Daniel Oates calls it “a perverse fraternity,” the group of police chiefs and sheriffs from Aurora, Colorado, to Parkland, Florida, who have had to confront mass shooters, and who know the horror and confusion that follow when a gunman fires into a crowd.
As the country grapples with the latest school massacre, their uncommon experience gives them a rare perspective on the debate over armed teachers, background checks, concealed guns and whether military-style assault rifles should be available for civilians to purchase.
Three weeks after authorities say 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz shot 17 people to death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, four members of that fraternity shared their thoughts about how to prevent violence in the United States, where Americans are up to 25 times more likely to die by gunshot than people in other developed countries.
But while they faced the same heartbreak, they reflect the same divisions that have paralyzed Congress, where many Democrats have pushed for gun control and many Republicans have stressed mental health and other issues. The question now is whether Parkland will break the stalemate.
When James Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, where Oates was then police chief, Holmes was heavily armed. He had a version of an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, he wore body armor, a gas mask and helmet, and the Aurora police officer who found him outside standing by his car later testified he thought Holmes was a fellow officer because of his gear. A moviegoer with a handgun would have been no match in the 2012 bloodbath, Oates said.
“That’s part of the myth that’s put forward from the NRA after these events,” he said.
The National Rifle Association argues in blocking gun control that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” an assertion made by its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, immediately after the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Most research does not back the claim.
Oates, now the police chief in Miami Beach, Florida, would ban AR-15-style rifles, a popular weapon based on the military’s M-16 and the weapon of choice in recent massacres from Newtown to the holiday party in San Bernardino, California, the outdoor concert in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the tiny church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Arming teachers, as proposed by President Donald Trump and seconded by the NRA and other gun control opponents, would just add to the potential for tragedy, he said.
“The infinitely smarter answer is to prevent guns from getting in schools. That would be much easier and safer than training the teacher workforce in the United States to be armed,” Oates said. “I don’t think there’s any place in our society for assault weapons except in the hands of police officers.”
In Wilson County, Texas, which includes Sutherland Springs, Sheriff Joe D. Tackitt Jr. said he expected more teachers, churchgoers and others to carry concealed weapons following the Nov. 5 shooting that left 26 people dead at the First Baptist Church, “because sometimes one person could be in the right position to take out an active shooter.”
Tackitt would ban “bump stocks,” devices that effectively turn semi-automatic weapons into faster-shooting automatic ones, and he supports stricter background checks, though he is not sure exactly how they should be implemented.
Currently, background checks are required only for gun sales by licensed firearm dealers, not for unlicensed sales at gun shows or over the internet. It is a loophole gun-control advocates want closed.
But Tackitt said that anyone who could pass a background check should be able to buy an AR-15.
“I know in our area, you’re not going to be able to go and knock on somebody’s door and say, ‘Hey, I want to see all your weapons,’ because they’re not going to let you see them, they’re not going to give their weapons up,” Tackitt said.
No one in Congress has proposed confiscating guns, but top Democrats want a ban on assault rifles while Republican leaders, like the NRA, are focused on school safety. Trump is seesawing from one position to another and the divide is as rancorous as it typically is.
One narrow proposal with a chance, which comes from a bipartisan group of lawmakers, would improve the National Instant Background Check System by tightening federal and state cooperation.
The police chief of Orlando, Florida, where Omar Mateen killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub, is, like Oates, opposed to arming teachers. Police officers receive intensive training and carry their firearms every day, said Chief John Mina, who is running for sheriff of Orange County as an independent. Teachers would not have body armor or extra magazines, might not be prepared for a struggle over a weapon and could become targets themselves, once students learn who has a weapon and who does not, he said. Instead, he would add armed security, single entries, metal detectors and random checks of backpacks and lockers.
“I just don’t think arming our teachers is the right fit, for all jurisdictions,” he said. “They have so many other responsibilities. They’re in charge of keeping students educated. Carrying a gun is hard work.”
Florida's Legislature last week approved a bill that places new restrictions on firearms, a previously unimaginable political act for a state that just received an F rating on its gun laws from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The bill was signed by Gov. Rick Scott on Friday.
