It’s been almost one year since a gunman stormed into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and faculty and wounding 17 more. The effect of that terrible event on the national psyche was likely compounded by the fact that it was just the latest in a string of mass-casualty events executed by a lone gunman. It only makes sense that these intolerably frequent episodes of mass violence have yielded a routinized response from America’s political and media elites. But it’s clear in retrospect that this rote reaction is the enemy of logic, rationality, and effective policy-making. The nation’s experience with the execrable Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel is illustrative of that sorry condition.
On Tuesday night, Sheriff Israel told his commanders that he believed he would soon be removed from office by newly inaugurated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. If that is true, and it appears likely, it would be a richly deserved fate for the two-term sheriff. Israel’s handling of the massacre in Parkland was marked by incompetence, craven exploitation, and an all-consuming desire for self-preservation.
Florida’s exhaustive review of the circumstances that led to these murders found that Israel’s department was terribly mismanaged. His tenure was marred by alleged corruption. His staff was not well trained. Their equipment was not serviced to appropriate standards, and their protocols broke down when they were most needed.
Israel’s department, it turns out, was warned 18 times about the shooter’s volatility and potential for violence. A CNN investigation revealed that the school’s armed resource officer refused to enter the building as the shooting was ongoing and that three other Broward County deputies chose to establish a perimeter around the school rather than intervene in the ongoing attack. Intervention in an active shooting, the commission established to investigate Parkland found, was not mandated by Israel’s amended guidelines. Those four deputies reportedly held their position even as responding officers from neighboring Coral Springs Police Department entered the building.
None of this was known in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, and Israel exploited that to his advantage. Even as the shootings were ongoing—before anything was known about the gunman, his mental state, the weapon he used or how he accessed it, or whether he was previously known to law enforcement—Democratic lawmakers wasted no time before blaming the attack on Republican intransigence. Their failure to do “something” related to gun control to blame for these murders. Responsible to an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency, Israel took his cues.
In the days that followed the massacre, Israel congratulated himself on his “amazing leadership” and issued repeated calls for new legislation restricting gun ownership. “I’m going to be very animated about what I think this country can do to possibly prevent these tragedies in the future,” he told reporters. And as Israel became an avatar for gun-control activists around the country, he more than delivered on that promise.
In a televised CNN townhall one week after the massacre, Israel endorsed “gun-control reform” including prohibitions on rifle ownership for 18-year-olds insisting that they are “not adults yet.” He said that “automatic rifles should be outlawed forever,” to the applause of an emotionally-charged audience that was perhaps unaware that automatic rifle ownership is outlawed in most cases. He even went so far as to insist that his counterpart on what was really a debate stage, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, was “not standing up” for the survivors of this atrocity, “until you say ‘I want less weapons.’” The emotional remark drew a standing ovation, not just from the audience but the bleacher full of traumatized high school students interrogating them on gun policy. It was political theater that did nothing to advance a cogent debate over gun control policy, and Israel used the platform to indemnify himself while impugning the motives of his critics.
The weeks that followed the Parkland shootings were emotionally taxing on all Americans, and Israel skillfully took personal advantage of that moment. But with hindsight, it should be clear that activists who favor restrictions on gun ownership allowed themselves to be used and manipulated by anyone willing to tell them what they already believed.