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Column: From Pittsburgh to Parkland: Gun Violence and Its Unintended Consequences

The gunman’s six words, as alleged during his trial, were both dreadful and predictable: “All these Jews need to die.”

This comment, if believed by the jury, could be sufficient to tip the scales toward Robert Bowers’s punishment – the death penalty. The legal tussling over whether he should live or die is an unintended consequence for murdering 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

It was one of two unintended consequences that emerged from gun violence in the past few weeks.

Nearly 1,000 miles south, former sheriff’s deputy Scot Peterson was acquitted of charges that grew from his failure to confront the gunman whose shooting spree left 17 people dead at a high school in Parkland, Broward County, on Feb. 14, 2018.

Both situations are outgrowths of gun violence that do not relate directly to the massacres themselves. If Congress would enact responsible gun-safety laws, would either of these tragedies had occurred? Now these incidents are sprouting into sideshows that occupy extra time and effort, cost taxpayers more money and produce debates over new issues.

Sometimes these sideshows result in addressing legitimate concerns, but they divert attention and resources from other needs.

Bowers was recently convicted of murdering 11 congregants and injuring others on Oct. 27, 2018, and he did not even attempt to defend himself in court. The jury took little time to pronounce him guilty. That was not enough. Now the jury must determine punishment, whether Bowers receives a life sentence or the death penalty.

The U.S. Department of Justice is treating Bowers’s crimes in civil rights terms, which means that his hostile attitude toward Jews could end with the death penalty.

His defense attorneys have been building a case for mental deficiencies and to downplay his anti-Jewish views.

Amid other evidence of antisemitic beliefs, U.S. Attorney Troy Rivetti repeated the shooter’s six words: “All these Jews need to die,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports.

Perhaps that will trigger jury members to retort: “This man who murdered our Jewish brothers and sisters needs to die.”

To underscore the defense’s case, attorney Michael Burt said, “Don’t consider a statement where he is saying something purposeful without considering the whole statement. What they show of Mr. Bowers’ intent is irrational thinking.”

Huh? Bowers singled out Jews. What else can it be if not antisemitism?

However, the idea of intent falls apart in the end. What are proponents of the death penalty thinking? Will they let it go if Bowers can show prejudice did not factor into his crimes?

What of those who oppose the death penalty? Will they make an exception by backing the death penalty if bigotry is involved?

Of course, advocates for the death penalty want Bowers executed for what he did, no matter why he did it.

Those against the death penalty will oppose it regardless of what the defendant was thinking.

Eight months before the Tree of Life synagogue rampage, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland where he murdered 17 people and wounded 17 others. Nikolas Cruz, 19 years old on the day of the rampage, was sentenced to life in prison last year for these crimes, but legal proceedings did not end there.

Scot Peterson, then a Broward County sheriff’s deputy, was prosecuted for child neglect and other offenses in the same courtroom as Cruz after he would not confront the shooter. Instead, he backed away from the building while students and teachers inside suffered through the gunman’s shooting spree.

The former deputy faced a 2½-week trial and four days of jury deliberations. He was found not guilty on Thursday last week of seven counts of child neglect and three counts of culpable negligence for the deaths and injuries of 10 people on the third floor of the building where the shooting occurred, The New York Times reported.

By all means, Peterson needed to account for his actions that day both to his employer and to the law for possible criminal offenses. But the consequences for Peterson and others did not have to happen.

So what do we have here? The fundamental tragedy of 11 deaths in Pittsburgh and 17 killings in Parkland. Easy access to guns for the shooters. Deciding punishment according to a shooter’s prejudices. Endangering the lives of not only congregants and students but also police who responded. The Stoneman school will be demolished because of the horrid memories its ongoing presence evokes, though school construction typically costs millions of dollars.

From my residence in Northeast Philadelphia on Tuesday, I learned that five people were murdered by a gunman wielding an AR-15-style rifle the night before in the opposite corner of town, Southwest Philly. City officials gathered for a news conference to provide updates and condemn lawmakers who facilitate gun violence, such as Pennsylvania legislators.

District Attorney Larry Krasner reminded us that Pennsylvania lacks the strong gun laws enacted in Delaware and New Jersey. He could have been referring to Congress as well as Pennsylvania’s legislature when he said of their attitudes: “I am against you. I am against your safety.”

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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