Over a year ago, former Broward County Sheriff Deputy Scott Peterson stood outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, warning officers not to approach as a deadly shooting was underway. Peterson was the only armed deputy present at the time of the massacre, which would claim the lives of 17 and injure 17 more. This week, in what legal analysts are calling a “novel approach,” Peterson has been charged under a statute that applies to caregivers with seven counts of child neglect, three counts of negligence, and one count of perjury. He now faces up to 97 years in jail. Peterson’s crime, in the eyes of many Americans, is being a coward with a gun.
Former NYPD police detective John Baeze told BBC that Peterson had “not only a moral duty, but a departmental duty to act,” adding, “Even an armed civilian who just happened to be in the area would have felt obligated to intervene. This man was in uniform, with a firearm, on duty, at the school for the very purpose of protecting the children. And he did not go in.”
After a severely traumatic experience like a school shooting, relatives and friends of victims seek responsibility and remorse from their elected officials. Ryan Petty, whose daughter, Alaina, was killed, told the New York Times, “I think [Peterson being charged] is a good step forward in our search for accountability.”
It is entirely possible that Peterson failed at his various duties through his inaction. In fact, he essentially admitted that he did not do what he was trained to when he resigned from his post shortly after the attack. However, a moral failing does not necessarily a crime make. Charging at an automatic rifle with a pistol is likely deadly and should not be a requirement for any job, and failing to do so should certainly not be a crime carrying 97 years in prison. One can speculate on what would have happened had Peterson decided to take on a hero’s role, yet it is impossible to know if he could have helped anything. Ultimately, this is an attempt to criminalize a potentially shameful, yet natural instinct for self-preservation.
This charge against Peterson comes just one month after Florida signed the controversial Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act into law. The provisions included in this bill extended Florida’s “guardian” program, which had allowed some trained school officials to carry concealed weapons on campus, enabling teachers to carry firearms in the classroom after safety training.
Of the bill, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said, “We did a lot for public safety […] The Marjory Stoneman Douglas bill people had disagreements on [some], but ultimately […] I think we’re going to be safer.”
Yet many doubt these purported positive effects on public safety. For instance, students of color and Democratic legislators in Florida raised reasonable concerns prior to the laws being passed, about the implications of an increased police presence on school grounds. These students cited statistics on the disproportionate rates of school discipline against black and Latino students as well as several high-profile cases of violence by police officers when disciplining students of color.
Still, during a February listening session, President Trump wholeheartedly endorsed Florida’s bill. “If you had a teacher who was adept with the firearm, they could end the attack very quickly,” he said. In a following tweet, Trump called armed educators and staffers “very smart people” and a “big [and] very inexpensive deterrent” to school shootings.
The explanations given by Trump and DeSantis echo the criticisms of Peterson: all it takes to stop the bad guy with a gun is a hero with a gun. This approach is fairly prevalent across the country: at least 30 states and D.C. allow security officers to carry weapons in schools. Supporters of these laws likely have their hearts in the right place and genuinely believe all teachers and school staffers will always do the right thing with lethal weapons. Unfortunately, this is an idealistic view of the world: while certainly not the norm, instances of child pornography, physical and sexual assault, and racism by educators occur constantly nationwide.
Many United States legislators would rather rely on potential heroism (not to mention perfect aim) from their teachers, security guards, and even civilians than enact stricter gun policies that may force people to give up their recreational firearms. In essence, they believe that the “freedom to” own a gun trumps the “freedom from” gun violence that would almost certainly come with increased state or federal gun restrictions, the likes of which exist in nearly every other industrialized country.
Evidence is rich that stronger gun restrictions decrease death from gun violence. While deaths from public mass shootings are extremely rare (roughly 1 in 614,000,000 students, according to one analysis), they have raised public consciousness about deaths from firearms–which, in 2018, reached the highest number since at least 1968 at around 40,000. addition, according to a 2017 BBC survey, about 40% of Americans say they own a gun or live in a household with one, and the rate of murder or manslaughter by firearm is the highest in the developed world: over 11,000 deaths in 2016. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US also boasts the highest number of firearms per person: 120.5 firearms per 100 people.
Both the desire for individualism and the love of guns run deep throughout United States history, and changing this is no easy task. Since the Founding Fathers’ original declaration of the right to bear arms, the rising popularity of shooting sports in rural areas, lobbying from the National Rifle Association (NRA), and desire for self-defense have deeply ingrained guns into the fabric of American culture. Firearms represent ideals of personal liberty and freedom, which are enough for many to dismiss the evidence of the impact of federal gun reform.
Rather than vilify Peterson, we can use him as an example of why giving people in charge new guns will not necessarily stop existing gun violence. Although it is undoubtedly a tough pill to swallow for a nation with more guns than people, instead of relying on imaginary heroes leaping in front of bullets, the real solution to decreasing firearm injury and death is through the much more mundane enactment of gun restriction that anti-gun-violence activists have been championing for decades.
Edited by Sophia Kamps
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Feature image by Tim Mudd via Unsplash