A violent Harford County, or just bad luck of the draw? [A commentary]

Three mass shooting incidents in three years has led to the usual media driven question, what is happening in Harford County?

I was asked the same question recently by one of my bosses, and my initial reaction was: Not sure, but I didn’t think this was necessarily a Harford County phenomenon.

And, I don’t. The late W. Robert Wallis, the editor who hired me to work at The Aegis 46 years ago this summer, often parroted what was I believe a tourism promotion drive phrase from the 1940s, 50s or 60s, “Maryland: America in Miniature,” when trying to quantify unusual happenings, good and bad, in Harford County and elsewhere in the state. In many respects, that hasn’t changed, call it coincidence or karma or just the luck of the draw.

In more recent times, when a story with some sort of statewide, national or international repercussions happens, we’ve almost invariably found a Harford County connection, good and not so good. We’ve definitely experienced our share of tragedies, as the long list of people with ties to our county who have been killed in worldwide acts of terrorism – Pan Am Flight 103, the USS Cole, 9/11, Fort Hood – and the resulting wars can attest.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I frankly thought I had seen it all in my lifetime. I’ve often likened it to Nov. 22, 1963 of my youth or Dec. 7, 1941, for my parents then both age 20. But, sad to say, I had a lot more horror to experience, including much way too close to home.

Being located in the heart of the Northeast Corridor along major interstate highways – first Route 1, then Route 40, then Interstate 95, Harford County has always attracted its fair share of evil doing from without, particularly since the post-World War II era. And, many societal trends have typically played out in Harford as in other communities.

The 1960s with their political assassinations and the then-unusual mass shooting at the University of Texas the summer I graduated from high school, certainly appear to be a foreshadowing of many future violent deeds.

From the 1970s through the 1980s when drug usage, legal and illegal soared, as did random violence in the form of the serial killer took hold, so too did Harford County experience particularly violent times. There were at least two double murders, another killing (still unsolved) that police say was possibly organized crime related and at least one serial killer claiming to have been active locally (never substantiated), not to mention robbery-murders and a few fights that turned deadly.

The early 2000s was the period of the gang problem in Edgewood, at first largely discounted by local law enforcement until the number of assaults and murders and their motives could no longer be denied to the media. Most of the perpetrators or victims had ties to either Baltimore or points to the north of the Mason-Dixon Line and had found Harford’s Route 40 corridor a hospitable place to transship and deal.

Then, the heroin abuse epidemic raged out of control this decade. No I don’t think it either started in Harford County or was unique to this area, but I do think local law enforcement and the current county administration, to their credit, were quicker than those in most jurisdictions to call attention to it, damn the bad publicity.

But the gratuitous violence recently in Perryman, of last October in Edgewood and of February 2016 in Abingdon, where did that come from and could it have been foreseen?

Following the shooting at Rite Aid Distribution that left four dead, including the alleged shooter – a temporary employee — dead and three others wounded, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler was asked at a media briefing for his views on any local cause and effect involving that tragedy and the Oct. 17, 2017 shooting deaths of three employees and the wounding of two others at Advanced Granite Solutions in Edgewood, allegedly by a former employee who is awaiting trial, and the February 2016 slaying of two of his deputies by a homeless man in Abingdon.

Gahler correctly pointed out that none of the shooters was from Harford County (nor were a majority of the victims in the last two, for that matter) while the killer of Senior Deputy Patrick Dailey and Deputy First Class Mark Logsdon had fled Harford 20 years earlier amid an assault investigation, had drifted around, and had only returned to the area a short time earlier.

Gahler attributed these and other acts of violence, random and not-so-random, to the times we live in and what he called “a disregard for human life.” Yes, he has a point. We’re far too quick to settle disputes with deadly force or, as in the case of the fatal shooting of five employees at the Annapolis Capital newspaper office in June, or we let them fester for years and then settle them with deadly force.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, speaking at the same media briefing about the Rite Aid shootingso, said all three Harford shootings were carried out by people with histories of mental illness. And, to Glassman’s credit, he stood right next to the Gahler, whose political career has been underpinned by his support for Second Amendment rights, and called for “a review” of firearms laws that allow people with a history of mental illness, such as the Perryman shooter, to legally acquire and possess a handgun.

But again, why Harford? In the past five years, our county has had three fatal shootings of suspects by police – something else that had not previously happened in my time here, the fatal shootings of two officers (the first since 1986 and only the second incidents of their kind locally since 1899) the Edgewood and Perryman mass shootings. We’ve been spared school shootings, but the fear of one happening is frankly a recurring thought for me and most of my colleagues at The Aegis, if not in our community at large.

The times, sure. Fate, why not? We haven’t courted violence here, nor have other localities that have experienced it. We’re not any more a violent community, and certainly less so than places like Baltimore or Chicago. But we’re certainly not “bucolic” Harford County – one moniker I heard after the Perryman shootings – where cows outnumber the people. That went out in the 1930s, if not earlier.

I’ve used this phrase before, careful to attribute it to a former co-worker from my days in the taxicab business in Baltimore: “A gun goes looking for trouble.” Like it or not, there’s far too many of them, far too easy to get them and they still kill too many people – no matter what the reasoning of the person who pulls the trigger.

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avought@theaegis.com

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