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Gun Laws Are Broken. Local Cops Get the Blame.

Instead of addressing lax gun laws, Americans fixate on what the authorities might have done differently.

Hilary Swift / The New York Times / Redux

After the devastating mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, late last month, an all-too-familiar ritual began to play out: The initial horror over the deaths of 18 victims gave way to second-guessing about what more local authorities might have done.

The gunman, Robert Card, went on a rampage at a bar and at a bowling alley. He crossed town without any police intervention, abandoned his car, and disappeared for days, until he was found dead of a self-inflicted wound. Later, the public discovered that Card was known to law enforcement. His behavior in the weeks before the shooting had alarmed those around him, including his family members and Army Reserves colleagues. In a report filed after an attempted wellness check at his home weeks earlier, a Sagadahoc County sheriff’s deputy noted that one reservist was concerned that Card was “going to snap and commit a mass shooting.”

News that authorities had tried and failed to make contact with the gunman raised the possibility that, had they only succeeded, the horrific crimes might never have happened. “Police Were Told Maine Gunman Had Threatened to Carry Out Shooting Spree,” one headline declared. “Deputies Were Warned Robert Card Had Guns, Threatened a Shooting, Was ‘Going to Snap,’” another said. Maine Governor Janet Mills announced on Wednesday that she will create an independent commission to ascertain, as she put it in a statement, “what more could have been done to prevent this tragedy from occurring.” The Maine State Police are conducting a separate “after-action review.”

Sheriff’s deputies and police officers are paid to serve the public, and the law-enforcement response to major events should always be subject to official review. And, to be sure, the specificity and urgency of the warnings about Card deserved aggressive follow-up by police. But the focus on law enforcement also shows how pessimistic many Americans have become about addressing the overarching problem: The United States has a plague of mass shootings committed by people with easy access to military-grade weapons.

Frustrated by the country’s inability to enact and enforce laws that restrict the sale of guns, Americans are compensating by zeroing in on law enforcement’s behavior before, during, and after the slaughter.

But no local cop in Maine or in any other state can prevent the consequences of America’s gun obsession. In a typical year, Maine experiences fewer than two dozen murders statewide. As the people of Lewiston learned, one gunman can utterly overwhelm the capacities of local law enforcement. For two days, as the bodies were being identified, residents of surrounding communities were asked to shelter in place during the search for the missing killer.

Authorities in Lewiston aren’t the only ones who have been caught short by a mass shooter. Even a big-city police department would struggle to handle the level of violence that one man unleashed in Lewiston. Some failures have been heartbreaking: Last year, after a mass shooter attacked a school in Uvalde, Texas, hundreds of police officers arrived—and stood by as the killing spree, in which 19 children and two teachers died, went on for more than an hour.

In a minority of cases, police manage to disrupt mass shootings in progress. That takes luck: At a mall in Allen, Texas, earlier this year, a police officer happened to be nearby and heard gunshots. He rushed toward the sounds and ended up killing the gunman, limiting the number of victims to eight.

As mass shootings erupt, seemingly at random, in community after community, year after year, the pressure on small police departments is only likely to grow. The Supreme Court’s decision to undermine local jurisdictions’ ability to legislate gun regulations means that the possibility of someone identifying potential mass shooters in advance, and authorities somehow thwarting those plans in time, becomes the only hope of protecting human life.

That, as the events in Lewiston have shown, is an unlikely chain of events. Relying on it is a far worse strategy than putting better laws in place. Americans have a duty to complain about missed warnings and slow responses, and to assess the choices that public servants make at crucial moments. But independent commissions and after-action reviews can achieve only so much when lawmakers and judges view as sacrosanct the right to bear even highly destructive military-style arms.

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