By Lynne Lechter
Over and over, we have witnessed the horror and the heart-searing tragedies from senseless school massacres. We celebrate heroic acts, mourn the loss of lives brutally ended, hold candlelit vigils and painful funerals, ache for the victims’ families, denounce the perpetrators and worship the survivors.
But there is one thing we haven’t done: We haven’t stopped the murders.
Why? Because heretofore, our solutions have been worthless.
“If you see something, say something,” exhort the officials — in airports, in communities, in schools. So, how is that working out for us? It isn’t.
In our early childhood homes, our parents chide us not to tell on siblings, but to work things out. In schools, peer ostracization is the reward for telling on a classmate. In the “hood” and in gangs, death tolls the end of the life of a “snitch.”
Yet some brave souls, ignoring the specters of looking like an idiot, physical retaliation or peer scorn, do report unusual behavior or happenstance. Sadly, their acts of bravery are not rewarded. Typically, even when the reports are investigated, nothing seems to happen.
The FBI’s mission statement charges the agency “to protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats, to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and to provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners.” And yet, countless times after an ISIS-induced terror attack, be it “lone wolf” or otherwise, or a homegrown mass public murderer, we learn that the FBI knew of the suspect.
Why didn’t the nation’s law enforcement community do something? In the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., shootings, the FBI admitted that it had not followed up on two credible tips prior to the carnage. Horrifically, in this case it was not only the FBI who failed. The local police are also under fire for not only ignoring 39 trips to the killer’s home for assorted disturbance-related incidents, but for incomprehensibly cowering outside in the shadows of the school buildings while the massacre was taking place inside.
This is a special case in which the red flags were waving in neon, and the societal structures with those paid to provide mental health interventions and prevent murderers from killing us totally failed.
In all the other cases where the perpetrator was known but not stopped, it is debatable that the outcomes would have differed. Unless and until we change a series of extant laws, the status quo remains — and many more people will die.
Myriad laws are impediments. Two bodies of laws are pertinent: those governing criminal behavior and those covering mental health hamper law enforcement’s a priori action. In both arenas, the right of the individual is weighed against the rights of the public. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, based on the concern that suspected criminals’ rights were being trampled, coalesced to make apprehension more difficult.
An individual cannot be apprehended merely because of the suspicion of his making a generalized threat. For law enforcement to make an arrest, the individual must commit an overt action deemed “imminent” to the implementation of a crime — such as a person stating, “Today, I am going to shoot up Parkland school,” then loading a car with multiple weapons and driving off towars Parkland school. Thus, the arrest would be made to thwart imminent criminal conduct. Aside from bureaucratic foul-up, is it feasible to believe that in a country of more than 300 million people, law enforcement will be able to monitor each act of imminent danger? Probably not.
Surrounding the Parkland killings, debate has focused on mental illness. Obviously, the murderer was a troubled soul who cried out for help but did not receive it. Yet not all troubled souls commit mass murder. This a very important distinction. As with our criminal laws, our mental health laws have evolved tremendously and do not inure to society’s benefit.
Initially, most mental institutional commitments were implemented involuntarily. There were no guidelines, and abuse of the individual being committed was commonplace. Many were institutionalized for pecuniary motives. By the mid-1950s and ’60s, public perception of the cost and ethical issues surrounding involuntary mental institutionalizations changed. Factors such as the emergence of the civil rights movement and the creation of effective psychotropic drugs, combined with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid to cover costs for mental health care, greatly reduced the incidence of involuntary institutionalizations.
Generally, the balancing act provides greater weight to the rights of the individual than society. The unintended consequences of this shift have led to closings of mental health institutions and homelessness. Unless Americans are willing to witness mass involuntary mental institutionalizations, and drastic changes in current law, a focus on mental health issues will not solve the issue of mass murders. After every mass killing, we learn of the special pathetic circumstances that drove the perpetrator. Empathy and sympathy are natural human reactions, but they should not come at the expense of the innocent victims.
The gun control debate for immediate prevention is a canard. It is unrealistic to believe the Second Amendment will be greatly diluted or overturned. Greater coordination among agencies and the closing of background check loopholes would be prudent, as would enforcing the gun control laws that already exist.
When elected officials unilaterally decide which laws they will enforce, they signal an arrogant disdain for the rule of law in general, and this disdain filters down into our cities and towns. Moreover, it is estimated that there are more than 300 million guns in the United States. It is not credible to believe that they could all be confiscated. Even if they were, the illegal gun trade would proliferate to provide guns to evildoers, just as the worthless “war on drugs” has not stopped the uber-profitable illegal drug trade. (As an aside, it is extremely off-putting and disingenuous to be lectured by politicians, industrial titans and entertainers who advocate for “gun control” while surrounded by a phalanx of armed guards.)
The only immediate salvation to preventing more tragedy in our schools is to stop living in the rearview mirror of history. We are no longer schooling our children in the one-room schoolhouse of our ancestors. Which is mentally healthier, students cowering under desks and in closets, fearing for their lives, while some heroic kids and staff die saving others? Or armed personnel and locked-down schools with metal detectors that prevent murder from occurring?
The argument of not wanting to turn schools into prisons is specious. Kids are on mobile computer devices as toddlers. They see violence in video games, in movies and on televisions. Global news and horrors are a click away 24/7. Clearly, they will feel safer with safeguards in place instead of being perpetually imprisoned as they are right now, “sitting ducks” in erudite “no gun zones.”
As a practicing attorney in Philadelphia and the suburbs, I cannot enter a courthouse and many high-rise downtown office buildings — let alone an airport or a sporting event — without a metal detector search. Are our kids less valuable than Center City businessmen, attorneys and travelers? The only rational line of defense is to install metal detectors and armed staff or vetted outside contractors on each floor of a school.
First responders typically arrive quickly in response to a 911 call, and do their jobs stupendously and heroically. But in the precious minutes between summons and arrival, beautiful lives are lost, and survivors are marred immeasurably. Unless and until other societal changes are made, hardening our schools is the only logical solution.
Lynne Lechter is a practicing attorney in Philadelphia, a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a party-endorsed candidate for the Republican State Committee.