At what point could it have been stopped? When, from Nikolas Cruz’ expulsion from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to buying an AR-15 assault rifle from a gun shop to reportedly walking into his former high school and slaughtering 17 people and wounding more than 20 more, could tragedy have been averted?
In the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre, the nation has descended once again into a debate about what’s to blame for the steadily rising rate of mass killings in the country’s schools.
While much of the nation agrees action needs to be taken, beliefs about what that action should be vary greatly and are often diametrically opposed.
Here’s a rundown on when and how experts and officials said Cruz should have been stopped.
Expulsion from school
Cruz was expelled from the high school last year for what officials described as “behavioral issues,” according to reporting from the LA Times.
A student at the school told the paper Cruz was expelled after a fight with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.
Some of Cruz’ former classmates and neighbors told the New York Times that Cruz regularly displayed strange, alarming and violent behavior and deputies’ cars could often be seen in his home’s driveway.
Based on Cruz’ behavior, it has been contended that more should have been done to neutralize him before the shooting.
State Rep. Craig Gagnon, R-Abbeville, said more money needs to be invested in mental health care in school and beyond.
“We need to be making sure students get access to mental health care when they need it,” Gagnon said.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute lists expanding access to mental health care as something schools can do to reduce the chance of a mass shooting.
And Feb. 15, President Donald Trump tweeted more should have been done to notify authorities of Cruz’ instability.
“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!” Trump wrote.
As some leaders focus on mental illness, others in the medical community are expressing uncertainty or outright opposition to the idea that mental illness is the core cause of school shootings in the country.
“While law enforcement is still piecing together the shooter’s motives, some public figures and news reports are focusing on his mental health,” American Psychological Association President Jessica Henderson Daniel said in a statement Feb. 16. “It is important to remember that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness.”
At the gun store
In February 2017, Cruz walked into Sunrise Tactical Supply, a gun store in Coral Spring, Florida and walked out with the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle he would later use to gun down 17 people at his former high school.
A lawyer representing the store’s owner said during a press conference Cruz selected the unmodified gun from a rack inside the store and purchased it with the single, 30-round magazine the firearm comes with.
Because Cruz bought only one magazine, the unmodified rifle and no accessories, “no red flags were raised,” the store’s lawyer said.
The lawyer said the store did a full background check on Cruz, who provided his driver’s license and personal details, such as whether he had ever been institutionalized for mental health reasons, to which he answered no.
Cruz voluntarily sought mental health treatment up until 14 months before the shooting, said Broward Mayor Beam Furr.
In the wake of the shooting, Trump tweeted Tuesday he would support strengthening federal background checks performed during gun purchases.
“Whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening Background Checks!” he wrote.
Trump has also voiced support for raising the minimum age for buying a rifle or shotgun from 18 to 21 and a ban on accessories such as the bump stock that can be used to effectively convert semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic.
In Florida, people can buy AR-15 rifles – AR stands for ArmaLite, the company that developed the gun in the 1950s – and weapons like it from federally licensed dealers when they turn 18. Federal law requires a person be at least 21 to buy a handgun.
Some people contend that strengthened background checks don’t go far enough to address the issue and weapons such as the one Cruz used to kill 17 people in about seven minutes and that have been used in other high-profile massacres, such as a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut that claimed 28 lives — mostly young children — and a shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 dead and 527 injured, need to be more strictly regulated or banned completely.
The AR-15 and weapons like it are variants of the military M16 and shorter M4 carbine. The primary difference between AR-15-type rifles and their military counterparts is the M16 and M4 have fully automatic capabilities.
Though AR-15-style rifles are semi-automatic, they still retain some of the features that make the military-grade weapons deadly: they are light, easy to hold and fire, and have limited recoil. They are also fed with box magazines that are easily changed, and have a standard capacity of 30 rounds. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel told the press Cruz had “countless magazines” in his possession during the shooting.
The CHOP Research Institute said weapons such as the one used at Marjory Stoneman Douglas contribute to higher casualties during mass shootings.
“States that restrict assault weapons also have the lowest per capita homicide rates,” the institute’s website said. “However, because guns are easily trafficked in interstate and international commerce, federal rules are needed.”
After the shooting, many students who survived the shooting and parents whose children were killed have been vocal about banning or limiting access to the weapons.
On Wednesday night, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, faced a crowd of high schoolers who saw their classmates gunned down and parents who lost children in the shooting at a CNN town hall.
Fred Gutenberg, whose daughter, Jaime Guttenberg, was gunned down in the massacre, was highly critical of Rubio and other lawmakers.
“It is too easy to get,” Guttenberg said. “It is a weapon of war. The fact that you can’t stand with everybody in this building and say that, I’m sorry.”
