On March 19, 1982, just before the start of class, Clarence A. Piggott, a high school psychology teacher was shot and killed by Patrick Henry Lizotte, a disturbed student who came to school that morning to resolve a problem he had with a different teacher. Lizotte’s solution was to shoot Piggot in the heart with one bullet from a 22-caliber revolver. Lizotte then concealed the gun in the green camouflage jacket he always wore and made his way through the very crowded hallways of Valley High School and onto the residential streets of Las Vegas. During his capture, Lizotte was shot twice by Las Vegas Metro Police. Although Lizotte was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, the jury sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. He was also sentence to an additional sixty years of imprisonment for the attempted murder of two students he shot while leaving the school.
I was down the hall when the first period bell sounded that morning. I was in the crowd that obliviously flowed past Mr. Piggott’s classroom in his last moments of life.
The words one expects to hear about gunman applied to the 18 year-old Lizotte. Words like loner, outsider, weird and quiet all applied. He also had an obsession for guns. To paraphrase Emerson, for his non-conformity the world had whipped Lizotte mightily with its displeasure. From what I learned afterwards, Lizotte was picked on extensively during his school experience. Not just high school, but all 12 years of his schooling. He had thick glasses, he walked funny, he was the butt of jokes and teased unmercifully both by students and teachers. In modern days, we would say that he was bullied.
I read in a Facebook post from a former classmate that during PE, rather than participate in sports, Lizotte would often walk the perimeter of the athletic field to avoid the teasing and harassment. Tragically, that field now bears Piggot’s name, as does a Las Vegas elementary school. Another Facebook post reported that a teacher once warned students to lay off Lizotte, because if he ever snapped, it would be ugly. It seems that people knew that there was a risk, but other than Piggott few reached out to help.
As news of Columbine and Aurora and hit the airwaves, I always shut the TV off. I don’t want to deal with these tragedies and I usually do not want to write about them.
Following the events in Newtown, CT, the national dialog as it usually happens, has been taken over by the two great obstacles to reason on these matters, the NRA and the anti-gun lobby. The rhetoric keeps focus on the guns and their specifications rather than the mental illness of the shooters. Lizotte used Ruger single six, long-barrel revolver to kill Mr. Piggott. He used only three of his available six rounds. He didn’t need a semi-automatic with extended magazines. None of that matters now.
Patrick Lizotte’s solution to get out of his oral presentation in his history class was disturbed. Our national solutions should not be focused on the guns, but rather finding and aiding those in need of help.
Over the past decades (plural) our nation, our states and our cities have repeated cut services for the mentally ill. We need to fund services that would identify and help treat those who need help. We routinely screen children for hearing and vision deficits, shouldn’t it be possible to routinely test them for psychological problems as well?
In the past weeks, Senator Barbara Boxer, who I have repeated voted for over the past 20 years, proposed $30 to $50 million in federal funds to install metal detectors, cameras in our nations schools. She also called for funds be used to deploy the National Guard to protect our schools at the discretion of the state. This proposal provides countermeasures to the symptom but doesn’t address the root cause of the mental illness of the shooters.
I’ve also heard proposals to put armed security in all the schools of the nation. I have to wonder how much that would help. Wouldn’t those armed guards be the target the bad guys would want to take out first? I know there were at least two armed undercover narcotics agents in Valley High School back in 1982. They just didn’t happen to be where the shooter was. Maybe we need armed guards in every classrooms? Perhaps if they had their guns drawn and safeties off they could have helped poor Mr. Piggott.
The Second Amendment protects the Right to Bear Arms. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of gun control the right to bear arms is as much a part of the American culture as baseball and apple pie. Yeah, I said it, as much as much a part of the American culture as baseball and apple pie. The Second Amendment is not going away. It won’t be repealed and it won’t be rewritten. Unless there are some challenge in case law, the Supreme Court won’t have any opportunities to weigh in on its interpretation.
Trying to prevent a Patrick Lizotte style- school shooting with gun control laws is the wrong solution. The kid was going to get a gun, legally or illegally. At the same time, we as a nation have to be secure enough to have a national dialog exploring the possibility of putting more responsible gun control laws in place. It has been my experience that gun owners tend to be disciplined and responsible in the care, handling, storage and use of their weapons. Might gun license renewals require a simple mental competence exam every 5 or 10 years? Could we agree that an eye exam could be useful? Wanting to have a dialog on proper gun licensing makes us responsible, not communists.
To paraphrase an old expression, better to be thought a fool than to speak on TV and remove all doubt.