TRAVERSE CITY — As the school bus approached, Pam and Dan Kaiser couldn’t find their son.
Then a first grader, Aaron Kaiser was hiding in a closet, refusing to go to school.
He was worried about a book report he’d spent the weekend working on. His father assured him it was wonderful. That did not allay his fears.
“No I can’t, I can’t [go],” Aaron cried.
Fast-forward two decades, to this April, and similar anxieties again tore at Aaron. Despite years of doctors and counselors and treatments, he remained a tinder box of anxiety and depression.
Now 24, Aaron faced another school deadline, with a final project in an anatomy class at Northwestern Michigan College looming.
On April 26, the family drove together to Aaron’s grandfather’s nearby home along Lake Michigan. Inside the car, Pam and Dan took the opportunity to ask questions. How is school? The project?
Aaron turned to the window.
“I’m done speaking about school.”
- The latest: Michigan coronavirus unemployment, map, curve, updated COVID-19 news
- Dashboard: Michigan coronavirus testing numbers, trends, COVID-19 dataGuns and viruses: Why Michigan gun and ammo sales are exploding
- With higher suicide risk during coronavirus, Michigan makes plans to help
- Gun ban at Michigan Capitol unlikely, despite urging from Dana Nessel
- Michigan youth suicide rate doubles. What parents can do
- Suicide, depression on rise in rural Michigan, but psychiatrists are scarce
The troubles had returned to the former honors student at Traverse City West High School. The third youngest of four sons, Aaron Harris Kaiser loved animals and had a gift for numbers that had him considering a career in software engineering like his 63-year-old father.
Along the way, as Aaron stumbled from his teen years to adulthood, his struggles waylaid that promise. He moved across the country, switched schools and changed career plans.
By April, as the coronavirus pandemic forced Michigan into isolation, Aaron withdrew to his demons. Suicide was on his mind. Again.
A year earlier Aaron had bought fentanyl, thinking he would die by overdose; a friend alerted the family and Dan successfully intervened, confiscating and destroying the drugs.
But now, Aaron wanted a gun.
Are gun stores essential?
Aaron’s suicidal thoughts put him at the fulcrum of two conflicting fears as the pandemic spread.
With so much uncertainty, some feared a lockdown would impede their ability to protect themselves and homes with guns. Others worried the pandemic would worsen mental health and lead to a spike in suicides because patients wouldn’t see their therapists, counselors and doctors.
Grand Traverse County officials believe Aaron Kaiser killed himself with a shotgun purchased at Cliff's Rifle Shop. Although the store was supposed to be closed to walk-in-sales, prosecutors opted against pursuing the matter because they reasoned Aaron Kaiser could have bought a gun curbside. (Bridge photo by John Russell)
“The concern was we would literally be leaving people to their own devices,” said Kevin Fischer, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Our concern was that there would be an increase in suicides,” he said.
Those fears were rooted in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order, which called on all Michigan residents to stay home as of March 24 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. All non-essential businesses were ordered to close. Therapists were allowed to stay open, but many didn’t take the chance.
Just before the shutdown, people stocked up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and guns and ammo in case it all went south.
At Hampel’s Gun Co. in Traverse City, a clerk told Bridge in March it was the busiest two weeks he’d ever seen. More than a month later, Aaron Kaiser would be one of the customers.
All of that, of course, was unknown to Aaron’s parents that day in April as they drove to his grandfather’s home.
Nor did they know Aaron had just recently visited another gun store, Cliff’s Rifle Shop near Cherry Capital Airport, looking to buy a shotgun.
He left without buying anything.
But on that day, in Michigan, that store wasn’t even supposed to be open.
‘Families need to feel safe’
In her first lockdown order, Whitmer relied on a federal list classifying what businesses were essential. Gun stores were not on the list.
But the Michigan chapter of the National Rifle Association seized on the wording of Whitmer’s order, which said businesses that were not “necessary to sustain or protect life” must suspend operations.
Since guns are needed for protection, the NRA asserted, gun stores could stay open.
"Firearm sales go up in times of uncertainty because Americans know their safety is ultimately in their own hands,” NRA spokesperson Amy Hunter told Bridge. “Now, more than ever, it's important that families have the ability and the tools they need to feel safe and able to defend themselves."
When Whitmer extended her stay-at-home order on April 9, the federal government had changed its list, adding the firearms industry as “essential” after lobbying from the NRA and others.
