Will an anti-terror law prevent school shootings?

June 4, 2018

In the aftermath of a school shooting scare in Vermont, fears about gun violence became the justification, even among liberal political leaders, for sweeping “anti-terrorism” legislation. Robin Chadwell and Danny Katch look at what conclusions the left can draw.

ON FEBRUARY 15, one day after Nikolas Cruz committed a massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, police in Fair Haven, Vermont, received a tip from a friend of Jack Sawyer claiming that the 18-year old was planning a similar mass shooting at his former school.

Sawyer was detained after an investigation revealed texts he’d sent speaking admiringly about the Parkland shooting, a journal indicating that he’d been thinking for months in disturbing detail about attacking former classmates at Fair Haven Union High as part of a “bigger & better” way of committing suicide, and the fact that he had recently purchased a gun.

Sawyer was held without bail on charges of aggravated assault, two counts of attempted aggravated murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder. The Vermont Supreme Court, however, ruled that the thoughts expressed in Sawyer’s journal and texts didn’t constitute attempted murder and assault.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signs gun control legislation outside the statehouse
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signs gun control legislation outside the statehouse

With only misdemeanor charges remaining, Sawyer was released on $10,000 bail on April 27 with an extreme risk protection order against him (which prohibits him from possessing a firearm) and a 24/7 curfew under his father’s watch in Poultney, Vermont. Other conditions of his release included a prohibition from entering Fair Haven or any school property, and a ban on using any device with internet capability.

Despite these strict conditions, however, news of Sawyer’s release was greeted with outrage and panic.

“The mere possibility that someone with a clear intent to murder innocent children could be back on the street shows there is an unacceptable loophole in our current criminal law,” said Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

School Superintendent Brooke Olsen Farrell wrote in a letter to Scott: “The continued stress and anxiety surrounding the potential release of Mr. Sawyer has struck fear throughout our community. We are told it is not illegal to carry out preparations to cause mass casualties in a school. We are told it is not illegal to purchase guns and ammunition with the intent to carry out a planned threat at a school. Do we really have to wait until the damage is done?”

Later, Olsen Farrell told a reporter from Vice News: “I think folks felt like it was a kick in the stomach, and the overwhelming feeling is that the system has failed us.”

Unlike many actual mass shootings, Jack Sawyer’s possibly near-shooting quickly led to a rash of legislation to pass the Vermont statehouse.

In the face of protests from some of his Republican supporters, Scott signed bills to ban bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, raise the minimum age to buy a gun to 21, expand background checks, empower police to take guns from those cited for domestic violence, and allow judges to take them from those deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others.

Some of these are measures that most progressives would support unequivocally, while others could and should spark debate. For example, the widely popular proposal for background checks is inevitably discriminatory against people of color because of the undeniably racist nature of the criminal justice system.

Even more troubling, however, was the passage of a “domestic terrorism” law with tri-partisan support from Democrats, Republicans and the state’s Progressive Party — despite warnings from the Vermont ACLU about the harmful repercussions of such a reactionary law.

The lack of debate among legislators about this dangerous law should be a major warning sign about the ways that justified fears and anger over mass shootings can be used for right-wing ends.

The legislation, referred to as H.25, gives “domestic terrorism” the astoundingly broad definition of “taking a substantial step” toward committing a crime with the intent to cause death or injury to more than one person or “place any civilian population in reasonable apprehension” of death or injury.

A “substantial step” is itself defined as “conduct that is strongly corroborative of the actor’s intent to complete the commission of the offense.”

The law, which carries a punishment of up to 20 years in prison, was clearly written with Fair Haven in mind — Scott went so far as to say that he wanted it passed before students came back to school from vacation — even though it can’t be retroactively applied to Jack Sawyer.

It’s all too easy, however, to envision this law being used in the future as a tool of repression against protesters and persecuted minorities.

VERMONT OFFICIALS have taken an admittedly complicated and scary situation, and made it far worse.

First, they charged Sawyer with crimes he simply didn’t commit. Then they reacted with panic to his release from prison under strict supervision. And finally, they merged the nightmare of school shootings in the U.S. with the nightmare of the “war on terror.”

At best, their actions could be described as disregarding legality in the name of public safety. A less charitable view is that the understandable fears of a town have been exploited to cross another milestone in the erosion of civil liberties.

In a country that designates mass murders as either “terrorists” or “lone gunmen” depending on whether or not they are Muslim, some of those who oppose Islamophobia have made the case that white shooters should be given the same terrorism label.

But H.25 shows the dangers of this line of thinking — especially for Muslims.

Although the bill is ostensibly meant to divorce terrorism from religious or political motivation, its expansive powers will inevitably be used disproportionately against those who are already vulnerable.

“I know from my law enforcement experience, police tend to be pretty suspicious of a lot of different people,” former FBI agent Michael German explained to Vice, “and if they can put people in that sort of ‘pre-crime’ enforcers, we can get into a very dangerous space very quickly. The last thing you’d want to do is take one horrible case and pass a broad law that creates more horrible problems in the future.”

On a cultural level, applying the “evildoers in our midst” mentality of the “war on terror” to the crisis of school shootings is a disastrous idea that could spark witch hunts among and against young people struggling with depression, suicide and, yes, violence.

It also takes the burden of any responsibility away from those in charge of school environments — environments that some youth find so hostile and alienating that they admire and identify with those who commit massacres.

School, Jack Sawyer wrote in his journal, was the “the place that I suffered greatly and the environment that I struggled in, and so I still feel the need to kill every stupid [word blacked out] there.”

Yet at the same time that he was pushing H.25, Gov. Scott was also trying to slash school spending on guidance counselors and teachers with a budget that would raise taxes on districts whose ratio of students to staff is too low.

There was, however, one education spending increase that Scott favored: free college tuition for anyone willing to take up arms by joining the Vermont National Guard.

AMONG THE items in Jack Sawyer’s journal is a possible draft of a suicide letter to his family, which he intended to be found after he killed himself and possibly many others: “I’m so utterly sorry. I’m sorry for all the pain and misery that follows my death. I know it’ll be unbearable and hard. I’m sorry. Just know that there wasn’t any other way for me. I’ve been suffering, badly, and I just can’t deal with it any longer. I’m tired.”

There are no easy solutions to the situation that Sawyer’s arrest presented to the Fair Haven community. Students, school workers and parents have been understandably terrified.

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But if Jack Sawyer and the untold numbers of other young people going through similar pain and potentially dangerous struggles are merely labeled as “terrorists,” the cycle of violence could start to get even worse than it is now.

The answer must lie with addressing the root causes of alienation, violence and hate — something which Scott is making that much harder by cutting the education budget. The answer definitely is not passing laws that not only erode individual rights and civil liberties for everyone, but won’t make anyone safer.

Further Reading

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