When I was growing up kids brought guns to school all the time. We typically left them in gun racks in the back windows of our pickup trucks or in car trunks in anticipation of after-school hunting trips. Our driver’s ed teacher was a compulsive hunter. His name was Coach Smith. When out of earshot we called him Poach Smith. He famously kept a shotgun and a garbage bag in the trunk of the driver’s ed car in case he came across something that needed shooting. He once returned after an outing around the county with both his students and a fresh wild turkey.
I recall one kid bringing a 1911 pistol to show off to his pals. Somebody saw it in his locker and alerted the headmaster, himself a Naval officer who had served in the Pacific during World War 2. The headmaster confiscated the gun and put it in his desk drawer, directing the kid to pick it up after school and not to bring it back again. He didn’t even call the boy’s parents. That’s because at that time in that place it would have been literally unimaginable to shoot up a school. That all changed on January 29, 1979.
Figuring out whether you were a boy or a girl used to seem a fairly straightforward chore. Nowadays things are a bit more opaque. However, there yet remain some fundamental differences that are empirically demonstrable between men and women. In addition to the capacity to carry a child to term, one of the two genders is just a bit more innately rotten than the other.
Testosterone is the most potent poison known to man. 93.3% of the incarcerated population in America is genotypically male. Were we being completely honest the quickest way to restore peace and harmony to the species would be to just lock up all the guys. Believe it or not, there are some radical feminists who have suggested just that.
Despite this gross gender imbalance among the world’s criminals, when it came time for Satan to kick off the ghastly phenomenon that is the modern school spree shooting it was a woman who first squeezed the trigger. In 16-year-old Brenda Spencer, we find the genesis monster.
Like most true psychopaths Brenda’s origin story is sordid and broken. Born in 1962 in San Diego, California, and raised across the street from the Grover Cleveland Elementary School, by her sixteenth birthday Brenda stood all of 5’2” and sported bright red hair. Her parents were separated, and she lived in squalor with her alcoholic father, Wallace Spencer. It was so bad that the two of them slept on a common mattress in the living room surrounded by empty beer and liquor bottles.
As a child Brenda took a tumble on her bicycle and suffered a head injury. Though she recovered physically she was never quite right after that. Head scans later revealed permanent damage to one of her temporal lobes that likely contributed to the aberrant behavior that was to follow.
Spencer was a predictably poor student with truancy issues, but she had a talent for photography. She took first prize in a local Humane Society photography contest. However, her teachers reported that she fell asleep regularly in class.
While growing up Brenda demonstrated an inexplicable hatred of policemen. She also wandered the neighborhood killing birds with a BB gun. At age fifteen she was arrested for shooting out the windows in the school with her air rifle as well as burglary.
Her probation officer recommended that she be hospitalized for depression, but her rocket scientist dad refused to give permission. At Christmas of that year, he gave Brenda a Ruger 10/22 semiautomatic .22 rifle, a riflescope, and a 500-round brick of ammunition. Brenda later said of the gift, “I asked for a radio and he bought me a gun…I felt like he wanted me to kill myself.”
On Monday morning, January 29, 1979, a herd of children had gathered outside the gates of the elementary school. As 53-year-old Principal Burton Wragg walked out to open up the facility Brenda opened fire with her 10/22. As one might expect, unfettered chaos ensued.
Spencer shot and wounded eight elementary school kids. Principal Wragg rushed into the line of fire to drag children to safety and was shot down as well. The school custodian, a 56-year-old Navy veteran named Mike Suchar, also ran to the sounds of battle. He was gunned down, too. Though all eight of the children ultimately recovered, Wragg and Suchar were killed.
Brenda shot the first police officer to respond in the neck with her rifle. By this point, she had fired a sum total of thirty rounds. The police parked a garbage truck in the road to shield the school and evacuated the injured children to safety. Spencer spent the next several hours barricaded in her house talking to police negotiators.
A reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune dialed random numbers in the neighborhood until he got Spencer on the phone. When queried concerning her motivations she said, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” She informed him that she had chosen the kids across the street because they made easy targets. She actually said, “It was a lot of fun seeing children shot.” She also explained that it was her intent to leave the house guns a’blazing.
Eventually, Brenda grew peckish. She ultimately left the house peacefully in exchange for a meal from Burger King. Police subsequently described the home as littered with beer and whiskey bottles. However, Spencer’s drug and alcohol tests were all negative.
First introduced in 1964, the Ruger 10/22 is likely the most successful .22 rifle ever devised. As of 2015, there had been more than seven million copies sold. Aftermarket parts and accessories are so prolific that you can actually build a Ruger 10/22 nowadays that doesn’t include a single Ruger part. The number of young shooters whose first taste of a trigger was that of a 10/22 defies counting.
The standard Ruger 10/22 features a blued finish and walnut stock, though there are plenty of factory options available. The 10/22 has been offered in .22LR, .17HMR, and .22 Win Mag variants. However, the .17HMR and .22 Win Mag versions were only available for a couple of years. The standard .22LR rifle feeds from a flush-mounted 10-round helical-feed magazine, though aftermarket magazines and drums carry fifty rounds or more.
The standard 10/22 rifle comes with quality iron sights. The rear sight folds flat when not needed. Every 10/22 rifle is tapped for a scope mount that comes with the gun.
Aftermarket dress-up kits span the spectrum. The modular nature of the design lends itself to creativity. The basic chassis has been adapted to emulate a crank-powered, tripod-mounted Gatling gun, a miniaturized MG42 machinegun, and even an M1 Garand. The Archangel Nomad kit is a drop-in polymer chassis that makes the 10/22 into a proper facsimile of an HK G36 assault rifle.
When introduced in 1964 the 10/22 sold for $54.50. That’s about $465 in today’s money. The MSRP for the base model 10/22 today is $309. In addition to being reliable, accurate, and customizable, the 10/22 was also designed from the outset for ease of manufacture. The receiver is an investment casting, while many of the components are polymer. This helps keep the gun affordable.
The Rest of the Story
Spencer pled guilty to two counts of 1st-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to 25 years to life on the day after her 18th birthday. She has thus far been before a parole board four times and has been denied each time.
Brenda alleged that her father Wallace both beat and sexually abused her. He bizarrely married Brenda’s 17-year-old prison cellmate after her release, and they had a daughter together. The young woman eventually left him, but he lived in the same house across the street from the school until his death in 2016. The Grover Cleveland Elementary School was demolished in 2018.
In 2005 Brenda’s prison girlfriend was released and she was reported for an incident of self-harm. The report stated that she had clawed the words “Pride” and “Courage” into her flesh. When challenged she claimed the words were actually “Unforgiven” and “Alone.” She is currently 59 years old and resides at the California Institution for Women in Chino. She has been formally inducted into the “Golden Girls Club,” an organization of female inmates aged older than 55.
Bob Geldof, lead singer for the rock group the Boomtown Rats, read about the incident and wrote a song titled I Don’t Like Mondays that was released in July of 1979. The song was number 1 for four weeks in the UK, though it did not break the top 40 in the US. The Spencer family made a concerted effort to keep the song off the air on this side of the pond, but it received fairly extensive airplay regardless.
Geldof later said, “[Spencer] wrote to me saying ‘she was glad she’d done it because I’d made her famous,’ which is not a good thing to live with.”
“With every school shooting, I feel I’m partially responsible. What if they got the idea from what I did?”