6:26 PM EDT, August 28, 2013
For Jim Johnson, the police chief of Baltimore County, the month of August started in Pittsburgh, with an award from a national law enforcement organization for his "steadfast leadership and commitment to working to keep this nation free of gun violence."
It ends with the fatal shooting of one of his finest officers, Jason Schneider, in Catonsville.
Wednesday morning, Johnson fought back tears to talk about Schneider at a news conference.
In the afternoon, when I spoke to him, the chief called Schneider "a hero who served Baltimore County and the state of Maryland in a very noble way."
"In the great human experience," Johnson said, "his role was to be a police officer — and he was one of the best we ever had. We have lost a great human being."
Schneider was killed as he tried to serve a warrant while most of Baltimore County was still asleep. The person who shot him, Johnson said, was prohibited from possessing a firearm in Maryland, though the chief did not say why. (State law prohibits the sale of firearms to, among others, people with serious criminal records or mental disorders, or those under 21.)
"They should not have had guns," Johnson said.
The shooting death of an officer is a nightmare for any chief, but it must be acutely bitter for a public advocate of stricter gun laws, one of many top cops across the country who see tougher firearms regulation as a matter of life and death for the men and women who serve under them.
On Aug. 4, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, meeting in Pittsburgh, gave Johnson its Outstanding Service Award, citing his leadership of an alliance of police organizations that want tougher laws to reduce gun violence — non-fatal shootings, homicides and suicides.
It's not something he talks about every day, but a year ago Johnson became chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence.
In January, six weeks after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, he had his biggest moment, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee and calling on Congress to "urgently" pass tougher gun restrictions to "address the rising epidemic of gun violence in this nation."
With millions of guns in private hands, including those of criminals, police officers are at considerable risk.
"In 2011," Johnson said, "for the first time in 14 years, firearms were the leading cause of death for police officers killed in the line of duty."
In 2012, he said, 49 police officers were killed by gunfire.
"In just the two-week period after the [Sandy Hook] massacre, six police officers were killed and 10 injured in 12 separate shootings," Johnson told senators, who, of course, did nothing.
Chiefs of police have long pushed for stricter gun laws — federal background checks for everyone who purchases them in stores or at gun shows or through the Internet — only to be ridiculed as tyrannical gun-grabbers by the firearms industry, its lobby and its disciples.
That hasn't stopped Johnson or other chiefs from pushing Congress for broader background checks and the restoration of a federal ban on assault-style weapons.
You'd think they would have considerable influence.
Some of the most conservative members of the House and Senate — along with thousands of lawmakers in state legislatures across the land — claim to support cops in the same way they support our military.
But not so much when it comes to guns — as evidenced by the failure of the post-Sandy Hook legislation in Congress in April.
Wednesday was a brutal day, with the death of Schneider, who was 36 years old and married, with two children. Johnson didn't have much time to talk. So here's some of a persuasive op-ed he wrote for Roll Call in May:
"We cannot ignore the Senate's disturbing rejection of common sense measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill. More policymakers must be attuned to what law enforcement faces on the ground every day.
"When lives are at stake, lawmakers almost always jump to action, such as after the [9/11] terrorist attacks, putting in place stricter security precautions at airports. Yet, lawmakers have failed to act to prevent the gun violence that takes thousands of lives each year.
"It is irresponsible and reckless to allow purchasers to acquire lethal firearms without first passing a background check. Yet we only require checks when purchases are made through a federally licensed dealer. It is estimated that up to 40 percent of firearm transactions occur through other channels and thus bypass any check. We would never create a special line at the airport allowing 40 percent of passengers to evade security screening.
"It is too late for the 49 officers and other victims who lost their lives to gun violence [in 2012]. But it is not too late for us to act to better protect those who continue to put on the uniform every day and the communities they serve. It is time for more lawmakers to step up and demonstrate they have our backs."
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