Chronology of a gun
During the first month of Michigan’s stay-at-home order, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer considered gun stores “non-essential,” meaning they would have to stay closed. That didn’t stop Aaron Kaiser from buying a shotgun.
March 24: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's first stay-at-home order goes into effect, requiring non-essential businesses to close. It relies on a federal list that defined what industries were essential; gun stores were not on that list. Most remain open, however, citing Whitmer’s claim that essential businesses are those that “protect life.”
April 9: Whitmer reissues her order. Since her first one, however, the federal government added the firearms industry, including retailers, to its list of essential businesses. But Whitmer specifically declines to adopt that updated list and continues to rely on the initial list that they stay closed.
Around April 20: Aaron Kaiser shops for a shotgun inside a store that should have been closed, but leaves without a gun.
April 24: Whitmer issues new order that allows non-essential businesses such as gun stores to sell products but only from the curb, outside of store.
April 27: Aaron Kaiser returns to Cliff's Rifle Shop, goes into the store and buys a 12-gauge shotgun, a case and ammunition. He buys more ammo at another Traverse City store. The following morning, his body, with the shotgun between his legs, is found.
In Michigan, crisis help is available at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
National activists for gun safety howled about the addition of gun stores to the list of “essential” industries, labeling it “nonsensical.”
Under pressure from gun safety advocates, Whitmer ignored the list and said gun stores must remain closed.
One of those that stayed open was Hampel’s Gun Co., just a few minutes from the Kaisers’ home in Long Lake Township, southwest of Traverse City.
Owner Rodrigo Meirelles told Bridge his and other gun shops are essential for “the protection of life” and said he “took all the necessary measures,” only selling guns at the curb, outside the shop he has owned since 2017.
“We believe that was an exception,” he said. “It wasn’t a question of disobeying.”
He was critical of Whitmer and her orders, which he said were poorly written. “The governor should be ashamed to be in her position,” he said.
As with other counties in Michigan, local law enforcement was tasked with enforcing Whitmer’s orders and Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg said she fielded complaints about construction sites and other businesses that residents felt were violating the stay-at-home order.
Moeggenberg said her office responded with letters to businesses explaining the law. If merchants didn’t comply, tickets could be written.
No business was cited, she told Bridge. “Our goal was compliance,” she said.
Not a single resident complained that gun shops remained open, she said.
‘I begged him to hold on’
Long before Aaron snapped at Dan and Pam as they headed toward Lake Michigan, they had tried to address his mental health issues, sending him to out-of-state therapists and an Outward Bound session.
Aaron was a “very compassionate, empathetic soul,” his 59-year-old mother said, who loved walking the family dog, Echo.
Pam Kaiser, 59, cries thinking about her son, Aaron. The 24-year-old killed himself amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some experts believe the number of suicides in Michigan will increase by about a third from 1,500 per year because of the pandemic. (Bridge photo by John Russell)
Aaron had taken a quixotic path through high school and beyond, attending Grand Valley State University for a time in 2018 and later, after dropping out for medical reasons, heading to Northwestern Michigan College. His latest goal was to become a certified nursing assistant.
But along the way he became dependent on Adderall, prescribed by one doctor for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and smoked pot, his parents said, as he sought help for what ailed him.
But by April, the pandemic had heightened his anxiety, they said.
Aaron was also unable to see his mental health counselors in person because they closed. His primary counselor also opted against offering telehealth sessions that would have allowed Aaron to at least get some therapy through his computer screen.
So as the pandemic dragged on, Pam said she saw Aaron fraying.
When it’s over, she told him, when the restrictions are lifted, they would take Aaron to another treatment facility out of state, possibly in Minnesota or Colorado.
But as the pandemic raged, Pam said the clinics she called seeking treatment for Aaron all had the same message: “Please call back when we open up again for patients.”
Aaron’s care would have to wait.
“I begged him to hold on,” Pam said.
The coronavirus and the stay-at-home orders, designed to protect physical health, took a toll on mental health, experts say.
A report by Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, which serves thousands in Michigan and across the nation, estimated there would be nearly 500 more suicides in Michigan in 2020 because of widespread job loss and social isolation, combined with spikes in gun and alcohol sales.
That would be a nearly one-third increase from the 1,548 suicides in 2018, the last year for which suicide deaths are available. Just over 800 of those were self-inflicted gun death, a method that had increased 20 percent in just five years.
A note, then fear
By mid-April,the Kaisers had seen flickers of light amid the gloom: Aaron cleaned his room — a Herculean feat for him. He was giddy around the house. He played Scrabble with his dad.
