EDITORIAL: What now?

THE BOY, 16, was no longer allowed to attend school. But he managed to slip into the building undetected and assemble his weapon in a bathroom. When he came out into the hall, he fired at a student and missed. An assistant principal tackled the student and knocked him to the floor. The shotgun went off, striking a teacher who had come to help. The principal subdued the boy.

This was 14 years ago at Columbia High School in nearby East Greenbush. It happened five years after the Columbine murders. The teacher’s physical wound was slight. The attack, however, was traumatic for students, school employees, families and the community. But measured against the carnage this country has witnessed since then, this incident would hardly be worth mentioning in discussions of school shootings. Except for one factor.

The teenage shooter reportedly left 20 shotgun shells in the school bathroom. His choice of weapon and his inability to use it saved lives that day. The ammunition he brought with him tells us that if he could have killed many people that day it’s likely he would have.

Facts like that take on particular importance when we try to understand why some males become mass murderers and why some of them choose to turn their violence loose in schools. The observations of psychologists and psychiatrists point to some characteristics these men and boys have in common. There are warning signs. But most of what’s known does not yet reliably identify the monsters before they start shooting.

What we do know is the monsters all choose the weapons designed to kill the most people in the shortest amount of time, a semi-automatic rifle called AR-15-style. This type of rifle was used in Parkland, FL, last week and at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. It was also used in non-school massacres in Las Vegas, San Bernardino and Sutherland Springs, TX. These weapons can fire 30 rounds from a single magazine. Millions of them are legally owned around the nation.

Not so much in New York state. The SAFE Act, adopted by the legislature after Sandy Hook, bans semi-automatic rifles with certain features and limits the number of rounds in the magazines. Does that make us safer? Maybe. Gun violence in the state had started to go down before the SAFE act was adopted, but it has continued its gradual decline since then.

For years after the SAFE act was passed many homes in Columbia County displayed “Repeal the SAFE Act” lawn signs. You see fewer of them now, which may mean the signs faded, but not the anger behind them.

Gun rights advocates say that banning certain types of firearms will not end gun violence. They’re right to the degree that we can’t ignore the need to do more to prevent people likely to abuse guns from obtaining them. There are modest steps the federal government could take now on that front–like closing the gun show sale loophole on background checks–that might make us all a little safer.

Maybe now, with this latest massacre fresh in mind, Congress will act. These kids in Florida who lost friends murdered in front of their eyes, are a potent political force at the moment. They may be unprepared for the effort already underway to discredit their cause but they speak with a moral authority sure to resonate among many of their peers and their parents nationwide. Imagine teenagers all over the nation, some too young to vote, going door-to-door in favor of candidates who support gun control legislation.

The little children who survived in Newtown could not speak for themselves. The teens of Parkland have done so with resolve and eloquence. Will lawmakers, including our representative, John Faso (R-19th), who is among those who benefit from the NRA’s financial support, turn their backs on these young survivors and their peers?

From 1994 to 2004 the United States had a ban on assault-style weapons. It did not end gun violence. It didn’t end lawful gun ownership, either. But it was allowed to expire.

Restoring a nationwide ban on the assault-style weapons associated with recent mass murders won’t eliminate the threat to our school children. But it could help.

The one thing we know for sure is that the thoughts and condolences and prayers mouthed by our political leaders does nothing to protect our kids. On this matter Congress has a shameful record of inaction and it looks more craven each time another child is shot at school.

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