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Moats: Lessons From Fair Haven

As soon as the smoke had cleared in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, the cry went up - how could such a rampage, claiming 17 lives, finally be prevented? For an answer, the nation might look to Vermont a few days later – and what happened here - or what didn’t happen.

On February 16, police arrested a young man for plotting an attack at Fair Haven Union High School similar to the one in Parkland. No one knows if 18-year-old Jack Sawyer would have carried out his plans, but people were worried enough to call the police, and the police acted.
Often, a sort of fatalism sets in after events like that in Parkland. In their despair, people doubt anything can be done, and point to the fraying social fabric, the challenge of mental illness and the Second Amendment. But what happened – or didn’t – in Fair Haven offers some insights.

Sawyer had wrestled with mental illness all his life – and he had a morbid fascination with the Columbine massacre. But he wasn’t the product of a fraying social fabric. In his journal, he wrote of the love he felt for his parents, and of the love and support he had from them in return.

He also wrote, “I don’t know why I hate people with such sickening disgust for them. I don’t know why people hate me and laugh at me behind my back.” He didn’t know. Nobody knew, and yet everyone who loved him tried to help - an indication that even with a strong social fabric and close attention to mental health, things can go wrong.

Sawyer hatched his plans, obtained a shotgun and made a list of other weapons to buy. But luckily, friends and parents of friends were willing to take the risk of calling the police, and police took seriously the warnings they received.

So maybe the system worked and we don’t need to change our gun laws. But it’s not always going to work, and it certainly didn’t work in Parkland. So isn’t it possible that if it were harder to buy a lethal assault rifle, people like Jack Sawyer might be moved to abandon their violent fantasies?
None of us knows for sure why people do these things – nor is there a fail-safe way to stop them. But Fair Haven has shown it’s not impossible to act - and despair is not required.

David Moats is an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
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