Prior to the shooting in Columbine High, in Colorado in 1999, most local law enforcement in the United States had a wait-for-backup protocol in “active shooter” situations. The idea was that a shooter should be met only by overwhelming force, and that until that is arranged the duty of the first officers on the scene is to set up a perimeter (that is, end movement into or out of the building).

What this meant in practice was that the first authorities at the scene of a shooting back in the 20th century often found themselves frozen in place, for example standing in a school parking lot, until a SWAT team or other specialists could be compiled.

The police followed this procedure at Columbine. The result was that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris spent close to fifty minutes unchecked in the school, and that when the massacre ended it was because each young man killed himself.

Since Columbine, protocol has been different: enter at once. Whoever is the first on scene with a gun should pursue the shooter. In the words of Pat Blair, executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University, “If there’s gunfire, we teach the officers to isolate, distract, and neutralize. We want people to go directly to the sounds of the gunfire.”

At the Stoneman Douglas School on February 14, 2018, though, at least one armed Deputy Sheriff, the school resources officer, Scot Peterson, stayed outside the school building while the shooting went on. According to some (more tentative) reports, there were three other Deputies who did much the same. Did they simply not get the post-Columbine memo? Were they being trained in accordance with the old protocol?

These are questions that have played into the usual left/right dispute after a dramatic mass shooting.

Right Wing View

Seventy three members of the Florida legislature have written to Governor Rick Scott asking that the Broward County Sheriff, Scott Israel, be suspended for “incompetence and dereliction of duty” in connection with the Stoneman Douglas matter.

This take on the tragedy reinforces the long-standing right wing meme that a “good man with a gun” is that natural barrier to or deterrence of a “bad man with a gun.” Inside Stoneman Douglas, the good men with guns and badges were ineffectual, so (runs the argument) it is ever more obvious that good men already inside the school without badges, should have had guns.

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, the head of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, made the “good man with a gun” argument explicitly, then posted it on twitter with such hashtags as #ATimeforAction.

The Conservative Review says that though Sheriff Israel is “dysfunctional and frustrating,” his new prominence helps clarify the reason the Second Amendment is important. Private gun owners understand that “depending on cowardly sheriffs for protection is an unacceptable game of chance.”

Left Wing View

From the left the argument is the opposite one. Scot Peterson’s inactivity, whether or not encouraged by the Sheriff, illustrates the notion that a “good guy with a gun” isn’t a workable solution, so that another solution, one involving new laws that would seriously restrict broad gun ownership, is what is called for.

A liberal group known as the “District 5 Coalition” tweeted, in response to LaPierre, that the way to stop bad guys with guns it “to vote out every #GOP representative. Period. Then we can stop the bad guys … by getting saner gun laws.”

One odd feature of the new situation is that it has become unclear whether President Trump himself is now viewing the gun issue from the right or from the left. At a meeting Wednesday, February 28, Trump seemed to be making the usual center-left pro-gun control points, even contradicting his Vice President in the process.