There are a lot of ways to talk about what the armed school resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Scot Peterson, did or didn’t do on Feb. 14. Did he stay outside of the school because he was afraid for his own life? Or was he acting out of the belief that the shooting was coming from outside the school, as lawyers representing him now suggest? Is the fact that Peterson, who has since resigned as a sheriff’s deputy, didn’t charge inside the building proof that neither cops nor teachers, even armed ones, can really be prepared to face off against an assailant carrying an AR-15? President Trump, though, went in another direction. Speaking about the shooting to a gathering of governors, Trump blithely declared, “I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.” (As this post was published, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested that Trump was trying to say that he would lead on gun policy, which.)
This is a hilarious statement given Trump’s long history of avoiding physical conflict. Perhaps more important, at one of the rare moments when it seems it might be possible to do something about gun policy in America, Trump’s delusions are a powerful reminder that legislators should make policies that can be carried out by real humans — not by characters in action movies.
Trump’s remarks to the governors cast the president as a modern-day Liam Neeson, an actor who in his 50s and 60s has reinvented himself as an action star capable of taking down sex traffickers in the “Taken” franchise, battling violent blackmailers during a transatlantic flight in “Non-Stop” and getting into fistfights with wolves in “The Grey.”
Trump does not rank high on the list of people who could credibly make this sort of claim. He received four deferments from the draft that allowed him to avoid serving in the Vietnam War before being medically disqualified from military service, hardly the actions of a man desperate to spring into combat. He famously shied away from a bald eagle during a photo shoot for Time’s 2015 Person of the Year issue, declaring, “This bird is seriously dangerous.” He has told Howard Stern that he hates blood to the point of obsessing about the impact on his floors when a man fell offstage during a charity event at Mar-a-Lago. He did not exactly rush to put up his dukes on a number of occasions when Secret Service agents jumped in to protect him during events on the 2016 campaign trail. While not precisely the behavior of an action star, allowing himself to be protected rather than diving into the fray is maybe the most presidential thing Trump has done: The president’s job is not to engage in fisticuffs to prove his masculinity.
If Trump were the only person to speak loudly and carry a tiny stick when it comes to the prospect of physical violence or personal risk, his remarks about Peterson might merely be evidence of personal hypocrisy and an exhausting tendency toward puffery. But Trump is hardly the only person to quail, falter or choose caution in the face of great risk. Christopher Cantwell, a white nationalist who bragged “I carry a pistol. I go to the gym all the time” and declared himself ready to kill counter-protesters demonstrating against racist groups who gathered in Charlottesville in 2017, posted a weepy confessional after he learned that he faced an arrest warrant. Pop culture has spent decades showing police officers acting cool under gunfire, an image starkly at odds with dash-cam and cellphone videos that show police officers panicking and killing civilians. If lawmakers decide that the best solution to America’s school shootings is to arm teachers and to demand that they behave like highly trained commandos, the pool of qualified educators is about to get a lot smaller and hiring is about to get a lot more competitive.
And beyond the question of whether the general population is full of people who would behave like action stars if given the opportunity, legislators need to ask if action stars are actually what we need. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said that Peterson should have “killed the killer.” Trump may be fantasizing about personally charging the shooter, too-long tie and comb-over rippling dramatically as he races to the rescue. But one thing that action movies gloss over is that you need someone to shoot up the bad guys or punch the wolves only when all else has failed. The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were at risk not because life is an action movie, but because everyone who could have investigated the alleged shooter or intervened in his life before Feb. 14 let them down.