A jammed gun and cool-headed administrators may have saved several students on Monday after a 13-year-old boy walked into school armed with an assault rifle, police said.
Dressed in a home-made ski mask, green trench coat and camouflage pants, the boy started waving a rifle that looked like an AK-47 at a number of students making their way through the hallway shortly before classes started in a rural Missouri middle school.
The principal and assistant superintendent tried to convince him to put the gun down and come talk to them in the office but the boy refused, telling them to leave the area and "not make me do it," police said.
He fired a shot into the ceiling and everyone in the hallway dashed for cover as water spurted from a burst pipe.
"It looks like his gun jammed and that's probably why he didn't shoot any more," Lieutenant Geoff Jones said in a telephone interview. "He was seen trying to pull the trigger ... it could have been a lot worse."
The incident came a week after a gunman shot 10 girls at an Amish one-room school in rural Pennsylvania, killing five, and follows a rash of shootings at other small-town schools.
In this case nobody was hurt. But the people of Joplin, Missouri, a town of about 56,000 people near the borders with Kansas and Oklahoma, are still trying to understand how a boy who had never been in trouble before could go so wrong.
The school has about 750 students aged 10 to 14.
"We're kind of at a loss as to what his motive was," Jones said. "Everybody thinks it can't happen to us. It's taken a toll on everybody. We're in shock, just trying to deal with things."
The boy eventually ran out of the school with the rifle and the principal followed him, using a hand-held radio to relay his location to police.
When the police arrived the boy started reaching for his gun, but he soon surrendered.