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After Uvalde, a veteran police officer weighs in on the reality of guns in America

Law enforcement officers look at a memorial Thursday following a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
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Law enforcement officers look at a memorial Thursday following a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

As the country continues to come to grips with last week's massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, disturbing questions have emerged about the response of law enforcement. 80 minutes passed between when officers were first called to the school to when a tactical team entered locked classrooms and killed the gunman. During that time, children trapped inside with the gunman made desperate calls to 911 for help. For 19 of those children and 2 teachers, help came too late.

Bill Lally is a veteran police officer and law enforcement expert. He teaches criminal justice at ISU and Eureka College. We've spoken with him in the past about the handling of the Jelani Day investigation and the mass shooting at the Landings mobile home park in Normal. And while Uvalde, Texas, isn't anywhere near central Illinois, what happened there has hit very close to home for so many of us.

WGLT's Sarah Nardi asked Lally if he could help make sense of why law enforcement — the "good guys with guns" — waited so long to go after the shooter at Robb Elementary. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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WGLT: Could you explain what the priorities are in an active shooter situation?

I think at any point in time, what you want to do is you want to make sure that the threat is no longer viable. What does that mean? Well, there's a multitude of things that can take place. But ultimately, what you want to do is neutralize the threat. And in some cases, that means use lethal force against the shooter.

But if there are other ways to be able to pull the shooter away from the children, or — while officers are engaged with the shooter — pull the students safely out of the situation, that could be another form of trying to neutralize the threat. So as you can imagine, a lot of these situations are very dynamic. And so it is constantly changing, and you have to be able to make your decisions as events are unfolding.

The sight of trained, armed law enforcement surrounding the Robb Elementary, with no one going in, was very hard to understand. What sense can be made of that from your perspective?

I think we have to have a brief discussion on body armor, because I think that's one of those things that a lot of people don't necessarily understand. Because the average person doesn't have a bulletproof vest in their closet. Generally speaking, there are 4 general levels of body armor, and the level you're wearing determines what type of protection you're going to have. The average police officer wears something known as a level 3A vest, which protects against are things like 9mm rounds, up to 44 magnum rounds, which are some pretty large, heavy rounds. But they will not protect against most rifle rounds.

So they don’t protect against assault rifles?

Correct. And to be able to carry or wear vests like that would almost be impractical because the average duties of police officers are going to be driving in squad cars, or in the office doing work. And when you start getting up to heavy, solid armor, your range of mobility is gonna go down a little bit. It's just not practical for everyday police officers to wear something of that bulk and tactical quality. Does that make sense?

It does. Does it make sense to you that that those kinds of weapons are legal when you, as a law enforcement officer, are vulnerable to it in that way?

That’s a whole other can of worms. We could spend an entire semester talking about gun culture in America. There are arguments on both sides on whether an 18-year old should be able to go in and purchase an AR-15. I can throw statistics and we can pull out all sorts of research, but what we can agree on is that this is an ongoing dialogue as well as something that seems to be emerging as a uniquely American problem. And I believe, at this point in time, that we have not found any viable solutions to the problem.

It keeps coming down to assault rifles. As a police officer, do you think that civilians should have access to these weapons?

Sarah, you're trying to get me into a very sticky situation.

I know that it's inherently a sticky situation. But I wish that it weren't because I feel like I can take a guess at your answer.

Speaking as an academic, I think you know my answer. There are those two schools of thought and I have listened to the arguments on both sides. But I've also looked at the data. My area of expertise is not on school shootings. It's not on the correlation between the amount of firearms out on the streets and the amount of gun violence that we see. However, what we do seem to find generally in the literature, is the more accessibility to firearms there are in any given community, the higher rates of incidents involving firearms fatalities or shootings.

We could spend a whole bunch of time talking about the transition of policing to a more militaristic type of organization. An increase in armored personnel carriers, and carrying an AR-15. Even our uniforms have changed. We've got the flak jacket on the outside, and extra magazine carriers for the AR-15, and things like that.

What it sounds like you're describing is an arms race between “good guys and bad guys.”

That's exactly what that is, is it's an increase on one side to try to combat the other side.

Why can’t we go in the other direction? Instead of bulking up the side of law enforcement, why can’t we concentrate our efforts on taking these weapons out of the hands of civilians?

I'm gonna give you the argument that I've heard. 18-year-olds came to the defense of the country during the Revolutionary War with their rifles to defend against tyranny and helped in the eventual rebellion and independence of this country. But then the other side said yes, but they were also carrying single shot muskets. So where do you draw the line? You can make the argument that you can take guns away, but people will still kill people. But then the question is, how easy does the weapon make it?

As for the question of where the line is drawn, I think for a lot of people it’s at a classroom of dead fourth-graders.

Yeah. Which doesn't seem to be where the line is being drawn, does it say? Because we keep having this discussion over and over and over again.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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