As was the case with the mass shooting in Las Vegas, where scores of people were shot at a music festival, I always hesitate and hold back doing a write up on these news events immediately after they happen, because in the following days, facts and details emerge from the smoke of all the rumors and false assumptions.
With the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, in Parkland, Florida – as is true with so many other tragic events of this sort, it becomes apparent that there are layers of complexity, not only with what led up to the murderous rampage, but additionally, what structural deficits existed that may have contributed to the outcome. Let’s set up what we know now as of February 16 – two days after the shooting rampage and then delve into what it means in the broader context of gun violence.
Top level, 17 people died at the hands of Nikolas Jacob Cruz, age 19, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. 14 of the dead were students and three were school employees. As of this writing, 15 others sustained injuries ranging in severity, at least three critical.
The shooting occurred at 2:21 EST, just a few minutes after Cruz was dropped off in front of the school by an Uber driver. When Cruz entered the campus, he had with him a backpack and what authorities described as a long black bag. Cruz donned a gas mask, set off the school’s fire alarm and detonated smoke grenades. Cruz commenced shooting at anyone within his field of vision, not targeting any individuals.
After wounding and killing 32 persons, Cruz migrated off the campus in a crowd of fleeing students. Leaving the campus, Cruz spent roughly an hour at a nearby Walmart and McDonalds and was taken into custody at 3:40 PM.
It is no longer necessary to refer to Nikolas Cruz as the “alleged perpetrator” or a suspect, because school video security cameras showed that the shooting suspect was Cruz and Cruz has confessed the killings to law enforcement. When arrested, Cruz was wearing what was described as a maroon colored T-shirt with the logo of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.
With that, let’s dig in a little into the background of this individual. It has now been reported that Cruz had a history of terrorist threats. He had been expelled from the school and teachers at Stoneman Douglas had received an email from administration that Cruz was a security threat.
Among many interesting aspects of Cruz background, was that while attending Stoneman Douglas, he was enrolled in a marksmanship program as part of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, sponsored by the National Rifle Association foundation. Aaron Diemer, a fellow participant in the program, told the Associated Press that, “He was a very good shot. He had an AR-15 he talked about, and pistols.”
The NRA has recently had a spate of bad publicity, including an FBI investigation into whether the Russian government may have funneled money through the organization into the Trump campaign in 2016. In this case, however, despite how it might be portrayed by critics of the group accusing it of promoting “the gun culture”, it does not appear that the NRA’s support of JROTC programs can be reasonably connected to the problems of such as Nikolas Cruz and his actions. What is more significant are Cruz’ documented mental health issues.
Cruz, was, together with his brother Zachary, adopted by Lynda Cruz and Roger Cruz of Parkland as an infant. Roger died in 2004 and Cruz’ mother died from cancer related issues last November. While his mother was alive, some reporting indicates, she did call police to the house on a number of occasions to attempt to restore order, when Cruz was acting out his mental issues, describing her intentions as hoping the police could “talk some sense into him.”
Paul Gold, a next door neighbor to the Cruz family in 2009, said of Cruz, “He had emotional problems and I believe he was diagnosed with autism. He had trouble controlling his temper. He broke things. He would do that sometimes at our house when he lost his temper. But he was always very apologetic afterwards.” Gold also told reporters that Cruz was assigned to a school for special needs students. “Kids were really picking on him and would gang up on him and beat him up a little,” Mr. Gold said. “They ostracized him. He didn’t have many friends.”
It has also been reported that Cruz had been, up until his mother’s death, attended psychiatric counseling frequently. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, summed up what his agency has reviewed of Cruz’ social media postings as “very, very disturbing.” They contained numerous pictures and posts of him with a variety of weapons, including long knives, a shotgun, a pistol, and a BB gun.
Cruz’ YouTube video postings included terrorist threats, among them, “I wanna die Fighting killing shit ton of people” – and a comment on another user’s YouTube video on September 24, 2017, stating “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”
Cruz was said by acquaintances to have frequently joked about gun violence and “shooting up establishments.” Another student currently attending Stoneman Douglas, said that “I think everyone had in their minds if anybody was going to do it, it was going to be him.”
At this point, we need to examine some complicated factors in our search for ways to prevent, whenever possible, the circumstances that lead up to school shootings. In no particular order, let’s consider some of them:
Although Cruz had no public record of arrests or convictions, it is the responsibility of local and state authorities to ensure that data regarding any adverse information about the condition of the mental health of someone seeking to purchase a firearm is input and maintained in the national background check database.
A little more than a year ago, President Donald Trump signed a repeal of an Obama era regulation that would have informed the National Instant Criminal Background Check System of cross indexed information contained in the Social Security Administration’s system of people who have received federal mental health benefits. It Is not yet clear if this would be a factor in Wednesday’s shooting, but it does make Donald Trump’s presidential consolations to the survivors ring a little hollow.
The FBI received a tip from an anonymous person on January 5th of this year, that Cruz might have plans for a violent event. The FBI admits that it dropped the ball on the information they received. An FBI spokesperson stated that, “If the protocol had been followed in this instance, the information provided in the tip should have been assessed as a threat to life by the call operator and then packaged in a report and routed to Miami for FBI handling there. They also should have reported the call to their supervisor.”
As we have seen, there were a number of people who saw Cruz exhibit signs of impending violence and all but one, failed to recognize their personal responsibility to report them.
In addition to the comments that should have been identified by the federal authorities as felony terrorist threats, Cruz bragged about committing animal abuse. Cruz is said to have spoken about shooting small animals, including lizards, squirrels, frogs, and a neighbor’s chickens, as though it were an accomplishment and reportedly sent his dog to a neighbor’s house to attack the pigs there. The FBI has identified cruelty to animals as a warning sign of more violence to come, and many school shooters and serial killers have a history of abusing animals.
Beyond this, it is being observed that Florida’s system of campus security in public schools is seriously lacking essential safeguards. On the Stoneman Douglas campus, school staff were being assigned the task of monitoring school security on an ad hoc basis and there was no provision for making certain that individuals entering school grounds are authorized to do so.
Driving by a school in my local community in California, I noticed that there was only one central point of access and that point was secured by a locked gate during school hours and the high school also has trained and certified security professionals monitoring admission to the campus and activity on school grounds.
This school shooting problem is multi-faceted and is going to require a lot of stakeholders, parents, school board members, county and state officials, law enforcement and legislators to cooperate in crafting greater degrees of safeguards to mitigate the risk of mass shootings in schools.
We should also touch upon the outcry for tighter gun control measures. Some are calling for bans on AR-15 and semi-automatic rifles. It is likely there are unintended consequences in going in that direction. Our national experience in such as the so-called “War On Drugs” and Prohibition, demonstrate that pushing things and substances onto the black market, tends to have the effect of expanding the footprint of violent crime, when responsible, law abiding people cannot obtain them in the legal marketplace.
There are ways of tightening up the system to limit the ability of troubled people to obtain lethal weapons and seeing to it that people who need mental health services, receive them. That is an avenue that both sides of the gun violence issue should be able to find common agreement on.