A Loaded Gun

Patrick Radden Keefe,  The New Yorker

Amy Bishop, a neurobiologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, sat down at the conference table just moments before the faculty meeting began. It was three o’clock on February 12, 2010, and thirteen professors and staff members in the biology department had crowded into a windowless conference room on the third floor of the Shelby Center for Science and Technology. The department chair, a plant biologist named Gopi Podila, distributed a printed agenda. Bishop was sitting next to him, in a spot by the door. Inside her handbag was a gun.

Bishop was forty-five, with a long, pale face framed by dark hair that she wore in a pageboy, her bangs slashed just above her small blue eyes. She was normally a vocal participant in departmental meetings, but on this occasion she was silent, and she appeared to be brooding. There was an obvious explanation: a year earlier, the department had denied Bishop’s bid for tenure, and her protracted and increasingly desperate efforts to appeal the decision had been fruitless. When the semester ended, she knew, her job would end, as well. Much of Podila’s agenda concerned plans for the next semester, so there was another plausible reason for Bishop’s withdrawn manner: she didn’t really need to be there.

A biochemist named Debra Moriarity watched Bishop from across the table. Moriarity knew all about Bishop’s tenure woes; they had developed a friendship since Bishop had arrived on campus as an assistant professor, in 2003. They often talked about their families: Bishop had four children (her oldest, Lily, was a student at Huntsville); Moriarity had recently become a grandmother. Moriarity had voted against Bishop’s receiving tenure, and Bishop knew it, but they had remained cordial, and Bishop had confided in Moriarity about her professional despair. “My life is over,” she had said at one point. Moriarity reassured her that she would find another position. “It’s just a matter of the fit,” Moriarity said. During the meeting, she made a mental note to ask Bishop how her search for a new job was going.

For fifty minutes, Bishop said nothing. Then, just as the meeting was concluding, she stood up, pulled out the gun, a 9-mm. Ruger semiautomatic, and shot Podila in the head. The blast was deafening. She fired again, hitting a department assistant, Stephanie Monticciolo. Next, Bishop turned and shot Adriel Johnson, a cell biologist. People screamed and ducked for cover, but Bishop was blocking the only door. Moriarity did not fully register what was happening until she saw Bishop—her jaw set, her brow furrowed—train the gun on a fourth colleague, Maria Ragland Davis, and shoot her.

Moriarity dived under the table. With gunshots ringing out above her, she flung her arms around Bishop’s legs, looked up, and screamed, “Amy, don’t do this! Think of my daughter! Think of my grandson!” Bishop looked down—then turned the gun on Moriarity.

Click. Moriarity, in terror, stared at the gun. Click. The weapon had jammed. Moriarity crawled past Bishop and into the hallway; Bishop followed her, repeatedly squeezing the trigger. As Bishop tried to fix the gun, Moriarity scrambled back into the conference room and another colleague barricaded the door. The room, a prosecutor later said, looked “like a bomb went off. Like a war zone.” Six people had been shot, three of them fatally. The entire episode had lasted less than a minute.

Bishop went downstairs to a ladies’ room, where she rinsed off the gun and stuffed it, along with her bloodstained plaid blazer, into a trash can. Then she walked into a lab and asked a student if she could borrow his cell phone. She called her husband, Jim, who often picked her up after class, and said, “I’m done.” When she left the Shelby Center, through a loading dock in the back, a sheriff’s deputy apprehended her.

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