June 8, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

We need gun control, not perverse legal precedents

Criminalizing ordinary people in impossible situations is grotesque. 

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Scot Peterson is the first cop to be prosecuted for failing to act during a school shooting. The former school resource officer of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school faces a criminal charge for every child and adult who was shot after he arrived outside the building where Nicholas Cruz rampaged. If convicted of all charges, Peterson faces nearly a century in prison – the same as the gunman. 

That’s monstrous. 

Peterson is a coward, a fuckup, a liar.

But he’s not on par with a mass murderer. 

Most cops are scared to face down shooters armed with weapons of war. 

Peterson had a handgun on that horrible Valentine’s Day in 2018, but no body armor and no rifle. The gunman was armed with an AR15 and thousands of rounds. If the 56-year-old glorified mall cop had rushed in alone, he probably would have added his name to the body count. 

Peterson is not a sympathetic figure. His nickname was “Rod,” short for “Retired on Duty,” a moniker he earned from his lackadaisical approach to his job. His claim that he hid because he thought that he saw a sniper inside shooting out is preposterous. 

That said, Peterson is poised to become a scapegoat – a hapless creature banished to absolve the sins of others, namely the lawmakers who refuse to enact commonsense gun laws, and the judges and justices who refuse to uphold gun laws based on a historically bankrupt reading of the Second Amendment. 

Since the Columbine rampage of the late 1990s, police doctrine has stressed the importance of engaging the shooter immediately. But in the heat of the moment, doctrine amounts to a suggestion. Time and time again, officers fail to engage school shooters. Several other officers from the Parkland area responded to the scene but failed to enter the building. In Uvalde, Texas, an astonishing 376 officers failed to confront the shooter. A report later concluded that the officers put their personal safety above the wellbeing of the victims. The officers knew the shooter had an automatic weapon and they were scared.  

“Protect and Serve” is a popular police motto, but it’s purely aspirational. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that police officers typically have no duty to protect citizens. In light of these rulings, the 11th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that the police violated Parkland students’ right to due process by standing by. 

Florida prosecutors are trying to sidestep this body of law by prosecuting Peterson under a novel and extremely tenuous legal theory of child neglect. They contend that Deputy Peterson was a caregiver. His failure to intervene was a crime. 

In their rush to nail a cowardly school resource officer, prosecutors could end up creating a perverse precedent. In 2019, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis threw open the doors to armed teachers in the classroom. Teachers are definitely caregivers. Would that mean that every pistol-packing teacher is criminally liable if they fail to draw on a school shooter with an AR? 

Even if the Florida courts manage to cobble together some novel legal duty to intervene in school shootings, it’s not realistic to expect cops or anyone else to consistently live up to it. Soldiers train intensively and regularly to be able to run toward gunfire. Peterson had completed a few workshops on school shooters, which is laughably feeble preparation to override the instinct for self-preservation. Running toward gunfire to defend the innocent is heroic. But heroism is, by definition, above and beyond what’s required. Making criminals out of ordinary people in impossible situations is grotesque. 

The real problem is that most police officers are scared to face down shooters armed with weapons of war. The only solution is gun control. 

Everything else is a distraction. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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