It was American author Frank Herbert who once wrote, “Reason is the first victim of strong emotion.”
In the aftermath of the massacre in Parkland, Florida, the survivors and those traumatized by the killings, directly or indirectly, could not be expected to objectively and rationally debate the issue of guns in America. Yet it was they who comprised the audience of what was billed as a town hall meeting, an open debate on the gun issue. It was, in fact, a CNN-sponsored anti-gun rally.
On center stage was anti-gun activist, Scott Israel, Sheriff of Broward County, along with Dana Loesch, representing the NRA.
Israel seemed to delight in the wild applause he received from the audience when he chastised Loesch and the NRA, “You’re not standing up for them (the survivors) until you say you want less weapons.”
But while Sheriff Israel seems passionate about taking guns off the street, there may another reason for his attack on the NRA.
When Loesch responded to his criticism by pointing out that this shooter had a long history of bizarre and threatening behavior, a history that prompted 39 visits to his home by Deputies of the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO), Israel didn’t wait for the obvious follow-up question. Having previously insinuated that the NRA somehow contributed to the shooting, he began his own defense by stating emphatically that only one person, the “detestable” killer, was responsible for the tragedy. He went on to dispute the number of visits by the BSO and launched into a tirade about the need to reinforce our schools, expand the Baker Act, and tighten gun controls.
It seemed clear that he wanted to deflect from one simple fact. The mechanisms that might have prevented this carnage had already been in place.
The Baker Act, to which Israel referred, has existed since 1971. It authorizes Florida law enforcement officers to involuntarily commit for a 72-hour psychological evaluation any subject they determine to be mentally ill and dangerous to themselves or others. While libertarians may disagree with that concept, most states have similar laws, giving police wide latitude to temporarily take potentially violent people off the streets, even if they haven’t been charged with a crime.
According to news reports, the BSO first became aware of this killer when, at 10 years of age, he was involved in an altercation with another boy. Over the years, the incidents escalated, and the rage within him became more apparent. There were violent outbursts and assaults over minor issues. Numerous callers to the BSO expressed concern over his collection of guns and his erratic behavior. Some even predicted the tragic outcome. Late in 2016, deputies and social workers responded to his school, where it was reported that he had been cutting himself, and had attempted suicide by drinking gasoline a week earlier.
Despite all of that, deputies took no action, apparently based on the advice of school counselors and clinicians at Henderson Behavioral Health, a facility providing housing and hope for persons of all ages with “behavioral health conditions.” The mental health professionals decided it would have been premature to invoke the Baker Act.
It’s easy to understand how police officers might want to defer to the clinical professionals. The decision to deprive anyone of his freedom, even for 72 hours, is never taken lightly. And hindsight is always 20/20. But, in this case, those deputies had more than enough evidence to conclude that this individual was mentally ill, and that he posed a danger to himself and others. His increasingly bizarre and violent behavior demanded a psychiatric exam, and they had the authority and the responsibility to act.
As it turns out, there was another reason why Sheriff Israel was eager to turn attention away from the BSO. We later learned that the armed deputy assigned to protect the students at the Parkland school remained outside the building while they were being slaughtered. So did three other BSO deputies, who arrived at the scene shortly after the carnage began.
We can’t know if this incident could have been prevented. But if the BSO had used the tools already available before and during the incident, how many lives might have been saved?
We do need healthy, rational debate on this complex problem, this epidemic of school shootings. It needs to address school security, mental illness, our culture of violence and atmosphere of hate, and yes, accessibility of weapons by criminals and the mentally ill.
And when the system fails, we need accountability. Diversions, finger-pointing, and histrionic attacks on the NRA do nothing to solve the problem.