. “Instead of stopping crime and eliminating criminal conduct, they are creating more criminals — they are targeting you.”

At the press conference, a reporter asked for a response on gun advocates’ arguments that only a small percentage of guns are purchased without background checks, making universal checks insignificant.

“I think that’s absurd,” said Knight. “Pick the number. Pick the percentage. If you or a member of your family are killed because someone obtained a gun and wouldn’t have otherwise passed a background check, that’s significant to you.”

The press conference was one of 120 events orchestrated on March 28 by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an organization co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Rybak is a member of the organization, and he said he is grateful for Bloomberg’s advocacy.

“In a country where the vast majority of people want change and where the Congress seems to be willing to do very little, in part because of strong lobbying in Washington, I very much welcome the guts of Mayor Bloomberg to put some money on the line to help level the playing field,” Rybak said. “This is not a level playing field right now. … You bet I want some people to put some fingers on the scale and balance the NRA.”

Souter said he wants to reframe the gun violence debate, to clarify that it isn’t a threat to the Second Amendment.

“It’s about common sense. It’s about preventing these mass murders from happening again,” he said. “I will stand with the mayor, with the chief, with the president, with anyone that is on the same page here. We must take action.”