America, listen to Antoinette Tuff.
Thanks to her, this time there will be no funerals with tiny caskets, no candlelit vigils and no families broken by grief.
No one was shot Tuesday after a man slipped into an elementary school just outside Atlanta with an AK-47-style assault rifle, 500 rounds of ammo and “nothing to live for.”
Not because we listened to gun advocates who said we should arm teachers with weapons.
Not because we took the advice of the National Rifle Association, which said schools should have armed officers.
Not because we heeded the school board directives to make frightening “intruder drills” part of every curriculum.
Probably, a mass shooting didn’t happen because the gunman listened to Tuff, the bookkeeper at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga. Police have identified the suspect as Michael Brandon Hill, 20.
On Thursday, President Obama identified Tuff as a hero, with a surprise phone call thanking her for her act of bravery.
As soon as the man entered the school and fired one round into the floor, Tuff called 911 and stayed smooth and calm as a computer help line operator. She kept a conversation going among herself, the gunman and the 911 dispatcher.
She calmed him. She told him that he wasn’t alone in having troubles. Her husband walked out on her after 33 years, she said, and she has a “multiple-disabled” son. She soothed that man holding an assault rifle by telling him, “We all go through something in life.”
“I’m sitting here with you and talking to you about it,” she told him when he mumbled something about no one wanting to listen to him.
As she persuaded the young man to surrender, she said: “We not going to hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up, so we’re not going to hate you.”
She offered to act as his human shield, to walk outside the school with him so police wouldn’t shoot.
She even told him she loved him, cared about him and was proud of him as he began to stand down.
Are you listening to her, America?
Her 911 call — listen to the whole thing; it’s riveting — is a portrait of poise, compassion and selflessness. She was exactly what America is forgetting to be.
“What do they want? Why did they do this?” we wondered after Adam Lanza ripped apart an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 first-graders and six staff members in December, and after every one of the mass shootings that have become unbelievably frequent in our country.
When we were doubled over in grief after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Obama spoke about the sickening routine that this kind of tragedy has become.
“As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children,” he said. “And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
“The politics” proved too powerful to control the lethal arsenal that too many people believe they have a right to possess. The deaths of first-graders weren’t enough to change the gun-control debate.
Just because we dodged 500 bullets this time and all those sweet children in Georgia are alive doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go through the national soul-searching that comes after these tragedies.
In that school in Georgia, as the children and teachers began the intruder drills, the gunman gave Tuff a pretty clear list of what drove him to that school with that weapon and that plan.
“Call the news,” he told her. He wanted attention.
He said he was off his medication and “just wants to go to the hospital.” He wanted better health care.
He told her that he “wants to go on the intercom and let everybody know he’s sorry.” He wanted someone to hear him and to forgive him.
He wanted her to know it was easy to get an assault rifle when you’re on probation and mentally ill. He just took it from a friend.
After the suspect was in custody, Tuff exhaled.
“I’ve never been so scared in all the days of my life. Oh, Jesus,” she told the 911 operator.
Thank you, Antoinette Tuff, for using your head and your heart to save those kids.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.