GREG HARTON: Making it count

New laws create opportunities for violence intervention

The biggest legislative challenge in the wake of a mass shooting is adopting laws that will actually have an impact on such tragedies.

Shootings like the one at Parkland, Fla., rightly stoke the debate over what government can do to stem mass gun violence. Some advocacy groups count any incident in which four or more people are shot as a mass shooting, but it's the ones at schools, concerts, malls and other places where 15, 20 or 25 people are shot that come to most people's minds when the term "mass shootings" is used.

True mass public shootings constitute a fraction of the nation's gun deaths and injuries. If we stopped every Parkland, Aurora, Sandy Hook and other large-scale shootings, the United States would still qualify as having a massive volume of gun-involved violence.

The school district in Fayetteville has appointed a task force of law enforcement, judicial officials, school district employees and experts in school security. Bentonville is weighing additional officers at schools and intensifying the use of identification badges at the high school. All schools, I suspect, are pondering what they can do.

Florida lawmakers last week sent what was touted as a school safety measure to the state's governor. It was an impressive legislative act in a nation full of legislative bodies in which inaction is the norm on gun issues.

The measure, supported and opposed by people from both major parties, included the following:

• A rise in the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21.

• A minimum three-day waiting period between a gun purchase and delivery to the customer. It could be longer if a background check is not completed in that time. Exceptions cover police officers, members of the military, licensed hunters and people with concealed carry permits.

• A ban on bump stocks, the devices the Las Vegas concert shooter used to convert his semi-automatic rifles into weapons capable of firing much faster than designed. Even the NRA has said it supports a ban on these devices nationally, but Congress still hasn't mustered even that.

• An allowance for superintendents and sheriffs to arm school personnel as part of a "marshal" program. The program would allow training of volunteer counselors, coaches, librarians and others, but not full-time classroom teachers, in the skills deemed necessary to provide more school security.

• Allocation of millions of dollars to make school buildings more secure and to hire more school-based police officers.

• Expansion of mental health services in schools.

• Authority for police to temporarily confiscate guns from anyone subject to involuntary psychiatric evaluation and prohibition of gun sales to people who were committed to a mental institution or deemed mentally incompetent by a judge.

The age requirement would have stopped the Parkland shooter from purchasing his gun.

As a gun owner, I don't mind waiting three days if I ever decided to buy another one, but how many of these mass shooters would have been affected by that? A frequent profile of a mass public shooter shows someone who meticulously plans the event for weeks or months, so I doubt it will have an impact. Where it could have a big impact is in reducing the number of gun suicides or smaller-scale gun violence in which a cooling-off period creates an opportunity for calmer, more rational thinking.

Ban on bump stocks? Of course.

Arming staffers in the schools? Well, at least they're not getting classroom teachers involved. I've heard calls for years that teachers should be freed from other expectations -- regulations, testing, etc. -- so they can concentrate on teaching. I can think of no better rationale for them to remain unarmed. Having a firearm on one's body necessitates some level of concentration/distraction. The better option for school security is spending the money on law enforcement officers devoted to school security. But let's also guard against involving these law officers in student behaviors that normally would be otherwise handled through school discipline and counseling.

Yes, more money for trained security and mental health services seems a no-brainer.

It also seems reasonable to introduce procedures that include due process for protecting Americans' constitutional rights but also create mechanisms for temporarily removing firearms from demonstrably dangerous circumstances. But that system needs to be serious about protecting a person's right to self-defense. For example, one divorced parent who is uncomfortable with guns shouldn't be able to easily thwart the other parent's gun ownership through such a system.

Frankly, Florida's new gun laws offer no guarantee against another mass shooting. But they do create opportunities to intercept individuals who want to do harm. It's a serious question whether anyone will take advantage of those opportunities. Remember, the FBI had been warned about the Parkland shooter in advance and plenty of people had a sense he was dangerous, but nothing came of it.

Mass shootings always prompt exasperated cries to do "something." Florida just did. The most heartbreaking outcome of any new law, however, will be if nobody acts on the intervention opportunities the new law creates and more people die.

Commentary on 03/12/2018

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