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Gun Culture Shock: The Seattle Pacific University Shooting Shook My Belief in America

“I came to the U.S. with a belief in American values, but the gun violence epidemic made me rethink all that.”

December 7, 2016

Editor's note: This opinion editorial was written by Peter Choi, a KCTS 9 intern. All opinions are his own.

“The shooting at SPU is exactly the horror that my parents and millions of parents around the world who send their children to American universities fear the most ,” says Choi, pictured.It has been over two years since Paul’s life was taken. Two years of wondering, of sorting through my feelings. But here I am, in a courtroom, sitting less than thirty feet away from the man who killed my friend. I didn’t want to relive that awful day, but I also wanted to face him, Paul’s shooter. As I look at the back of his head, his black hair like Paul’s, I’m overcome by anger and have to leave the room.


Aaron Ybarra was on trial for killing Paul Lee on the Seattle Pacific University (SPU) campus in June 2014, in a strange, horrifying, inexplicable shooting that has made me think hard about America, justice, guns and mental health.

I am an international student from South Korea, where we have violence and mental illness and all manner of heartbreak. Yet, we have hardly any gun violence. South Korea has the world’s strictest restrictions on civilian gun ownership. Death by guns is a rarity in my country; The death rate via firearms in the U.S. is over 131 times higher than South Korea’s firearm death rate.

The shooting at SPU is exactly the horror that my parents and millions of parents around the world who send their children to American universities fear the most — that phone call from across the world telling of another American nightmare, another mass shooting.

I met Paul Lee in a sociology class. We studied together and spent time collaborating on class projects. I would tease him about his Starbucks addiction — picking up coffee would frequently make him late to class. Paul was a passionate dancer, always dancing to hip-hop with earphones on. We shared a cultural background — I was curious about his Americanism and he was curious about the millennial Korean generation. We shared a love of K-pop and Korean barbeque and he had a way of making me feel at home on a campus of mostly white students.

“He had a way of making me feel at home on a campus of mostly white students,” says Choi of his friend Paul Lee, pictured.The Shooting

It was the week before finals. As I was studying at my desk, I heard my resident advisor yelling at us to lock our doors “immediately.” At first I thought he was pranking us, but the sound of helicopters flying above the building and sirens going off around campus removed any doubts I had. Over the next three hours of the lockdown, I answered texts, calls and emails from worried family and friends. I nervously listened to the story unfold on the radio in my dorm room.

Days later, I learned the name of the victim from a Seattle Times article.

Paul was dead. 

Ybarra had arrived at the SPU campus on June 5 with a hunting knife, a shotgun and 75 rounds of ammunition. He later told detectives during an interrogation that he felt “mad at the world” that day. He said his plan was to take a couple of people hostage to show how mad he was. When he encountered Paul, he claims that Paul had “disrespected him” by not taking his threats seriously. So, he shot Paul in the back of the head. He said that shooting his first victim “was so fun.” 

“I just love the hateful feeling… I was thinking ‘what was the point of being good when the world’s against me?’” Ybarra later said.  

After the shooting, I considered going back to Korea. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave; I didn’t want to. I can’t hide from the reality of daily school shootings. 

Ashton Hall, Paul Lee’s dormitory, remembers him. Photo courtesy Paul Lee Foundation.The aftermath

Six years ago today, I came to United States with a belief in American values — liberty and justice for all citizens.

The U.S. gun violence epidemic made me rethink all that. 

Now, before I take a seat in class, I always find the fastest and safest route to exit the building in case another shooting happens. When I hear sirens, I freeze and try to decipher if they are headed towards campus. My parents in South Korea check in with me whenever there are school shootings in the U.S.

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, when Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults, there have been at least 205 school shootings in the U.S. — an average of one per week.

There are a few patterns that we see in many of these shootings. Many of the perpetrators display warning signs prior to the shootings and have easy access to firearms. In the aftermath, it is often revealed that the shooter struggled with mental illness. 

According to reports, Ybarra told detectives that he had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and transient psychosis. He said that he stopped going to a psychotherapist because he couldn’t afford it and that he stopped taking his prescription medications because “I wanted to feel my hate.”

This senseless shooting was preventable. In this American culture of individualism, I see indifference and confusing ambivalence about the need for accessible mental health treatment.

What is it about America that produces young men so filled with hate and capable of such violence, and then gives them easy access to weapons to carry out these nightmares?

Federal law prohibits selling guns to someone who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution,” but that definition leaves gaping holes in restrictions, since adjudicated mental illness and involuntary commitment are often a last measure for those struggling with mental health problems. Furthermore, looking at it through the lens of mental health alone misses the mark. Korea’s rate of mental illness is similar to America’s, but school shootings are practically unheard of in South Korea. 

