The Illinois-based grassroots gun rights group Guns Save Life holds meetings in seven cities across Illinois each month. For the September meeting in Charleston, we welcomed local hero Angela McQueen as our main speaker. Back in 2017, she thwarted a mass shooting at central Illiniois’ Mattoon High School by wresting a .40 S&W pistol from a deranged student intent upon murder.
The shots were first heard Wednesday morning in the Mattoon High School cafeteria. Angela McQueen, a teacher, and a school resource officer headed to the cafeteria to investigate.
It was there, inside the large room, that McQueen and the resource officer saw the male student spraying gunfire.
McQueen sprung into action and took down the student as fellow pupils and staff fled, Larry Lilly, supt. for Mattoon Community Unit School District 2, said at a news conference this week. The school resource officer then stepped in and disarmed the student.
“Lives were saved by a quick response of a teacher here,” Mattoon Police Chief Jeff Branson said during the news conference. “If that teacher had not responded as quickly as they had, I think the situation would have been a lot different.”
One student was struck by gunfire that day, he said. The student was found in the school’s parking lot and hospitalized, where he is recovering.
She initially shunned the spotlight, but word of her heroic response to a horrific situation quickly spread through town and she still receives heart-felt thank yous and well-wishes from parents of students past and present. Today, she speaks about the event, mostly about the aftermath, as part of her coping mechanism to the mental trauma of that day.
One might think doing something heroic might lead to a “happily ever after.” In reality, as McQueen told the Guns Save Life audience, it has been anything but.
In a presentation that proved quite emotional at times for the audience, she described what happened, briefly before moving on to how it’s negatively impacted her life.
A young man, she would learn that day, had brought a pistol to school intent on killing a girl and who knows how many others who he felt had wronged him. McQueen got word that someone might have a gun only moments before things went sideways.
Recalling that day, she said she looked around the cafeteria and didn’t see any supervisory staff or the school resource officer present. She knew she had to take action, but she didn’t know exactly what or how.
McQueen said she didn’t want to leave the situation to get a supervisor, but instead opted to approach the potential gun-toting teen. As she approached and started to call for help on her phone, she recalled how she could tell by the body language of the students that something was terribly wrong. She moved faster.
Sure enough, the kid produced the gun just as she approached him from behind. She lunged and grabbed for the gun. While he sat at the cafeteria table, McQueen said she grabbed his gun arm and pushed it away from the direction of the girl the would-be killer had targeted first. The first shot broke an instant after she made contact with the killer’s arm.
Standing over six feet tall, she lifted his arm towards the ceiling and struggled for what seemed like forever with the kid for control of the .40 S&W handgun. As they fought for control of the pistol, the young man fired seven more times, with the gun close to her face. Fortunately, the rounds all went high, mostly into the ceiling.
Finally, the shots stopped. She recognized the gun was at slide lock and then she “took him down” until the school resource officer could arrive and handcuff the teen.
The first round fired missed the intended victim thanks to McQueen’s actions, but it inadvertently struck another young man. That round went through his phone and his hand, and ultimately through his shoulder as well. He survived, although he still has some minor problems with feeling in that hand after a whole lot of reconstructive surgeries, along with some mobility issues.
The would-be mass murderer? Illinois let him out of juvenile prison less than a year later. Unbelievably, when the state wanted to return him to the community, locals objected and he has since been placed elsewhere.
Angie said to this day she struggles in the aftermath. She’s troubled by the would-be killer’s lack of remorse. What’s more, McQueen says she feels a lot of anger as well. “I didn’t sign up for this,” she said at least three times.
She described the immediate aftermath as utterly overwhelming. Her mind simply couldn’t process all that happened after the near-death experience. Painfully recalling the events, she said she had a hard time thinking about anything.
While she escaped any obvious physical injury, she has hearing loss and tinnitus from the gunshots near her face and head. “I’ve simply had to get used to it,” she noted.
Mentally she didn’t fare much better. She has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
To this day, she describes it as impacting her thinking and her ability to concentrate. “My brain feels different, almost foggy,” she said. She doesn’t like the COVID mask mandates because she can’t read people’s faces. Clearly she recognizes that reading those students faces that day allowed her to recognize something terrible was about to happen.
In coping with her PTSD, she credits her faith in God, writing in a journal, counseling, some private groups of fellow violence survivors, along with her dogs. Recognizing that life’s energy has a priceless value all of its own, she says she has re-tooled her spare time.
McQueen stepped away from her work in the teachers’ union leadership and as the school’s golf coach. Today she concentrates on things she feels make a true difference in other people’s lives. One of those involves doing what she can to help other survivors cope with the aftermath of tragedy and return to some semblance of normalcy.
She also said that talking to supportive folks helps, too. In fact, she said that was the biggest takeaway from the initial counselors that police and the school provided for those closest to the near-disaster.
“Don’t keep it bottled up inside,” they told her. It was one of the few messages that actually made it through the crazy hours and days in the immediate aftermath.
Our own Justin Bawcum, GSL’s Charleston Regional Co-Director, chimed in as well with some of his own coping mechanisms. Bawcum is a survivor of some harrowing combat experiences in Afghanistan and then later of the Fort Hood massacre.
The Islamist terrorist killer at Fort Hood, now on death row, was Bawcum’s doctor and Justin had just arrived in the parking lot for his appointment as part of coming back to America from service in Afghanistan. His truck took a couple of rounds the crazed terrorist fired at Bawcum before moving on to other, easier targets of opportunity.
Bawcum advised Angie (and any other survivors of violence) not to second-guess her actions or to “overthink” what happened.
“You did what you needed to do and you knew it might not end well,” he said in front of the crowd. “You did well and parents around here are very grateful you were there that day.”
McQueen admitted that she feels really badly for the young man who was shot. To some degree she blames her own actions — after all, he wasn’t the intended target and was only shot because of her intervention.
At the same time, that young man’s parents (and the young man himself) have thanked her profusely for what she did that day, noting that there could have been untold numbers of fatalities, including the wounded young man, if McQueen hadn’t acted in the manner she did.
McQueen noted how people will recognize her in public and thank her out of the blue. “Sometimes it takes me an instant or two to remember why they’re saying ‘thank you’,” she explained. Other people just look at her and talk among themselves, likely reluctant to approach her.
Asked, “How do you reach out to someone in the aftermath of something like this?” she said just talk to them and watch the body language. “If they seem okay, just keep it simple.” Simple as in, “Hi. We’re so glad you survived. Thank you. Is there anything I/we can do to help you?”
“And if they’re uneasy, just back away,” she said.
In the end, the audience — some wiping away tears — gave her a lengthy standing ovation.
John Boch is the Executive Director of Guns Save Life.