The Florida School Shooting and Government Competence

Crisis articles by Regis Nicoll and John Horvat II in the aftermath of the Florida school massacre identified well the fundamental causes of what have now become such tragically recurrent events. They said that it isn’t the lack of gun control, which the left claims, or even mental illness, but fatherlessness which inordinately leads to destructive behaviors for boys (the mass murderer in this case, Nikolas Cruz, was for much of his life fatherless since his adopted father died when he was five); the general breakdown of the family and the attitude of sexual freedom and irresponsibility that has accompanied it (Cruz’s birth mother was a drug addict who had him and his half-brother out of wedlock by different men); liberalism’s embedding in the psyche of people the notion of the autonomous self, which causes the erosion of the moral and cultural principles that could check such happenings, and its stimulating of a sense of meaninglessness and normlessness (what sociologists call anomie) that stirs particularly prone individuals to violent behavior; and, underlying all this, the turning of the culture away from God. George A. Kendall in The Wanderer also spoke about the problem of the autonomous and isolated self as he reflected on the event.

Nicoll and Horvat also identified certain long and short-term public policy decisions that have opened the door to situations such as this, such as no-fault divorce (which has been a major factor in family breakdown and in spawning fatherlessness) and “gun-free zones” (which Nicoll suggests may make protecting people indiscriminately targeted by mad gunmen more difficult). They also mentioned the bungling by government agencies that ultimately allowed Cruz to wreck havoc, but rightly pointed out that government programs couldn’t have compensated for the cultural, moral, and spiritual erosion that spawned him and the multitude of others like him. I will not repeat what these and other perceptive commentators have said about the fundamental causes, but will speak further about government’s actions and failures in the Florida tragedy—especially in light of the usual call by the left for a governmental solution. Even if government can’t adequately address what causes the Nikolas Cruzes, its failures set the stage for what happened at Douglas High School.

As usual, in the aftermath, the left is pushing in a big way for gun control. What gun control, in whatever form it takes, means of course is a larger role for government, an expansion of governmental power and a corresponding diminution of the ability of citizens to do something to protect themselves from threats. The track record in this case indicates that the left’s confidence in government about such matters—and it seems that Trump and some other Republicans may be buying into their arguments—is certainly inflated and misplaced.

Government’s miscues were evident at many places down the line. First, the Florida Department of Children and Families knew about Cruz’s behavior problems but nothing was done. This is the state’s child protection agency. It is part of the child protective system (CPS) nationwide that has distinguished itself for intervening in families for everything and nothing since the passage of the federal Mondale Act in 1974, undercutting parental authority, damaging families, and effectively claiming that it always knows better than parents. Its failure to be of any help in this case was striking. Was it because, like the typical CPS agency, it is too busy chasing after innocent parental actions and miniscule matters that the potential big problems aren’t paid enough attention to? It is curious that even though Cruz had been acting in a threatening and violent manner toward his mother, DCF actually investigated her and treated him as a possible victim when it received a report. It also concluded that he was not a threat to anyone. Furthermore, such agencies are notorious for their obliviousness to the spiritual, moral, and cultural problems mentioned above as behind youth and family turmoil.

Next, on many occasions law enforcement was called to Cruz’s house because of his behavior, but nothing decisive was ever done. According to news reports, the Broward County Sheriff’s Department had even been warned that he was a potential school shooter. Then, there was his repeated disobedience, lack of self-control, and disruptive and even violent behavior at school. He was suspended, moved around to different schools in the district, and kept in the school system—but his problems were never really addressed. Could the problems of bureaucracy and overly rigid, unreasonable procedures have stood in the way? Then there were the tips to the FBI about Cruz, which apparently were not adequately followed up on. True, law enforcement has to have probable cause to move against someone and a person can’t be arrested just because someone thinks he might do something, but Cruz’s YouTube threat to become a school shooter was serious and maybe imminent enough to expect an intensive FBI investigation.

Next, there are the actions—or inaction—of the Sheriff’s Department at the shooting scene. The deputy who was the school resource officer—armed and in charge of its security—apparently followed inexplicable procedures gotten from his training and refused to enter the school to confront the shooting gunman. That was even apart from the more basic policy question of why a sprawling public high school campus had only one security person on duty. That raises even more basic policy questions about the desirability of mega-public high schools larger even than some universities and whether the impersonal nature of such institutions fosters a range of problems (including failing to discern when there are dangerous students present). Besides the resource officer not being on the scene, other deputies from the Sheriff’s Department would not enter the school building to engage the gunman once they arrived. It was only when officers from the municipal police department, the Coral Springs P.D., arrived that the police finally engaged.

In sum, there were many problematical and even calamitous decisions made by governmental operatives and officials.

Lastly, a question has been raised about whether another governmental decision, involving both the federal government during the Obama era and Broward County, may have helped to make possible a situation like the Cruz killings. The federal Promise Program was pushed by the Obama administration to supposedly rein in what it called a “school-to-prison-pipeline”; it aimed to reduce the disproportionate percentage of minority group members in the American prison population by encouraging school districts—through financial incentives—not to discipline students for certain school infractions or even have them arrested if their conduct was illegal (a misdemeanor). Broward County’s school superintendent quickly embraced the program, and there ensued a significant decline in the previous large number arrests of students for school-related incidents. That affected students from all demographic groups. The Promise Program may have had the effect of discouraging school officials from acting decisively against a student like Cruz despite his troublesome behavior.

All this, of course, is even apart from the governmental decisions decades ago—made by the U.S. Supreme Court—to banish most vestiges of religion from public schools, which helped set off the dynamic that led to the fixation on autonomy and the isolation and anomie that Horvat and Kendall talk about.

If anyone thinks, by the way, that these kinds of governmental miscues are unique to this case, he should think back to 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Pulse Nightclub shooting. The federal commission that investigated 9/11 concluded that “deep institutional failings within our government” facilitated what happened that day—from problems in airport security to failings by immigration authorities, the FBI, and the CIA to flag the hijackers and detect their plot. In the Boston Marathon case, while an inspector general’s investigation did not indict federal law enforcement agencies for failing to have the terrorist Tsarnaev brothers in their sights it did say that they should have more closely scrutinized them and their travels abroad where they were thought to have made connections with Islamist organizations. Omar Mateen, the Pulse Nightclub gunman, had been previously investigated by the FBI, but nothing was done about him.

The meaning of all of this is that people are right to question whether they can completely depend on government for their protection; the gun control sought by the left would require that. Government’s first role—as it is stated even in the social encyclicals, which cannot be accused of a minimalist view of government—is protection of the citizenry. Events like the Florida school shooting, however, raise questions about how effective government currently is doing it. The problem may partly be a consequence of our current era of excessively bureaucratized, overextended government (that is, government involved in so many things that it’s failing at its most basic role and being stymied by excessive and convoluted bureaucratic procedures). That’s not even considering the further question of whether disarming citizens may not invite further abuses by government—which may have been the concern that gave us the Second Amendment in the first place.

Stephen M. Krason

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Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He holds a J.D. and Ph.D. (political science) and an M.A. in theology/religious education and is admitted to a number of law bars, including the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

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