Editorial: Addressing our cultural failure

The rule of law doesn’t always follow what appears to be common sense. In the Jack Sawyer case, for example, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that just because the 18-year-old wrote in his journal that he was planning to carry out a mass shooting at his former high school in Fair Haven, Vt., that was not enough evidence to hold him without bail on attempted murder charges.
That decision comes in spite of the fact that he had purchased weapons allegedly to carry out such a mass shooting and had confessed his thinking to a female friend, who in turn had tipped off authorities — a move that may have prevented a tragedy.
So here’s the question: Does an alleged assailant have to pull the gun’s trigger (or detonate a bomb) before it’s considered an attempt? Or is there some threshold of intent to do harm that can be considered legally viable short of that point?
As per case law in Vermont that threshold is currently fairly high, and, according to news reports, one recourse would be for the Legislature to try to enshrine a definition of “attempted” murder in legislation, rather than to have case law define that scope (the last case tried in Vermont was 100 years ago under very different circumstances.)
It’s fortunate that among the three gun control measures signed last week by Gov. Scott, one of them allows law enforcement officers to seize weapons if officers and a court determine that an extreme risk protection order is warranted. Such an order was granted last week in the Sawyer case and a hearing was set for April 25 to extend that order for six months. Certainly for Fair Haven Union High students in particular, it’s a relief to know that Sawyer won’t be released from jail with those same guns readily available to him.
On the flip side of this case, it’s not difficult to understand the defense’s argument. Of the four charges levied against Sawyer, two included attempted aggravated murder and attempted first-degree murder, even though (as far as we know or has been reported) he never set foot on the school grounds with weapons in his possession. So, is it an attempt if you’re just thinking about it and writing about it in a journal? That aspect of the charge was always questionable. As the Supreme Court noted, the allegations against him did not meet the standard for the crimes he had been charged with. The defense has suggested it will seek dismissal of all charges at the next hearing on April 27, or sooner.
But how does that ruling meet the standard of common sense?
If law enforcement officials tell students and parents and the community at large that keeping our eyes and ears open and reporting suspicious behavior is our best defense, then how does that advice square with this Supreme Court decision?
Surely society has to have some way to stop such attacks before they happen. Might we consider some stricter definition of “plotting” the crime in more exact terms to be that tipping point? But then how would you distinguish between “just thinking about it,” and actually “plotting” in any criminal sense? Slippery slope, indeed. But if not that, then what?
Perhaps denying Sawyer the right to have lethal weapons is the best the system can provide today. It certainly helps resolve the initial threat. Perhaps, too, mental health counseling will be a condition of his sentence or release pending the outcome of court proceedings still to come.
Still, these are different times in a gun culture that has seemingly strayed too far over the line.
Vermont has taken initial steps to expand background checks and deny gun access in extreme risk cases, but gun rights advocates are right in thinking that those measures alone won’t stop the violence in a culture that has for too long glorified guns as a weapon to kill others.
How we address that cultural failure – remember, other western countries don’t have the same problem to any similar degree — will define how long our children, and all the rest of us, live in fear and dread of the next mass shooting.

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