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Editorial: Let’s ‘do something’ that will make a difference
Base efforts to stop mass shootings on better enforcement, communications, school security
02182018 GUNS EDITORIAL
Crosses and flowers hang on a fence near Majority Stoneman Douglas High School, near Parkland, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2018, in memory of the 17 people killed in a school shooting there. - photo by Associated Press

As a heartbroken nation mourns victims of the latest mass shooting at a Florida high school, the same plaintive cries echo like a chorus in perfect harmony: “Why don’t we do something?

It’s understandable to hear grieving parents ask this; anyone in their shoes would feel the same sense of hopelessness and loss, and want answers to complex questions. Finding those answers, however, has proven elusive.

As commonplace as school shootings have become, they can’t be met with shrugs of indifference or surrender. Yet instead of just “doing something,” the nation would be better served by finding solutions that will have the most effect. It is in times of such heavy emotion that cooler heads should take a rational approach to consider what can be done and how to accomplish it. 

In this spirit, we offer a few ideas that might add more than just another voice to the same refrain.

Enforce current gun laws. After every shooting, the call for new legislation to control weapons seems a fallback response. Yet as long as the political parties in Washington disagree on this issue, new legislation is unlikely, at least until some political upheaval changes that. 

There already are many such laws; they just don’t work very well. Bans on most assault weapons and background checks designed to deny firearms to criminals and the mentally ill haven’t done enough to keep them out of the wrong hands. Any law is only as effective as its enforcement.

Insisting on better use of the laws in place is within the power of the executive branch and law enforcement agencies. That starts with a better system to restrict sales of certain weapons to potential offenders through database checks. That system too often fails, as it did with the accused Florida shooter whose legal purchase wasn’t flagged, and others who slipped through and shouldn’t, such as the gunmen in a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015, at a Suthlerland Springs, Texas, church last fall and on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. In each case, background checks were powerless to prevent slaughter.

Once steps to ensure legal weapons go only to law-abiding buyers, law agencies should crack down harder on illegal sales, which come without background checks or registration. 

Even then, let’s not kid ourselves to think such weapons still won’t be available to those with evil intent. There are just too many out there to make that happen. And it’s worth noting that laws don’t prevent crimes from occurring; they can only punish those who break them. 

Until existing weapons laws are made more effective, piling others on top that aren’t any better enforced is a placebo authored by politicians to make voters feel they are “doing something.” That may work in an election campaign, but it won’t keep anyone safer.

Law enforcement communication: News reports indicate the Florida suspect’s social media posts concerning his violent plans had been noticed and shared with federal authorities. But the FBI apparently didn’t take action to investigate, nor share such information with local law enforcement. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is ordering a review of the Justice Department’s processes and why the FBI failed to act.

In addition, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office received more than 20 calls about him in recent years and Florida’s Department of Children and Families investigated his disturbing social media posts. Yet in all cases, no one connected the dots to find a potential mass shooter lurking in the community.

Such communication and cooperation between federal and state authorities was a priority after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and reportedly helped thwart some incidents. That effort should continue to be a focus to weed out domestic as well as foreign threats. 

Boost school security: The presence of armed school resource officers to protect students is piecemeal and limited. Nationwide, the specific number of SROs is unknown as they are employed by local jurisdictions, but the National Association of School Resource Officers estimates between 14,000 and 20,000 work in the nation’s 98,000 public schools. That’s about one officer for every five schools.

Hall County and Gainesville are proactive in school safety, with the county employing 13 officers assigned to each middle and high school, and the city system five. Hall’s security efforts include surveillance cameras, training and equipment, a commitment that earned the county a Safe School Leadership Award from the national association.

Georgia has more than 600 SROs assigned to cover the state’s 2,267 public schools. The state provides training for such officers, but only a few dozen of state districts employ them.

What if we changed that? Congress and the White House could launch a “man on the moon” initiative vowing to place an armed, trained law enforcement officer in every public school in the U.S. within a reasonable time frame. Such a plan could earn bipartisan support and have a tangible effect on school safety.

This wouldn’t come cheaply, of course. Local jurisdictions now provide for SROs, but can’t always afford one at each school, particularly in districts strapped for resources. If Congress provided grants for every U.S. school, the tab would be considerable, but worth the effort to protect lives. 

A starting point of, say, $50,000 to each school in the U.S. would come to about $5 billion, roughly the cost of Amazon’s planned new headquarters or four new football stadiums. Even at twice that, it would barely dent the federal budget.

Finding enough qualified officers would be a challenge, particularly with local forces struggling to fill open positions. In some cases, SRO posts could be filled by retired law officers or military personnel whose training and experience would be useful.

Having an armed, trained officer in every school could serve as a deterrent for some tempted to take violent measures. It’s also preferable to the notion of arming faculty or administrative employees who aren’t trained to deal with dangerous situations. 

Perhaps no single approach can solve this problem, surely not passing yet another firearms law that isn’t well enforced. Taking wise, responsible steps to limit such deadly incidents should be the nation’s goal beyond just “doing something” to create a false sense of security. A reasonable debate should begin there and include all voices and sides in order to reach a common goal.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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