Politics & Policy

Excusing Cowardice Is Not the Path to Gun Control

Parents and students attend a demonstration calling for more gun control in Coral Springs, Florida, February 18, 2018. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
We should state this moral truth while remaining humble, aware that we don’t know how we would have responded in a crisis.

In the entire horrible history of modern mass shootings, have government failures ever been so comprehensive and so heartbreaking as those that led up to school massacre in Parkland, Fla.? The FBI received a precise tip and failed to act. Local law enforcement was called to the shooter’s home dozens of times. Local law enforcement received a precise tip and failed to act. Many mass shooters wave red flags. The Parkland shooter did everything but call police and tell them the date and time of his attack. It would have been difficult for him to make his intentions more clear.

Then, yesterday, the story got even more heartbreaking. When the news of the attack first broke, millions of Americans wondered if there was security on campus, and if so, what security did as the attack unfolded. Well, it turns out that there was a law-enforcement officer on campus. He “responded” to the shooting, and did nothing. At the critical moment, he stayed outside. The Miami Herald has the details:

[Scot] Peterson — named school resource officer of the year for Parkland in 2014 — was in another building, dealing with a student issue when the shots sounded. Armed with his sidearm, Peterson ran to the west side of Building 12 and set up in a defensive position, then did nothing for four minutes until the gunfire stopped, the sheriff said.

Broward County sheriff Scott Israel said that he was “sick to his stomach” about Peterson’s failure. Asked what Peterson should have done, Israel replied: “Went in. Addressed the killer. Killed the killer.”

An armed and trained officer hovered outside. Waiting. While children died. There is no excuse.

But don’t tell that to Twitter. For some folks there is one narrative — and one narrative alone — that should dominate public discourse: Ban assault weapons. So the unjustifiable had to be justified. It was a suicide mission, they said. How could a cop with a handgun take on a killer with an AR-15? This proves that a good guy with a gun can’t stop a bad guy with an “assault rifle.” Besides, who are you to judge? If you’ve never been in combat, you don’t know what that fear is like.

Let’s be very clear. Every single person who puts on a uniform and pledges to protect their community — either in combat overseas or under fire at home — is indicating by their choice that they are willing (not wanting, willing) to lay down their lives. That is their job. When the crisis hits, that is their purpose. It’s what we expect of soldiers in environments that are far more intense. It’s what we expect of cops when the shots ring out. If you have doubts about your ability to do that job, don’t put on the uniform.

Even so, there are some people in uniform who will fail that test. Infantry soldiers wilt under fire, even when their brothers’ lives hang in the balance. One cop will hang back when another charges forward. When every molecule in your body is screaming for you to live, to protect yourself, it takes immense strength to expose yourself to mortal danger. Simply put, until you’ve felt true fear, you don’t really know how you’d react.

Cultivating courage is a complex and difficult task. Some armies are better at it than others. Some civilizations are better at it than others. And no sane army or civilization relies merely on the inherent goodness or virtue of their warriors to maintain resolve. Courage comes through inspiration — we aspire to do great things — but it can also come through fear. There are soldiers or cops who ultimately fear shame more than death. They fear condemnation. Some fear punishment.

That’s why armies throughout history have celebrated valor and punished cowardice. There is a carrot and a stick. Great sacrifice brings great honor. Abject cowardice brings severe sanction. Failure carries with it a deep sense of shame. Adjust that balance — remove the shame of failure — and you risk draining courage from your culture.

Failure carries with it a deep sense of shame. Adjust that balance — remove the shame of failure — and you risk draining courage from your culture.

We can and should state this moral truth while remaining deeply humble and self-aware. There is a world of difference between stating, “That cop should have intervened” and puffing out your chest and declaring, “I would have done better.” You can imagine the kind of person you want to be, and you can dream of being a hero, but many imaginary warriors have turned tail at the sound of the guns. Simply put, you don’t truly know how you’ll respond to a crisis until you’ve been in a crisis.

In other words, we can understand his failure even if we cannot justify that failure. To fail to understand is to fail to grapple with fallen humanity. To justify it is to surrender to that fallen nature and normalize cowardice.

Failure is not inevitable. Courage is possible. Killers with assault rifles? Cops have taken them on before. Just ask the Capitol Police who engaged the man who tried to massacre congressional Republicans in Alexandria, Va. An AR-15 does not render a man bulletproof. There were unarmed students and teachers inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who exhibited greater courage than did the armed officer who had promised to protect them.

The gun-control debate is growing truly twisted if it becomes necessary to excuse cowardice to advance public policy. It is entirely acceptable for law-abiding gun-owning Americans to demand that the government do its job before considering sweeping new restrictions that will primarily impact people who’ve done nothing wrong. Part of law enforcement’s job is to follow up on specific tips and warnings. Part of its job is to ask specific men and women in uniform to lay down their lives to protect the public.

Yes, men may be cowards. No, none of us know how we would respond to a crisis until we face that ultimate test. But none of the events in Parkland have taught me to trust others to protect my family. And certainly none of the events in Parkland have built my trust in government. I may not be a hero when the chips are down, but if I have a weapon in that fateful moment, at least I have the chance.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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