The Florida school where an expelled student murdered 17 people with an assault rifle on Valentine’s Day was named after a champion of environmentalism, women’s suffrage and civil rights who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom when she was 103, thereby proving what you can accomplish if your life is not cut short by a bullet.
The same day in 1993 when Marjory Stoneman Douglas received the medal from President Bill Clinton at the White House, she was invited to witness the signing of the Brady Bill, which established a federal background check for those seeking to purchase firearms.
One eventual result was that Nikolas Cruz was handed an ATF Form 473 when he asked to purchase an AR-15 assault rifle at Sunrise Tactical Supply in Coral Springs, Florida, on Feb. 11, 2017.
The form posed 13 questions to be answered by checking boxes marked “YES” and “NO.” Cruz checked a “NO” box again and again where he was asked if he was an illegal alien and if he had never been indicted or convicted of a felony or of even misdemeanor domestic violence or been the subject of an order of protection or used illegal drugs.
There was also this, Question 11f:
“Have you ever been adjudicated as a mental defective OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?”
Cruz is said to have just ended 14 months of voluntary treatment as an outpatient at a mental health facility. He had a long history of behavior problems. He went through a phase of killing small animals. His neighbors had repeatedly called the police about him for such anti-social acts as smashing a car with a golf club. He was known at school to be fascinated with guns. And he had been expelled for fighting and being generally disruptive just three days before he came into the gun store.
Even so, Cruz was able to check the “NO” box next to Question 11f as well as beside all the other queries for which a “YES” would have disqualified him. The proprietor of the gun shop submitted the form to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that had been established by the Brady Bill a quarter century before.
The database contained nothing to contradict all the “NO” answers and cleared Cruz to go ahead and buy the AR-15.
The weapon came with one magazine and he acquired numerous others elsewhere, the going price for one with a 30-round capacity being around $15. He also obtained at least 150 rounds of ammunition, at around 20 cents a bullet.
On Jan. 5, 2018, someone whom the FBI would describe as “close to Nikolas Cruz” contacted the Bureau’s tip line “to report concerns about him.”
“The caller provided information about Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting,” the FBI would subsequently acknowledge in a statement.
The FBI would further allow, “Under established protocols, the information provided by the caller should have been assessed as a potential threat to life. The information then should have been forwarded to the FBI Miami Field Office, where appropriate investigative steps would have been taken.We have determined that these protocols were not followed.”
One month and nine days later—surely not just coincidentally Valentine’s Day—Cruz arrived by Uber at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the edge of the vast wetlands she had helped save with her book River of Grass. The effort had earned her the nickname Grand Dame of the Everglades. She had also been a fierce advocate for women’s rights and a stalwart foe of racial discrimination, organizing social action and writing a newspaper column along with numerous short stories and plays.
Cruz began doing what the FBI tipster warned he might do. He murdered 17 people while firing more than 100 but less than 150 shots. It cost him under $30 in bullets to kill three uncommonly brave adults and one teen after another after another who were still years from the age when Douglas had first embarked on her many endeavors. Had Douglas been murdered in her teens, the world would have never known of her genius and spirit.
At least one of the victims showed a flash of absolute greatness at the age of just 15. Peter Wang was in study hall when the shooting started. He was a member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and was wearing his grey uniform. Nobody could have honored it more than he did as he stood holding the door so everybody else could flee ahead of him.
“He is so brave,” his cousin Lin Chen later told the Sun-Sentinel. “He is the person who is genuinely kind to everyone. He doesn’t care about popularity. He always liked to cheer people up. He is like the big brother everyone wished they had.”
Wang had planned to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family on Thursday. He might well have been alive to do so had the FBI acted upon that tip last month. Somebody had seen something and said something and yet the FBI had done nothing at all. You have to figure that the agents would have followed through if the tip been about a jihadi bent on a terrorist attack.
There remains the question of why Cruz was able to acquire the AR-15 in the first place. The background check instituted by the bill signing that Douglas witnessed back in 1993 was unquestionably right in principle. The problem is that the present criteria and the mechanics of the screening too often fail to prevent the deeply disturbed from acquiring even the deadliest weapons.
We might take a step toward preventing future horrors by requiring prospective gun buyers to be affirmatively certified by a mental health professional and by the police as psychologically fit. Japan does that and averages some 15 gun murders a year, or two less than were shot to death on Valentine’s Day in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The school’s namesake died in 1998 at the age of 108. That was five years after she received the Presidential Medal for Freedom, largely for environmental work she did not begin in earnest until she was 79.
Wang had 93 years less of life. But he was so magnificent in his final moments that it seems only right he, too should be honored.
So, this year a Presidential Medal of Freedom should go to a 15-year-old who showed a flash of greatness in uniform before his great potential was cut short by a 20-cent bullet.
And while at the White House, the Wang family should be able to then watch President Trump sign into law a new version of the Brady Bill. This one should have a screening process that would have kept the likes of Cruz from getting his hands on an AR-15.
First we need the new bill.