The measure does not ban assault rifles, as Democrats sought, and it would allow school districts to arm librarians, coaches and other employees though not full-time teachers. But it also raises the minimum age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21, prohibits bump stocks and provides millions in funding for schools for safety and mental-health care.
And it allows police to temporarily confiscate guns from people who are involuntarily committed for mental evaluation under Florida's Baker Act, or go to court to remove guns for up to a year from those who poses a threat to themselves or others.
Mina said he approved making it more difficult for people who are threatening to harm others or themselves from having weapons as the new Florida law does. California, Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon and Washington also have enacted so-called red-flag laws that enable a judge to issue what are known as gun-violence restraining orders to temporarily confiscate weapons.
Mina is in favor of raising the purchase age to 21, expanding background checks and banning bump stocks. As far as a ban on assault rifles, he said it would have little chance of passing.
“Any of that legislation is going to be tough to get passed but I think both sides of this issue need to work a little bit harder and come up with something that’s going to make both sides of the issue a little uncomfortable,” he said. “And I don’t know what that is.”
Mina said that he learned from the 2016 Pulse attack that all police officers need body armor that will stop a rifle round, along with Kevlar helmets. Mateen, who pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, was killed in a shootout with law enforcement.
He had been investigated several times by the FBI after making comments about terrorists overseas, and he was abusive toward his wife, Noor Salman, who is now on trial on charges of aiding him before the attack, but the agency found no evidence that he was a threat.
In San Bernardino, California, where Syed Farook, 28, and his 27-year-old wife, Tashfeen Malik, also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and killed 14 people at the Inland Regional Center, Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said mental health care needs to be addressed. Police officers can do little with people who lack the ability to take care of themselves, who refuse to take medication or get treatment.
“We are very, very weak on mental health care,” Burguan said. “We have very, very few resources dedicated to mental health care. The bottom line is there are a lot of people that are walking the streets and there’s not a lot we can do with them and that’s a very frustrating thing from a law enforcement standpoint.”
Tackitt said his department had not received any warnings about the Sutherland Springs shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, who killed 26 churchgoers, among them little children, at the First Baptist Church. Kelley had escaped from a mental health hospital, where he was sent after being accused of assaulting his wife and fracturing his baby stepson's skull, but the military failed to enter his domestic violence case into a database that would have prohibited his purchase of a rifle.
Wilson is a rural county, with at most five patrol deputies at a time, and before officers could arrive, a neighbor confronted Kelley with his own AR-15. Stephen Willeford wounded Kelley, and then, with another man, chased him down and found him dead. Kelley, 26, had shot himself in the head.
“He says, ’I’m not a hero, I did it what anyone else would have done,’ but there was no one else around,” Tackitt said. “He stepped up. The guy could have easily shot him when he was running up there.”
Opponents of gun control have trumpeted Willeford’s training as an NRA instructor to argue against attempts to ban the AR-15, though without acknowledging that the rifle itself, designed to kill quickly and efficiently, made the massacre possible. Officials have said that a videotape of the attack — the church taped its services — shows Kelley pausing only to reload as he shot his victims in the head over about seven minutes. Willeford’s bravery aside, it was the deadliest shooting in Texas history.
One bright spot for Oates and Mina are the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, many of whom are lobbying passionately for gun control and other changes. Students who grew up in the shadow of Columbine, who know to silence cell phones and barricade classrooms when gunmen rampage through the hallways, are infuriated with lawmakers' inaction.
“What if the children of America become more powerful than our politicians,” asked Jaclyn Corin, the school’s junior class president, in a videotape produced as part of a series of #WhatIf questions designed to pressure Congress.
Whether they can build a lasting movement could be answered on March 24, when what they are calling a “March for Our Lives” will take place in Washington, D.C., in every state, and a half a dozen cities in Canada.
“They’re articulate as can be,” Oates said. “There are no inhibitions. They’re not particularly beholden to any interest group and their passion and their anger isn’t muffled in any way. And I think it’s very powerful. Yes, that might just make a difference.”