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National Security & Defense

‘If You See Something, Say Something’ Only Works if Authorities Do Something

Students are evacuated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., February 14, 2018. (WSVN.com/via Reuters)

From the Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt:

‘If You See Something, Say Something’ Only Works if Authorities Do Something

An all-too-familiar, horrifying story:

He preened with guns and knives on social media, bragged about shooting rats with his BB gun and got kicked out of school — in part because he had brought bullets in his backpack, according to one classmate. He was later expelled for still-undisclosed disciplinary reasons.

The portrait of Nikolas Cruz, suspected of fatally shooting 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and wounding 15 others at his former school, is a troubled teen with few friends and an obsessive interest in weapons. Administrators considered him enough of a potential threat that one teacher said a warning was emailed last year against allowing him on the campus with a backpack.

“All he would talk about is guns, knives and hunting,” said Joshua Charo, 16, a former classmate at the high school. “I can’t say I was shocked. From past experiences, he seemed like the kind of kid who would do something like this.”

Late Wednesday, detectives were digging into the past of the 19-year-old who had no previous arrests but had displayed plenty of troubling behavior before officers took him into custody after what ranks as the third-deadliest school shooting in American history.

“Our investigators began dissecting social media,” Broward Sheriff Scott Israel told reporters. “Some of the things that come to mind are very, very disturbing.”

… Math teacher Jim Gard remembered that the school administration earlier sent out an email warning teachers about Cruz.

“We were told last year that he wasn’t allowed on campus with a backpack on him,” said Gard, who had him in class. “There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus.”

How many times will I have to write this? The mass shooters at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Isla Vista and Sandy Hook all had one thing in common: before the shootings, concerned and frightened people who had encountered the future shooter told various non-police authorities about what they had seen and heard – in some cases, campus police; in other cases, college and school administrators.

Teachers, school and university administrators, company HR departments – none of these establishments have the legal authority to seize a person’s firearms or commit them to a mental institution. Only the police and courts can do this.

The odds are pretty good that we will learn that the shooter in Florida had an interest in the Columbine school shooting. A stunning number of school shooters since Columbine indicated an obsessive interest in that shooting. Fascinating and disturbing research by Mother Jones found that the shooting inspired “at least 74 plots or attacks across 30 states” and “in at least 14 cases, the Columbine copycats aimed to attack on the anniversary of the original massacre. Individuals in 13 cases indicated that their goal was to outdo the Columbine body count. In at least 10 cases, the suspects and attackers referred to the pair.”

We will probably learn in the coming days how the shooter obtained his gun. A recent Washington Post study found that 168 guns used in mass shootings were obtained legally; 48 were obtained illegally.

If we must discuss gun control after an event like this, let us contemplate more consistent prosecution of straw buyers. Members of Congress have pressed the Department of Justice to make this a higher priority for years. U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones told a Congressional panel in 2013 that out of 48,321 cases involving straw buyers, the Justice Department prosecuted only 44 of them — saying that “hard decisions” to prosecute were made based on “limited resources.”

Even when the straw purchasers are prosecuted, the punishments are often much more lenient than the public might expect. Last year, Simone Mousheh purchased four weapons for $600 each and sold two to a man with Chicago gang ties. She was sentenced to 12 months probation,  15 days in the Cook County sheriff’s work alternative program and ordered to pay $679 in fines.

A lot of gun control advocates and progressives think they support this idea, until they realize who would get hit hardest by tougher prosecution. As my colleague Kevin Williamson wrote:

I visited Chicago a few years back to write about the city’s gang-driven murder problem, and a retired police official told me that the nature of the people making straw purchases — young relatives, girlfriends who may or may not have been facing the threat of physical violence, grandmothers, etc. — made prosecuting those cases unattractive. In most of those cases, the authorities emphatically should put the straw purchasers in prison for as long as possible. Throw a few gangsters’ grandmothers behind bars for 20 years and see if that gets anybody’s attention. In the case of the young women suborned into breaking the law, that should be just another charge to put on the main offender.

It is not difficult to imagine certain voices contending we need to “get tough on guns” and to be lenient with straw purchasers simultaneously, and failing to grasp the contradiction.

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