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Despite false alarm, the familiar active-shooter routine plays out once again

Three Pittsburgh police officers and two paramedics stand on the sidewalk in Oakland.
Gene J. Puskar
Pittsburgh Police and paramedics respond to Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School for what turned out to be a hoax report of an active shooter, on Wednesday, March 29 in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. Sign up here to get it every Thursday afternoon.

There was no active shooter. No shots fired. Not this time. Even as Pittsburgh police set up a staging area near Oakland and Central Catholic high schools — after 9-1-1 calls falsely claimed a mass shooting was taking place there — the indications were that it was all a hoax.

“I do not believe that we have anybody that has seen, or heard, any active shooter,” one city officer advised his colleagues by radio at 10:34 a.m. “The situation is stabilized.”

But this is America, in 2023. The situation is never stabilized, not really. And so the entire city engaged in an active-shooter drill, just as its children have been doing since kindergarten. Parents pulled their phones closer. Locked-down employees and students at the University of Pittsburgh watched the news while keeping away from the windows. Officers in tactical gear began clearing school buildings, as TV news helicopters took to the sky.

Similar scenes played out all across western Pennsylvania: Schools from Erie to Uniontown were targeted with similar calls — a smattering of districts as disconnected from each other as the sites of actual shootings have been.

But at least in western Pennsylvania, at least on Wednesday, there was little need for thoughts and prayers from elected officials. Though of course we already know what many of them would have said. That’s part of the drill as well.

Central Catholic in particular looms large in the region’s politics: It’s been a training ground for generations of local political leaders, from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and former Congressman Conor Lamb on down.

“Today, my alma mater Central Catholic is trending because of a false report of a shooting,” Lamb tweeted in the early afternoon. “Yesterday, another Christian school in Nashville was not so lucky.” The Nashville shooter, who killed three children and three adults, had purchased more than a half-dozen firearms, Lamb noted. “Who can defend buying 7 guns?”

Lamb himself shifted his position on guns during his tenure in Washington: His very first campaign ad depicted him with an assault rifle. But times and the configuration of his district changed. By 2022, he was cosponsoring legislation to ban weapons just like it.

And on Wednesday, it fell to Congresswoman Summer Lee to make a plea from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I rise today on behalf of the students, teachers, parents and loved ones across western Pa. who are still reeling from what we all thought was our worst fear come to life,” she said in a speech late that evening. “This is not normal. Active shooters aren’t normal. Shooting hoaxes aren’t normal. The evacuations and the active shooting drills aren’t normal. There’s nothing about this that is normal.”

But if it’s not normal, it is, at any rate, all too familiar. Lee’s predecessor, former Congressman Mike Doyle, spent a quarter-century in office — during which time he witnessed the rise of school and other mass shootings. He once famously took part in a 2016 sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House, demanding action on gun violence.

“We’re not going to watch any more people in this country get slaughtered and do nothing!” he shouted at one point during the demonstration.

In the end, they didn’t do nothing. It took six years, but months before Doyle left office, Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — the first major gun legislation to be enacted in three decades. The measure provided funding for states to establish “red flag” laws that could take guns from people in mental health crises, as well as for school-safety programs to address student mental health and such problems as bullying.

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So not nothing, though polling suggests that even when the bill was signed, many Americans felt it would not be enough. Doyle is one of them. Late last year, he expressed aggravation about the cost of years of inaction on the issue: He’d ban assault rifles if he could, he told me: “But if we could ban them tomorrow, there’s already 300,000 of them out there.”

Still, “I think it’s changing slowly but surely,” he said about Congress’ appetite for change. “The demographics are changing, Congress is getting younger. … And I really believe in the not-too-distant future you’re going to see some changes.”

Maybe that process is underway: Lamb’s replacement in Congress, fellow Democrat and veteran Chris Deluzio, openly campaigned on his support for an assault rifle ban, among other measures.

But for now, at least, our politics have proven incapable of addressing these wounds: You can only hope that the latest post-shooting debate doesn’t make things worse — that the latest calamity doesn’t become an excuse to revisit culture-war tropes which, in their own way, make our connections to each other feel tenuous.

As it stands now, firearms are the leading cause of death among American children. And polling suggests that nearly a third of Americans are “extremely” or “very” concerned about the possibility of a shooting taking place at their children’s school. Another third say they are “somewhat” concerned.

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that statistically speaking the vast majority of these parents will never see those fears come true. And maybe that’s the best our politics can offer us: that when the district calls — when the tactical teams and the news helicopters are called out — that it will prove to be a false alarm. That just as on Wednesday, the only thing to fear will be fear itself.

But even that feels like a lot.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.