Buffalo's latest police tragedy stems from two things: the horribly wrong decision by a troubled teenager to try to avoid jail by shooting the police officers who had stopped him, and the street culture that made it easy for him to get an illegal gun.
Police Officer Patricia A. Parete's heartbreaking struggle for life started with that deadly combination. The courts will deal with the teenager -- more effectively, it must be hoped, than he was dealt with in the past. Dealing with the gun culture is an even tougher challenge.
Buffalo's immediate response is a gun buyback program. The city tried that before, in 1993. Such programs do get some guns off the street, but not always the right ones. In a street culture of gangs and drug-dealing that sees illegal guns as necessary protection, gun carriers are not likely to turn them in for cash; the programs tend to collect mostly unwanted or unusable weapons from homes.
More effective is tough enforcement of laws against illegal gun possession, and aggressive searching for such weapons. Buffalo was one of 15 cities nationwide to launch a program last spring to get illegal guns off the streets. Buffalo police have confiscated 998 guns so far this year. That effort is much better targeted on the kinds of guns that need to be taken off the streets. Mayor Byron W. Brown and District Attorney Frank J. Clark now have added a no-plea-bargain policy, which will have even more impact because of a new mandatory minimum sentence for illegal gun possession.
Ongoing community group efforts, from tip lines to street counseling, also are helping -- but the reason all these initiatives are needed in the first place is the failure of the federal government to develop more aggressive efforts to crack down on illegal guns, and on gun makers and gun dealers who cater to that trade.
In the summer of 2005, this newspaper produced a four-part series on gun trafficking and the constant stream of illegal weapons from Ohio into Buffalo. That problem still needs addressing.
A newly reconfigured Democratic majority in Congress should place illegal gun trafficking high on its growing list of priorities. This is no attempt to breach the Second Amendment. It's about illegal weapons, in the hands of those who have neither the licenses nor the character and judgment to have them. The issue, now tragically spotlighted by the shootings of Officers Parete and Carl E. Andolina, is the need to protect residents and those chosen to be residents' first line of defense.
Despite his own serious point-blank wounds, Andolina proved his own character on that line of defense by throwing himself on the teen who had just gunned down his partner. It led to the arrest of Varner Harris Jr., an 18-year-old who had been arrested early in 2005 for trying to rob a pizza deliveryman. Held for two months before being released on bail and eventually sentenced to five years' probation as a youthful offender, Harris reportedly acted this week out of fear of being sentenced to prison time now that he's legally an adult. A family is heartbroken that someone once considered meek would shoot anyone, and suggests missed doses of prescribed Prozac may have been a factor. It doesn't much matter. Two of Buffalo's finest have been cut down.
Andolina's courage demands recognition. He is being hailed rightly as a hero by the police commissioner and the mayor. Parete, the first female Buffalo police officer shot in the line of duty, is barely hanging on to her once-promising life. Her struggle demands tears.
These two officers' families, friends and colleagues have been devastated. The community should be outraged at the ease with which this criminal act against law enforcers was committed.