After Maryland school shooting, some state lawmakers react with pessimism over preventing gun violence

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

When Republican state Del. Deborah C. Rey heard the nation’s latest school shooting was unfolding at one of the three public high schools in her rural Southern Maryland district, she started to pray.

“Please, don’t let my daughter’s best friend be hurt. Please, don’t let anyone die. Please, let it end quickly.”

“Lord, please,” she said Tuesday as she packed up her hotel room in Annapolis to rush back to St. Mary’s County. “My first thought was prayer.”

Her second thoughts were rationalizing the unthinkable.

“It could be a lot worse,” she recalled thinking about the Great Mills High School shooting. “Three going to the hospital alive is better than three dead.”

Minutes later, her colleague Del. Matthew Morgan announced on the House of Delegates floor that one of the students — the shooter — had died, and asked his colleagues to pray for everyone else.

“We could use your help in solving this epic battle against gun violence and school shootings,” Morgan, a Republican, said. He later added: “This can’t get any worse.”

Although the General Assembly has been weighing whether to pour $125 million more into security upgrades statewide and hiring 13 additional people to devise ways to prevent school shootings, Morgan was pessimistic that any of it would make a difference — not the money, not the ban on bump stocks that can turn a semi-automatic rifle into a machine gun, not the proposed “red flag” law that allows judges to confiscate guns from dangerous people.

“I don’t know if there is a policy fix,” he said in an interview. Instead, he called on parents of troubled teens to step in to counsel their kids.

“Parents: take the opportunity to connect with your child,” he said.

Morgan and Rey said they met less than two weeks ago with St. Mary’s County leaders to discuss school safety in the wake of the mass shooting at high school in Parkland, Fla., where a former student killed 17 people.

Already, Rey said, school officials were in the process of installing electronic locks that could automatically shut down the school. They debated whether to invest more in doors and windows that could stop bullets or more armed school resource officers or in more school counselors.

“Even before Parkland, these (conversations) have been going on for a while,” she said. “But they haven’t even asked for the money yet.”

After Parkland, a St. Mary’s senator was the chief architect of a package of four bills to address school safety.

Republican Sen. Steve Waugh, a freshman lawmaker, chatted up his colleagues after the shooting and settled on four consensus ideas, which he posted on four big pieces of paper in his office — one about deterrents, one about prevention, one about anticipating threats and one about protecting schools.

He courted his GOP colleagues for support, and enlisted Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, and a bipartisan group of senior leaders to co-sponsor some of the bills, which were introduced late and are still pending.

“It certainly adds urgency to it,” Waugh said Tuesday before leaving the state’s capital for the 90-minute drive back to his district. He was more optimistic policy makers could put enough things in place to prevent the next shooting.

“I’m just grateful we have a vehicle for us to begin the discussion,” he said.

If approved, the bills would enhance background checks for gun purchases, launch a study of how to better keep guns away from people with criminal records or mental health hospitalizations, create tougher penalties for crimes committed on school grounds, and pay for “crisis welfare officers” for every school system to help asses threats of violence and help troubled students.

Del. Jerry Clark, a freshman Republican and the third delegate from St. Mary’s County, said he had just woken up in Annapolis when he learned about the shooting on Facebook. He said one of the things he’s taken away from the news is “just how precious life should be to people.”

Clark, noting that he is 65, said the incident made him wonder what has gone wrong.

“What is missing in the society or the family dynamics of the youth today that makes them act out with events like this,” he said. “Is it social media? Is it television? Movies? I just search for the answers a lot in my head.”

So far, he hasn’t found them. Clark said he’s not sure which policy prescriptions might help.

“It’s not just a matter of guns and convenient weapons,” he said. “It’s a matter of mental health.”

Clark said he’s not ready to comment about whether the shooter should have had access to weapons because he doesn’t know the person’s age or other details.

“Obviously there’s the thought that we need to keep weapons away from children,” he said.

“Everything should be on the table.”

Maryland’s statewide and federal officials rushed to St. Mary’s County to join a press conference with law enforcement officials, and leaders from both parties urged more policy changes to end school shootings.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan offered prayers for everyone effected, and then issued a “call to action.”

“Prayers are not enough,” he said in a statement. “Although our pain remains fresh and the facts remain uncertain, today’s horrible events should not be an excuse to pause our conversation about school safety. Instead, it must serve as a call to action.”

U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat who represents Southern Maryland, said his first reaction to hearing of a school shooting in his district was "a deep sense of loss."

Hoyer, the minority whip in the House of Representatives, said he was angry politicians have not taken steps to decrease the likelihood of children being shot in school. He said there need to be reforms made such as universal background checks "with no loopholes" and better mental health treatment.

Hoyer said adults need to listen to the pleas of children, including those who demonstrated for gun control last week. "These young people are demanding action," he said.

Students at Great Mills High School joined the national walk out on Wednesday to protest gun violence in schools.

U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat, was giving a speech in Washington about water infrastructure when he learned of the Great Mills shooting. He said his immediate reaction was "shock, anger, just frustration that now it happened in Maryland."

Like Hoyer, Cardin said this latest school shooting underscores the need for more gun control, even though no details were released at the time about the firearms used in the incident.

Cardin said he advocates for universal background checks and keeping "military-style weapons and equipment" out of private hands.

Those two steps, Cardin said, represent the "minimum" action necessary. Cardin also said that while school resource officers play an important role in schools, he remains opposed to the idea of arming school teachers.

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen also rushed from Washington to St. Mary’s County. In a statement, he said that “no student should go to class fearing that they will be killed and no parent should live in fear that their children will never return from school.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and Michael Dresser contributed to this report.

ecox@baltsun.com

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