“I'm thinking of ‘this is awesome,’” recalled Dan Kaiser.
But as they approached the end of the academic year, Aaron’s world narrowed.
The final project was due. He was irritable.
And then, on a dreary, rainy day April 27, Aaron said he was going to a friend’s house.
Pam felt something was wrong. She went into his room and found a sticky note.
“I’m sorry. I love you all — Aaron.”
Aaron Kaiser, who loved animals and had a gift for numbers, killed himself with a Mossberg 930 12-gauge shotgun that he'd bought with a credit card his parents gave him for school. (Bridge photo by John Russell)
Startled, she called just before 4 p.m. to ask what he meant. He waved it off, saying he wrote it about a month earlier.
Aaron brought chicken home before leaving again early that evening, saying he was going to a friend’s house to spend the night.
He never did.
An hour before his mother’s call, Aaron had walked back into Cliff’s Rifle Shop, and found what he wanted: a Mossberg 930 12-gauge shotgun, along with a gun case and some ammunition. Total cost: $560.67.
He told Cliff Boyd he needed the gun for “home defense.” He also bought some ammunition at Hampel’s, police reports show.
Boyd did not respond to calls from Bridge for comment.
When Aaron didn’t return home on April 28, his parents checked the Internet and a credit card they had given him for school.
“I check it and Cliff’s Gun Shop’s on there and I'm going, ‘Oh shit,’ ” Dan said.
Pam called 911 to report Aaron missing. A sheriff’s detective, Matt Holliday, was a few minutes away in a local park and headed toward their home.
As Holliday walked up the driveway, Pam Kaiser was coming down it. The note was in her hand and she was telling Holliday about the gun purchase as Dan was printing the receipt.
Holliday had his own news. In the park, where the Kaisers walked their dog, a young man had apparently killed himself with the 12-gauge. It had probably happened overnight, sometime after dark.
It was Aaron Harris Kaiser.
Witnesses said the white Subaru Forester had been parked there for hours before sheriff deputies arrived. A couple who had been walking in the morning saw Aaron, unresponsive, and had alerted authorities.
Crack in the system
The Kaisers are left with many what-ifs.
What if there had been a waiting period for guns? (There isn’t in Michigan)
What if the state had red flag laws that allow families to ask a court to block someone who might pose a danger from getting a gun? (It doesn’t)
What if the background check had been tougher and Aarons’s prior mental treatment had triggered a rejection?
But one question remained: Why was Cliff’s even open?
The prosecutor, Moeggenberg, told Bridge that an April 24 executive order from Whitmer allowed non-essential retailers to operate, but only if they did just curbside sales, like Meirelles had said Hampel’s had done.
Moeggenberg said Cliff Boyd could have sold Aaron a gun that day at the curb. But Boyd, in a statement to Detective Holliday, had admitted Kaiser had walked in the store.
Moeggenberg said she declined to take any action against Boyd for being open April 27.
“The only thing that happened that shouldn’t have was (that) he was inside the store and was chatting,” Moeggenberg said. “It didn’t prevent him from buying a gun.”
“This was obviously horrific but I don’t think it was the gun shop owner’s fault,” she said.
Moeggenberg said her office, like those of other prosecutors, had frequently talked with the office of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.
Nessel’s office told Bridge that gun stores never came up as they helped law enforcement navigate the stay-at-home orders.
“Our office has not offered any official guidance about gun shops nor have we taken any enforcement action against them,” Nessel spokesperson Ryan Jarvi wrote in an email to Bridge.
As for the governor’s office, it declined to say whether gun stores played a role in Whitmer’s decision to not use the expanded list of essential businesses.
“At that time, we could not relax our vigilance. If she had chosen to adopt the new [federal] guidance, it would have forced thousands of Michiganders to return to work before it was safe to do so,” Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown told Bridge.
“The governor was under no legal obligation to adopt the new guidance, and she chose not to.”
In the Kaisers’ grief, they remain angry at the gun store and prosecutors. And in retrospect, they thought Whitmer’s order should have been one small sliver of protection to keep Aaron safe.
“If I could have been there to take that gun, then he’d still be alive and he’d be in treatment,” Pam said, breaking down in sobs as she retold the story.
“I begged him to hold on. He couldn’t hold on and he found a crack in the system.”
Due to multiple violations of our commenting policy, comments for this story have been disabled.