The owner of a gun shop in Logan, Ohio is being hailed as a hero. Why? Authorities believe that his spidey senses may have staved off a potential mass shooting at Ohio University.
John Downs is the longtime owner of Downs Bait and Guns in Logan, almost 50 miles south of Columbus. Last Monday, 25-year-old James Howard came into his shop and wanted to buy a rifle. Downs told WBNS-TV in Columbus that he makes a habit of talking with his customers, and something about “the look on his (Howard’s) face, his eyes” suggested that “something was wrong.”
His instincts seemed to be confirmed when several of Howard’s questions and statements suggested he was going to harm himself or others. He wanted to know where he could “live off the land and not be found,” yet still give his parents time to find his car. Even though Howard passed a standard background check, Downs told Howard that he had “a bad feeling” about this, and was not willing to sell him the gun. Howard cursed him out, but Downs reminded him that background check or not, gun shop owners have every right to refuse a sale if they think something is off.
Howard left in a huff, but came back an hour and a half later. Downs immediately suspected trouble, so he herded all of his customers into a back room and had one of them call 911. Hocking County sheriff’s deputies tracked Howard down at a nearby Walmart and arrested him without incident, though prosecutors say that he appeared to be under the influence of something at the time. According to Sheriff Lanny North, Howard was in the midst of buying 50 rounds of 20-gauge shells. He was also trying to buy camouflage clothing and gloves.
Deputies found a .22 caliber rifle in Howard’s car, which prosecutors believe he purchased after lying on his background check form. It turned out that Howard was wanted in Athens for an incident that took place earlier that day. Howard was a student at Ohio University and a player on the Bobcats hockey team, but abruptly withdrew from the school on Monday morning. He then stormed to Bird Ice Arena, barged into an assistant coach’s office, shoved him, and tried to punch him. He then left campus–but not before telling a friend he planned to buy a gun.
Ohio University and Athens police immediately suspected that Howard had skipped town, but finding him proved difficult because his cell phone was in Canfield, near Youngstown. Authorities believe that if not for Downs’ quick thinking, Howard might have slipped back into Athens without being noticed. Due to all of these factors, North thinks that Howard was planning to start a bloodbath–“something that was going to take a lot of lives.”
It turns out that Howard had no business being within an area code of a gun. He has a long history of mental problems, and had briefly been committed to a mental health facility. That should have immediately been flagged by the background check–had the database been properly updated. On that basis, Howard had charges of possessing a weapon under disability tacked on to the burglary charge he already faced. He is currently in jail on $125,000 bond; he faces up to 13 years in prison if convicted.
Downs appeared on “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday to discuss the encounter with Howard. Watch here.
Downs said that when he saw Howard “with his finger on the trigger” of the rifle he wanted “like he was going to, you know, use it,” he got suspicious. Combined with “the look in his eye,” he was not willing to have this purchase on his conscience. Although Downs has been bombarded with “thank you” emails and calls–including several from Ohio University students and parents–he doesn’t consider himself a hero.
Unfortunately, this episode shows that we rely too much on gun sellers trusting their instincts. After all, if Howard had been dealing with a less-scrupulous gun seller, who knows what would have happened? With all due respect, John, you are a hero.