I am grateful that Washington state has taken on gun violence prevention legislation through ballot initiatives, but am baffled as to why the Federal Government has refused to pass any legislation to support gun violence prevention, including expanding requirements around background checks. In 2014, Washington voters passed universal background checks with I-594. In November, voters passed I-1491, Extreme Risk Protection Orders, giving families and police another tool for removing firearms from people who present a risk to themselves or others.

Despite mounting an insanity defense, Aaron Ybarra was convicted of first-degree murder on Nov. 16, 2016. He was seething from 20 years of feeling “mad at the world” on the day of the shooting, but according to the jury, he knew right from wrong that day. He will be sentenced in January, 2017 to serve between 88 and 111 years in prison.

Liberty and justice for all?

I remain perplexed. What is it about America that produces young men so filled with hate and capable of such violence, and then gives them easy access to weapons to carry out these nightmares? How can a society have such a collective lack of compassion for those who suffer mental illness, to the degree that treatment and help is often neglected and inaccessible? Where is the justice in this?

It has taken a long time for me to accept the fact that our school, SPU, is on that long, infamous list of school shootings, and to accept that I will never see my friend Paul again, never see his smile or watch him dance. I wonder how many shootings it will take to shift the tide from indifference to action. Where are those American values of liberty and justice for all citizens? 


Made possible in part by

Peter W. Choi

Peter W. Choi joined KCTS 9 in October of 2016 as a production intern.

He was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States as an international student in 2011. He is a senior at Seattle Pacific University studying communication and sociology. He is passionate about international affairs, especially foreign relations with North Korea. He hopes to work as a foreign correspondent who covers national and world issues.  In his spare time, he enjoys watching films, beatboxing and singing.

Follow him on Twitter @peterwchoi_

More stories by Peter W. Choi

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Mass murder by gunfire is the only outlier in the US (as the high homicide can be explained in terms of demographics the rest has to do with education), and while it has always been possible to commit such acts, it is more common now because it is media-driven: we have to stop giving these people what they want.  The media, in effect, pays mass murderers to kill.  So, be more responsible in exercising the right of free speech, and exercise our right to keep and bear arms to counter the threat: carry a gun at all times and in all places permitted by law.

I am so sorry for the loss of your friend.  I agree with your article, completely.  The points you make are very valid and I struggle with the same questions you are asking.  I have never owned a gun and I never will...I believe if we had less of a gun culture in this country we would be able to rationally discuss this issue and solve it.  I don't believe the answer lies in arming everyone.  We need to make mental health treatment a priority  and we need less influence in our politics by the NRA and others who offer no solutions to the problem and actively seek to block research on gun violence.  We need to address this as a national health crisis .  Sadly, these things will not be addressed with the current administration in the White House because it is not their best interest.   

Will December 12, 2016 - 4:06pm

Love this statement Odysseus and I agree, except one sentiment...type of arms, especially in crowded areas. Having done so much target shooting growing up, as well as seeing the damage a bullet inflicts on cows and wild boars/pigs I just could never bring myself to discharge a firearm in ANY place where I am not absolutely, %100.0000 certian the bullet will be stopped by a barrier. If it's not a range a do a quick hike around the area, surveying to make sure there is NO way the projectile can continue down range, and I check for people, livestock, and houses that may be in the distance.For going out in public, swords and or daggers are an acceptable and more "public friendly" option haha. Seriously only the intended target will be injured. For me there is no use carrying a gun for self protection...because if I fired and that bullet it anyway harmed an innocent person, including psychological trauma from nearly being hit, I would just turn the gun on much for self preservation! But If i was being robbed, I would have NO problem chopping the perps head of on the spot, or if they are lucky a quick "insta-shariah" action and lop a hand off. Last ditch though, I would do my best to diffuse the situation at first in case it sounded like I am, a bloodthirsty vigilante type. still when backed into a corner, I'll do whatever it takes to end the threat.I do believe in firearms in the home though. ANY type, full auto machine guns, rocket launchers even. Of course with the 2nd ammendments, with the right to bear arms UNINFRINGED shouldn't be a problem right? Oh wait, we have more of a 'heavyly regulated priveledge for a certain class of government approved(background check)individuals to own a narrow subset of certain firearms(much less formidable ones than used in military)' Swords and daggers are also arms, for which there are a myriad of laws which also infringe. This TOTAL, FASCIST bs, I don't know how any patriot can't look at the 68 GCA and especially the Lautenberg ammendment and not see it as a gun grab from the citizen. Some of these super pro LE fools say "well the constitution also allows for loss of liberty or life as long as there has been due process" Right... they are obviously talking about imprisonment or death penalty. And if firearm rights loss for a person living otherwise freely in society were really constitutional, you would think the founding fathers would just have put this in the second...right? Of course not because it would counteract the "SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED" part. They are probably turning in their graves already for the "well regualted militia" line and how its used. Just had to get fancy didn't they?