*John “Jack” Hammen, 54, stood waiting for the person who had invited him to do some practice shooting Wednesday morning. The Grand Forks certified public accountant had his .45-caliber handgun and a box of ammunition.
As he waited, the box of ammo slipped out of his hand and fell to the floor. Somehow, a round went off, blasting a hole in the carton and sending a slug flying.
It sounded, Hammen said later, “like a .45 being fired in an indoor stairwell.”
The entrance of the law enforcement building steps are taped off in the lobby Wednesday morning. Grand Forks police are questioning a man who says that when he dropped a box of ammunition one round went off. Herald photo by Jackie Lorentz.
Capt. Kerwin Kjelstrom
If it had happened anywhere else, Hammen probably would have had a better day Wednesday. But this was the lobby of the Grand Forks Law Enforcement Center, home to the city police and the county sheriff’s office.
Officers came running, weapons at the ready.
Police closed the lobby about 10:05 a.m. and used yellow tape to further close off the area near the stairwell while they searched for the spent round. Doors were locked at both the main and Fifth Street entrances until about 11 a.m.
“We heard a shot go off in the hallway,” said Capt. Kerwin Kjelstrom, one of about five officers who responded. “A number of us ran out and found sitting on the stairwell a gentleman who said he dropped a box of ammunition and one round went off.
“You hear a round go off, and everybody wonders: ‘What are we going to find when we go out the door?’ Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
“It sure got my heart started, though.”
‘No devious intent’
Detectives questioned Hammen in an interview room while other officers searched for the .45 slug, which they found behind a row of seating near the center’s main entrance on the west side. It was undamaged and appeared not to have struck anything hard before settling behind the window seating. When a round goes off outside a gun’s chamber, the force behind the slug may be dissipated, officers said.
Still, the loud report — Kjelstrom likened it to a clipboard smacking the floor flat — got lots of sworn hearts racing.
“This is a police department, and there are people who are not happy with us,” he said.
But officers quickly determined that Hammen had no beef and no devious intent. He had a permit for the handgun and an invitation to use the center’s basement firing range. The ammo box with the frayed hole “supports his story,” Kjelstrom said.
“They told me, ‘It was an accident — what can you do?’ ” Hammen said later. “It wasn’t irresponsible gun handling or negligence.”
It was a box of factory-produced shells, he said, not hand-loaded, and he had taped the box closed “so the flap couldn’t fly open,” spilling shells.
“I was flabbergasted” when one went off, he said, and the detectives who questioned him were equally dumbfounded. “They said it’s unheard of” for a round to go off the way it did, he said.
“They said I should go buy a lottery ticket, because that’s what the odds were like.”
Hammen, a former geography professor at UND, said he occasionally shoots at a private range and this was — or would have been — his first visit to the police range. He did not identify the officer who issued the invitation.
Will he try again?
“If somebody invites me,” he said.
Kjelstrom said he cannot recall anything like Wednesday’s incident happening at the law enforcement center before, but he said the department plans “a review of how people come in, how their weapons are secured and how they use our range.”