When Cameron Kasky, a student who survived the shooting, asked Rubio if he would refuse to accept funding from the National Rifle Association, Rubio answered, “people buy into my agenda, and I do support the Second Amendment,” which was met with jeers and boos from the crowd.
Rubio said he supported raising the minimum age required to buy a rifle or shotgun and would consider legislation banning large-capacity magazines.
Banning AR-15-style rifles, Rubio said, would not be effective in preventing criminals from getting them and is not the solution to mass shootings in schools.
State Sen. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood, said he supports limiting access to AR-15 rifles and similar guns that are sometimes referred to as “modern sporting rifles.”
“We also need to look at individuals being able to purchase those type of assault weapons,” Nicholson said. “They are not hunting weapons.”
While some call for AR-15-style rifles to be outlawed, others argue to do so would infringe on rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment and would not reduce, but rather might increase, mass shootings.
State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said the culture in the country is the root of school shootings, not guns.
“I see it as a degradation in society,” Pitts said. “Guns haven’t changed much in the last 50 years, so what’s the difference? It’s the culture.”
Months before shooting
In the months preceding the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Cruz posted statements and images on social media so incendiary and disturbing, he was reported to the FBI.
In September, a YouTube user going by Nikolas Cruz commented on a video, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” CNN reported.
Special Agent In Charge Rob Lasky told USA Today that when the FBI received a tip about the comment, the bureau “conducted database reviews, checks, but was unable to further identify the person who actually made the comment.”
A former classmate of Cruz’ told USA Today he had seen him post photos of dead animals to Instagram and another said he’d seen a photo of Cruz holding a gun in front of his face on social media.
Jim Gard, a math teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who taught Cruz, told the Miami Herald he believes the school sent out an email advising teachers Cruz was not to be allowed on campus with a backpack while he attended the school.
A release from the FBI said a person close to Cruz contacted the bureau’s Public Access Line to report concerns about him and “provided information about Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.”
The release said the information was not assessed as a potential threat to life or provided to the bureau’s Miami Field Office, as protocol dictated it should have been.
In the wake of the shooting, the FBI has received criticism for its failure to respond to the tips.
Gagnon said the the organization “dropped the ball” and Florida Gov. Rick Scott has called for the agency’s director to resign after the shooting.
Douglas, Feb. 14
On Valentine’s Day, Cruz took an Uber to Marjory Stoneman Douglas, walked into the school building and removed his AR-15 from a long, black bag.
At 2:21 p.m., he opened fire.
Seven minutes later, 17 people were dead and more than 20 were wounded.
While Cruz gunned down students and teachers inside the school, Scot Peterson, a school resource officer with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, waited outside the building for four minutes, listening to the gunshots inside.
Peterson was later suspended without pay before he resigned.
Cruz had the weapon, attempts to report his intentions to the FBI had gone unheeded, any access to mental health resources he may have had did not help him – on the day of the shooting, what could have been done?
Some officials have argued arming teachers and staff would increase safety inside of schools, and that if staff in the high school had been carrying guns, the casualties would have been reduced.
After a shooting in 2016 that left a 6-year-old dead in Townville, S.C., state Sen. Mike Gambrell, R-Honea Path, and then state Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, filed a bill that would give school districts the option to arm teachers and other school employees.
In the wake of the shooting in Florida, Pitts filed an accompanying bill Wednesday for the state House of Representatives.
“You had a coach at the school in Florida who was willing to die for his students, but if he was armed, he could have fought back,” Pitts said. “I know people say that if you arm teachers, you end up with shootouts. But if you don’t arm teachers, you end up with executions.”
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, a national teacher union, have come out strongly against the idea of arming teachers.
“It is both astounding and disturbing that following this tragedy, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, Bill Bennett, and other politicians and pundits have taken to the airwaves to call for arming our teachers,” a joint statement from the organizations said. “As the rest of the country debates how to keep guns out of schools, some are actually proposing bringing more guns in, turning our educators into objects of fear and increasing the danger in our schools.”
In December 2016, after Gambrell and Bryant’s bill was pre-filed in the state Senate, S.C. Education Association President Bernadette Hampton told The Post and Courier that having staff carry guns in school is not something she or the group’s members want.
“We believe it would be an opportunity to have the unexpected happen,” she told the paper. “Teachers are trained to teach and instill the love of learning within our students. But we are all in agreement with having school resource officers that are properly trained.”
At the town hall Wednesday, Rubio said the idea of arming teachers, for which Trump has voiced support, is a “terrible idea.”
As school shootings become more common, schools around the country are enacting mandatory active shooter education and the students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas had received various levels of active shooter training.
But Cruz, a former student, was familiar with the school’s emergency procedures, USA Today reported.
Lakelands schools currently have policies in place requiring doors to be locked during the day, school resource officers to be present on school grounds, security cameras on school property and mandatory active shooting drills to increase security at schools.