Some ask whether the Parkland shooting is our Rubicon, but there have been so many seeming “Rubicons” before. This time, though, seems different.
This was the first time I saw political fear in the eyes of elected officials—Gov. Rick Scott and state Attorney General Pam Bondi—as they addressed the Parkland crowd hours after a school shooting left 17 dead in a Florida high school. They had the look of people who know the jig is up: that their position and record on the issue of guns was unsupportable. They feared a shout from the crowd, from a devastated parent, because they have political and legislative blood on their hands.
This time is also different in that we have gun extremists blaming—sit down for this one—law enforcement. Rather than fault the ideologues or the National Rifle Association (NRA), which advocate and promote the ownership and use of high-capacity assault weapons, gun extremists blame the FBI and local law enforcement, though that law enforcement went to the Parkland assailant’s house 39 times but had no legal authority to take him into custody, to disarm him, or to require him to seek mental health treatment.
As mayor and public safety director of Columbus, Georgia, I take particular offense at this attempted diversion from the real matter at hand. Like most cities around the country, our Columbus crime rate has been decreasing over the last many years. Since we invested in a one-penny sales tax to benefit public safety several years ago, our crime rate has fallen 39 percent. But our murder rate has gone up: Our annual murder average is 21, but we had 35 in 2017, 34 of which were the result of gun violence.
But in the face of this, what do our NRA-backed elected officials do despite such trends? They continue to do the NRA’s bidding. In 2012, Georgia enacted Senate Bill 350 requiring law enforcement agencies to return to the streets all unclaimed confiscated weapons. Then-Atlanta Police Chief George Turner noted that to put these weapons back on the market would be “catastrophic” to community safety.
Nevertheless, state law requires localities to put out for bid and re-sell weapons used in homicides, robberies, and drug deals. These are not the guns that are confiscated because they were stolen loot. Those guns are returned to identified owners. The guns Georgia elected officials ordered back on the street are typically the type and style of guns criminals choose to further their violent crimes.
I witnessed the spectacle of the weapons our police officers had risked their lives to take off the streets being displayed for resale. A .50-caliber weapon, assault-style weapons, and other weapons that previously would have been destroyed were now headed back to the streets so our law enforcement officers could risk their lives again in taking them back out of the hands of criminals.
There’s more. In 2014, Georgia passed the “guns everywhere” law, which allows firearms to be carried into public schools, bars, churches, and government buildings, including libraries, recreational centers, city office buildings, and fire stations. This law passed over the objection of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, whose president stated: “Police officers do not want more people carrying guns on the street, particularly police officers in inner city areas.”
This law is a direct result of the NRA’s policy that “the only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The suggestion is that civilians with firearms are going to be able to correctly identify and successfully take out an armed criminal threat in the seconds they’d have to act, and that they will be able to do so without escalating the danger or harming innocent bystanders. Of course, this is a specialized task that professional law enforcement officers train for before they are issued a badge and a gun and, then, repeatedly train for throughout their careers. Still, those trained officers will tell you that an armed suspect is the most difficult situation they face.
People who continue to urge this “good guy with a gun” notion also fail to appreciate that it makes the responding officer’s job more dangerous when additional weapons are introduced into the scene. Officers have a split second to walk into chaos and determine who is the “good” or “bad” guy, intensifying an already difficult task and drawing into the realm of possibility that this civilian superhero may be mistaken for a “bad” guy.
Additionally, an officer who hesitates in determining which armed person is the suspect has just put his or her own life at risk. And, an officer who walks into a good/bad guy crossfire has increased his odds of not coming home. Interestingly, the “guns everywhere” law also forbids police officers from being able to inquire into the validity of a gun carrier’s permit until a crime is in progress, which let us just agree is a bit late.
And here’s strike three. In 2017, Georgia passed House Bill 280, legalizing guns on Georgia’s public college campuses. The bill allows anyone to carry loaded guns into classrooms, tailgating events, student recreation centers, and elsewhere throughout campus unless the area is expressly exempted. A student can’t smoke a cigarette in most of these places, but he can pack heat in any of them. Educators, campus police, and other police chiefs protested, but as with the “guns everywhere” law, they were ignored by the elected officials that supported the bill.
These school shootings and other massacres, as well as the lives lost daily to gun violence, are not the result of the Gun Free Zones or seemingly safe places in which they occur. They are not the result of police officers’ inability to be in every room of every house and every restaurant and every movie theater and every school hall. Just maybe these gun-related homicides are a result of laws that proliferate guns and make our law enforcement officers’ jobs harder by rendering them legally impotent to disarm a perceived threat and to protect the citizens they are sworn to serve.
So don’t tell me that you honor our law enforcement officers by standing during the national anthem if you turn right around and support and pass laws that make their jobs harder and increase the scenarios where they will be forced to put their lives in harm’s way. Yes, we may well have crossed the Rubicon.
Columbus, Georgia, is a diverse community of 200,000 people, 90 miles southwest of Atlanta and is the state’s second largest city. Mayor Tomlinson was first elected in 2010 and is the city’s first female mayor.