Laslo Boyd: A Sadly Familiar Story

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By: Laslo Boyd 

The public health epidemic of gun violence touched the Columbia Mall this past Saturday.  How else can you describe the senseless killings that have become a prominent feature of the American landscape in recent years?  The Horror Role of sites — Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and so many other places — now includes a location close to home.  So many of us in this region have shopped, walked around, eaten and spent time with our families in the Columbia Mall.

My first reaction when I heard the news of the shootings was to call and make sure that my daughter and her family were not at the Mall.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I confirmed that they were somewhere else that morning.  I know that this sentiment was shared by many others as they checked on their friends and family.  But, as we all know, there were two innocent victims that morning.  In addition, an assailant whose motives are still unknown is also dead.

I have written on many occasions about the need for stronger gun regulations in this country and was an enthusiastic supporter of last year’s General Assembly legislation that strengthened Maryland’s laws. Opponents of efforts to reduce the deadly epidemic will argue that the weapon used on Saturday was not a semi-automatic weapon and that it was purchased legally. Lucky, I suppose, that it was only a shotgun, but not much consolation to the two dead employees of Zumiez.

But even that fact misses a couple of larger points. First, we need comprehensive, national laws to fill the gaps between the laws of progressive states such as Maryland and those states that want to preserve the Wild West within their borders.  And we need the Supreme Court to reverse its recent decisions declaring that the Second Amendment bestows an individual rather than collective right.

With the same kind of twisted logic that allowed the Court to conclude that corporations are people, it somehow reasoned that militia are individuals.  The Second Amendment clearly sets the right to bear arms in the context of a “well regulated Militia.”  Just as opponents of Roe v. Wade have continued to fight for a reversal of that decision, opponents of the public health epidemic need to fight to establish a common sense interpretation of the Second Amendment.

The other point is more compelling.  Not only do we have too many guns too easily accessible in the United States, but we have a culture that allows, even encourages, the use of guns to settle grievances, resolve personal issues, and express political preferences.  The statistics on gun deaths in this country as compared to every other modern democracy in the world make the point dramatically.  The glorification of violence in so much of our popular culture contributes to the problem.  So do the actions of Second Amendment bullies who insist that openly carrying weapons into public spaces constitutes a reasoned form of political dialogue.

I’m afraid that Americans are so numb to the steady stream of gun violence and elected officials are so intimidated by the NRA and its allies that, as with so many previous examples, nothing will change in the aftermath of last week’s killings.  Still, there is a significant sliver of positive news, and that was the reaction of Howard County leaders and the Columbia community to the tragedy.

As Howard County Executive Ken Ulman told me, people started calling soon after the events of mid-day Saturday to ask what they could do to help.  He concluded that the best way to show support for the community was to encourage people to go to the Mall as soon as it reopened on Monday.  You’ve probably seen the photos of the crowds that afternoon, of Ulman and Governor Martin O’Malley, of Courtney Watson and Allen Kittleman who are competing to succeed Ulman, of the memorials that were constructed to the victims.

Howard County is in so many ways an exceptional community, but everyone learned last Saturday than even this Jim Rouse utopia is not immune to senseless violence.  The Mall, as Ulman pointed out, is more than a shopping center; it is where people gather, a community center.  Reclaiming that site on Monday was an important and significant response to the events of Saturday.

Ulman described walking around the Mall later in the afternoon to talk to people in the various shops and to hear their stories.  He recounted that at the Disney Store on Saturday, 30 to 40 people, half of them children, hid in the supply room in the back.  When the SWAT team arrived to escort them out of the Mall, one of its members announced that they had been sent by Andy and were part of Andy’s Army from Toy Story and would lead them to safety. So much for stereotypes about insensitive government bureaucrats.

The carousel was in motion when the first shots rang out.  Parents ran to grab their kids, but didn’t panic or trample each other.  There were so many examples of first responders and Mall employees who had been trained for emergencies and followed through as they had been trained.

Saturday, January 25th, will be remembered as a day in which gun violence struck Columbia. It will also be remembered as a day in which a lot of ordinary citizens did their jobs without flinching and with great skill.  In this era of rampant cynicism about government, finding that silver lining in what was otherwise a horrible day is an important lesson to remember.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.