A year after Accent Signage shootings, debate shifts from gun control to mental health

Accent Signage
The remains of a memorial Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, for those killed at Accent Signage in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

One year ago today, Andrew Engeldinger went on a shooting spree at Accent Signage in Minneapolis, killing six people and himself.

The deadliest workplace shooting in Minnesota history began as so many other mass shootings around the country. Near the end of the work day Engeldinger, a troubled employee, was summoned to the office of his manager, John Souter.

Company documents show, just a week earlier, Engeldinger had received a memo telling him that his chronic tardiness was a problem that needed to be, "rectified immediately."

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Why Engeldinger wasn't committed to a mental health facility
Police release Engeldinger's personnel file
Depression meds found in shooter's home, police say
Parents describe Engeldinger's struggle with mental illness
Parents torn by son's mental illness, rampage
Discussion: Can mass shootings be stopped?

When Souter and another manager, Rami Cooks, fired him, Engeldinger pulled out a Glock 9 mm pistol he took with him to the meeting. According to a sequence of events documented by police investigators, Engeldinger drew his gun on Souter and Cooks. The two men struggled with Engeldinger before he shot them both. Cooks was fatally wounded.

Engeldinger then continued on his rampage, killing company founder Reuven Rahamin. He also killed co-workers Jacob Beneke and Ron Edberg and UPS driver Keith Basinski before shooting himself. A co-worker Engeldinger wounded during the shooting spree, Eric Rivers, died more than a week later.

The public outcry following the Accent Signage shooting and the mass murder of 20 children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut a few months later, caught the attention of Minnesota legislators.

John Souter
Last year when Andrew Engeldinger went on a shooting spree at Accent Signage, John Souter, photographed Monday, Sept. 23, 2013 in Minneapolis, was one of the first people shot. Engeldinger, who suffered from mental illness, killed six people including himself.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

In both cases, people close to the shooters identified them as people with some form of mental illness. Democratic lawmakers failed to pass universal background checks and other gun restrictions during this year's legislative session. But significant mental health measures were signed into law.

"We had over 12 bills introduced to fix and improve the children's mental health system that contained about 29 different provisions and about 17 of them passed," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota. "So in terms of how successful we were this year, it was a landmark session for children's mental health."

Abderholden said a key measure provided more than $7 million for school-based mental health grants. She said the money will help make mental health treatment more accessible to children and teenagers.

People with mental illness rarely commit crimes of violence, but early detection is crucial for effective treatment, Abderholden said.

Symptoms of some illnesses often arise in school-aged children.

"Looking at the Accent Signage shooting, the family knew in high school that something was wrong," Abderholden said. "You can't predict violence or anything like that, but it would have been great if they would have been able to access even more intensive treatment in school."

Less than a month after the shooting, Andrew Engeldinger's parents, Carolyn and Chuck Engeldinger told MPR News they noticed a change in their son in high school.

"I think that what happened was that his senior year, you could see that he was gone, it almost looked like maybe he was on drugs," Chuck Engeldinger said. "We didn't know, but you could see it in his eyes, kind of a lost look, a glazed look."

Workplace shooter
This July 2012 photo shows Andrew Engeldinger working at Accent Signage in Minneapolis. Minneapolis police identified Engeldinger as the man who shot and killed four people at the sign company Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, before killing himself. Several others were wounded. Engeldinger had reportedly been fired Thursday morning.
AP Photo/Finance and Commerce, Bill Klotz

Carolyn Engeldinger said her son was diagnosed with depression and given medication. But she said he stopped taking the medication and began using marijuana and alcohol as a young adult.

The Engeldingers said their son's condition grew worse and he started exhibiting signs of schizophrenia. However, they said he was never violent.

Police found bottles of prescription medicine in Engeldinger's home as well as 12,000 rounds of ammunition. They say Andrew Engeldinger legally bought the gun he used in the shootings, and frequently went to the gun range to practice.

Engeldinger was arrested for reckless driving after leading police on a high speed chase in 1997, former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said. But that would not have disqualified Engeldinger from legally buying a gun.

Dolan, who was chief at time of the shootings, said a standard criminal background check doesn't give police access to medical records and other data that might give them cause to deny someone a permit to buy or carry a gun.

"The state law doesn't allow us any time -- virtually any time -- to do extensive background investigation on someone who is applying for a purchase permit," he said.

"When you've looked someone in the eye who's trying to kill you with a gun, it gives you a very, very different perspective on life."

Under federal and state law, people can be denied the right to buy or possess a firearm if judges commit them to a private treatment centers or state hospitals for mental illness or drug abuse. However, state officials estimate about 67,000 court commitment records from Minnesota are missing from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System -- the computerized system used by law enforcement officials from around the country.

This session, state legislators approved more than $1 million for courts to find records dating back to 1994 -- the year that computer system was created -- and add them to the system. Both gun-control advocates and gun-rights supporters backed the measure.

"We as Second Amendment supporters are behind that more... than most people are," said Kevin Vick, a federally licensed firearms dealer in Lakeville.

Vick, who was glad to see legislators pass funding for mental health programs this past session, said he's seeing a shift in how lawmakers and members of the public approach solutions to gun violence.

Parents of Andrew Engeldinger
Chuck and Carolyn Engeldinger, photographed Monday, Oct. 12, 2012 in the MPR News studio in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"We're now starting to look at what are the underlying causes," he said. "What are the things behind gun crime that we can effectively manage -- effectively go after it to reduce it -- instead of focusing on banning firearms."

Yet the fight for new and stricter gun laws will likely continue in the Legislature next year.

State Sen. Ron Latz, the chief author of the legislation that funded the court records update, said he'll still push for what he calls 'common sense' gun laws, such as requiring background checks for private gun sales.

"Not as a mechanism for taking guns away from people, but for doing meaningful screening," said Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. "So that those who do have prohibitive backgrounds don't get as easy access to guns and they would now."

As legislators prepare for more debate over gun laws next year, John Souter -- one of the first people shot at Accent Signage -- hopes lawmakers will listen to the perspective he and other survivors of gun violence bring to the conversation.

"When you've looked someone in the eye who's trying to kill you with a gun, it gives you a very, very different perspective on life," he said.

Souter is reluctant to say much about the shooting because the family of Jacob Beneke is suing Accent Signage. Souter, who no longer works for the company, said he will have to provide information to attorneys.

But Souter, a British-born U.S. citizen, is not hesitant to express his desire for stronger gun laws in the state and the country.

"We're a little puritanical about selling wine, but we're not puritanical about selling guns," he said.

Souter said he still relives the shooting several times a day and night, and is in therapy.

"It's still with me every day," he said.