A good guy with a gun didn't kill a Maryland school shooter, but that doesn't change anything

Both extremes in the gun debate are pointing to the revelation that the Great Mills High School student who killed a classmate and injured another last week died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound as validation of their points of view. Some are taking to the internet to claim that the school resource officer who confronted Austin Wyatt Rollins was no hero after all. Meanwhile, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch tweeted crassly, “When good guys show up, the bad guys kill themselves. What a coincidence that he offed himself right as the guard also fired.”

The reality is, the school resource officer, Deputy First Class Blaine Gaskill, confronted an armed student who had, minutes before, fired on classmates and who was still walking through the halls of the school. He had no way of knowing what Rollins’ intentions were, and we will let all those who have chased after someone wielding a semi-automatic pistol judge whether that takes courage. We do know that Mr. Gaskill did not fire on sight; he and Rollins were in contact for 31 seconds, and Rollins clearly did not drop his gun. In fact, he must have been brandishing it in some way because he and the officer fired simultaneously. Rollins shot himself in the head, and Mr. Gaskill hit Rollins in the hand.

With hindsight and the knowledge that Rollins and the girl he killed, Jaelynn Willey, 16, had previously been in a relationship, we can speculate that he intended a targeted act of violence rather than a mass school shooting. We can wonder whether he intended all along to commit suicide. But we don’t know either of those things now, and Mr. Gaskill definitely didn’t at the time. A shot was fired in school, students were injured, the gunman was still on the loose, and Mr. Gaskill had to assume the worst.

An untrained armed person in those circumstances could easily have made the situation even more dangerous by firing indiscriminately or mistaking the identity of the shooter. Mr. Gaskill — who was a six-year veteran of the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, had SWAT training and had previously been lauded for persuading an armed man to surrender — did not. Other students could have been injured in a gunfight, but they weren’t. Who fired which shot doesn’t change any of that.

There are a few other things that also aren’t changed by this latest revelation. We still have to question the circumstances that allowed Rollins access to a Glock 9mm and ammunition. The weapon was reportedly registered to Rollins’ father, and Maryland law does not require parents to secure handguns from access by minors once they are at least 16 years of age. Maryland and most other states have recently seen the necessity of tightening restrictions on the ability of 16- or 17-year-olds to drive by themselves; why on earth do we think they should be able to access guns without supervision?

And how have we gotten to a place as a society when so many people see guns as a means to solve problems? In Second Amendment absolutist rhetoric, guns are mere tools, no better or worse than the people who carry them. But their proliferation certainly wasn’t benign in the halls of Great Mills any more than it was on the streets of Baltimore this weekend, when three teens were shot on the same day that hundreds of thousands of youths nationwide were marching in protest against gun violence.

In the immediate aftermath of the Great Mills shootings, when the details were not yet clear, we argued that the crucial element in preventing this tragedy from being even greater was not just a good guy with a gun but one in uniform with the experience, training and temperament to handle a situation like this one. We’ll see what else we learn, but so far, that conclusion stands.The trouble is, the people who extol the virtues of what a gun can do in the right hands are all too eager to defend laws that far more often place them in the wrong ones.

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