*This piece was originally printed in the Feb. 20, 2018 edition of The Michigan Journal.
Seventeen. That’s how many people were senselessly slaughtered in the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida by an AR-15 assault rifle on a Valentine’s Day that doubled as Ash Wednesday. 17 people who were unaware that when they rose from bed that morning it would be their last awakening. 17 people who didn’t know they were walking out their front door for the last time, hopping in their car, walking down the street, and entering the front doors of a place that is supposed to be one of the safest spaces in America. But, unbeknownst to them, they would not leave breathing. 17 people who were in their everyday routine. Students, teachers, friends, sons, daughters, and fathers simply living their life in ambition. 17 people who could have made a vital impact on Earth but will never get that chance.
“If there’s anything that needs to be said right now,” said a Stoneman Douglas student on CBS Evening News, “it’s that when you shut this TV off you have to go home and tell every single person you know you love them because you never know when your last time is going to be.” The sobering reality of America is that citizens, always and in all places, must worry about being a victim of the latest mass shooting. Until action is taken towards further gun safety regulations to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerously unstable people or an effort is made to stringently restrict assault rifles within society, it is a waiting and guessing game as to when and where the next shooting will happen. It could be at a high school on Valentine’s Day, a casual Friday morning at an elementary school, during a night out dancing with friends, or at church on a beautiful Sunday morning with the family. It has been proven that nowhere and no time is off-limits for these atrocities.
In the state of Florida, the 19-year-old gunman who is being charged with 17 counts of murder was legally allowed to purchase the AR-15 but was not legally allowed to purchase a handgun. He lawfully bought the gun in Feb. 2017, authorities said in a press conference on Thursday Feb. 15, from Sunrise Tactical Supply in Coral Springs, Florida. Federal law allows people over 18 to legally purchase long guns, including AR-15’s, according to USA Today, but must be 21 to buy handguns which are more easily concealed. With no criminal record and never adjudicated mentally defective or been committed to a mental institution, the gunman cleared an instant FBI criminal database background check to buy the weapon.
In nearly every instance, there is a pattern of questionable and suspect behavior before the gunman follows through with premeditated plans. The gunman posed with guns and knives on his personal Instagram page and wrote, “Man I can do so much better,” on an Instagram post after a shooting in New York in summer 2017. Documents obtained by CNN revealed that law enforcement officials were called to the gunman’s house on 39 occasions over a seven-year period when he was younger. Another video filmed by the gunman’s neighbor surfaced on social media showing the gunman dressed in his boxer shorts shooting a low-powered firearm at cans and bottles in Oct. 2017.
Past his social media pages, the lone terrorist was expelled from Stoneman Douglas for disciplinary reasons in December, according to Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, and was not allowed on the school campus with a backpack on him, according to Stoneman Douglas math teacher Jim Gard. Last September, the Miami division of the FBI received a tip about a YouTube comment on a video that said, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” according to FBI special agent in charge of the division Rob Lasky. FBI couldn’t track down who made the statement, he said, although the comment had the exact spelling of the gunman’s first and last name.
The FBI also released a statement on Feb. 16 stating, “On January 5, 2018, a person close to [the gunman] contacted the FBI’s Public Access Line (PAL) tipline to report concerns about him. The caller provided information about [his] gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.” The FBI has admitted to mishandling protocols. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of FBI over the admitted failure to act on the shooter, according to VICE News. Florida Gov. Rick Scott also called for FBI Director Chris Wray to resign in the aftermath. However, that does not address the issue of how the gunman was able to legally obtain a firearm in Feb. 2017.
So, remains the age-old question at the heart of the gun debate: Is it the gun, or is it the shooter? It is the reason bipartisan legislation on gun safety has evaded America in modern history. Many legislators believe the guns are the problem while an equal amount believe it is the shooter, so nothing is ever agreed upon. But why can’t it be both? It is unquestionable that the warning signs for the gunman were there this time around. They are quite undeniable in depicting him as a mentally disturbed individual but was still able to legally purchase and acquire an AR-15 assault rifle. However, if AR-15’s were not available to purchase in the first place, if the gunman was only able to obtain handguns, more people might be alive today.
But it is difficult to say that guns should be taken out of the hands of those who can legally obtain them and have no prior past issues that should disqualify them. The right to bear arms is the Second Amendment of the Constitution because that’s how important it was to the Founding Fathers and remains as the most vital in the minds of many in America. The original thought was keeping power out of the hands of government and within the citizenry and countless people will never give that control back. Although, the firepower and capacity of modern guns has changed the way many think about the Second Amendment.
President Donald J. Trump and the majority Republican House and Senate have already made it explicitly clear what side of the aisle they are on. “Mental health is your problem here,” Trump said in Nov. 2017 after the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooting that killed 26. “This isn’t a ‘guns’ situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level.” Trump tweeted the morning after the most recent killings, “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from the school for bad and erratic behavior…”
So, right now, it appears that the only potential course of action for agreeable bipartisan gun safety laws would be instituting much stricter background check procedures for the purchase of assault rifles or guns more generally. A more strict, thorough, and complete background check, including looking into the person’s social media accounts, criminal history, and past regarding mental health, would have turned up alarming issues with the Stoneman Douglas gunman. Adding a third-party signatory or references for the purchase of assault rifles further than the buyer-seller agreement might also be a productive step. It’s clear that the FBI database background check is not enough to determine if a person is mentally fit to purchase a firearm.
Two days before the school shooting, according to Politico, the federal administration proposed a $25 million cut in federal education programs meant to help prevent crime in schools and assist in recovery from tragedies. School safety money would be slashed under the newly proposed budget and should obviously be rethought to give schools more resources, not less. It would also be beneficial for government to allow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study gun violence as a public health issue, which it is barred from under current policy.
Congress and public safety and defense institutions must act towards a potential solution. “I feel today like our government, our country, has failed us and failed our kids to keep us safe,” said Stoneman Douglas teacher Melissa Falkowski on CNN.
In the last year, America has witnessed the deadliest mass shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest church shooting in Texas, and now the deadliest high school shooting in history. Regulations must be made to try to prevent mass shootings from happening instead of just punishing and convicting the shooters. After another hard-hitting reminder that a single man, with a single gun, could end so many lives, steps must be finally taken towards prevention.
The definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing while simultaneously expecting different results. The results will not change if the inputs are not altered. Action on gun safety must be taken, because the right to survive a day at school, or church, or the club, or a concert should outweigh the right to own an assault rifle. Mental illness doesn’t kill 17 students in the blink of an eye, guns do.