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Sanchez: Empathy prevents the next massacre

A Dekalb County Police officer stands guard as

A Dekalb County Police officer stands guard as students from Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy board school buses to take them to reunite with their parents after they were evacuated after reports of a gunman entered the school, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Decatur, Ga. All students and teachers are safe and a suspect is in custody after gunfire was heard at the Atlanta-area elementary school. Photo Credit: AP Photo David Goldman

Welcome back to school, America. Summer was but a brief break from the kind of news that has become all too normal. An elementary school in Georgia, Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, was visited Tuesday by a mentally ill man armed with a weapon and enough ammunition to slaughter children and their teachers.

This time there were no injuries. And it's for a different reason than many gun rights advocates would have us expect. A school clerk with a heart -- not a good guy with a gun -- did the work.

The role of Antoinette Tuff in thwarting the gunman is significant. Tuff is the embodiment of the wisdom that not every threat of violence needs to be met with more violence.

Tuff calmly coaxed 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill to admit he was mentally ill, to accept that he needed help, and to set down his weapons and give himself up to police.

It took her nearly half an hour, relaying the comments of Hill to police through dispatchers. "We're not going to hate you, baby," she can be heard saying on the 911 tape. "You're giving yourself up."

She empathized, telling Hill that she'd been suicidal once, too, after a divorce. "It's going to be all right, sweetheart," she told him. "I just want you to know I love you though, OK? And I'm proud of you."

Tuff is brave -- far more impressive than folks who think they can shoot their way out of similar situations after a few practice rounds at the local firing range. But what made all the difference was her emotional intelligence, which was nothing short of genius. School personnel could learn a lot by studying how this bookkeeper rose to the situation.

That's not to say that all gunmen can be talked out of committing mass murder. Clearly, it could have ended very differently. Hill had nearly 500 rounds of ammunition, an AK-47-style rifle and a desire to die. He shot into the air and outside at police officers.

Tuff wasn't just relying on her own wits. She had been trained. The school had protocols in place that she followed. She alerted other staff, which sent the message to teachers to lock doors and get the children to safety.

We need more people like Tuff to intervene with troubled people like Hill -- but long before they pick up a weapon. I'm including people in the pro-gun camp here, too. What responsible gun owner would willingly put a weapon in the hands of a mentally ill friend or acquaintance?

And yet the gun lobby fights tooth and nail against any effort to make background checks mandatory in private gun sales and sales at gun shows. Gun sellers need to take responsibility for making sure they don't put weapons in the hands of dangerous people -- and if that requires legal liability, so be it.

Hill reportedly got the gun from someone he knew. How'd he acquire the ammunition? He'd pleaded guilty in July for threats against his brother.

Are armed guards in schools a bad idea? Not necessarily. No one is arguing against off-duty or retired police in schools. School resource officers have long played a significant role in keeping schools safe. But arming more adults in our schools is not the only solution. In fact, it's far from the best one. Ask the insurance industry.

In the aftermath of the murder of 26 students and staff in Newtown, Conn., more than 30 state legislatures attempted to pass legislation to allow school staff to carry weapons. The response was inspired by the NRA, which released a report calling for more guns in schools. Seven states passed new laws allowing teachers and others to be armed.

Insurers have threatened to raise rates or cancel policies. They don't want to pay out for the liability lawsuits that would surely follow. After all, more guns means more chances of accidents, more opportunities for the students to get hold of a loaded gun, or for students and staff to be shot in crossfire.

As for Hill, he is lucky. He will likely be convicted and sentenced for what he's done, but he's not dead. He didn't harm anyone. That means he can receive treatment and get back on medication. Tuff saved not only her own life and those of countless children, staff and maybe even police. She saved Hill's life as well.

There are many ways to be a hero. The best is to save these troubled souls from doing harm.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.