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Could Waco Have Been Avoided? : A terrible end to the standoff calls for reassessment of tactics--and of gun laws

April 20, 1993

More will be learned in the days to come about precisely what happened Monday in Waco, Tex., when federal agents tried to end a 51-day standoff with a heavily armed religious cult by storming the cult's compound. For now, no reasonable person can feel anything but shocked sadness at a conflagration that ended with what officials have acknowledged to be "a massive loss of life."

Only nine of the 95 members of the Branch Davidian cult are believed to have survived the raid by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Most, including as many as 25 children, probably died in the massive, fast-moving fire reportedly set by cult members once the final assault on their compound began. It will not help matters any that apparently among the dead was David Koresh, the messianic leaderof the Branch Davidians.

Let there be no more black humor about the Waco Wacko. Like Jim Jones, who led more than 900 followers of his Peoples Temple to mass suicide 15 years ago in Guyana, Koresh has left us all stunned at the power he was able to exercise over his followers and wondering anew just what in human nature could lead people, seemingly so normal in many other ways, to such a fanatical end.

There may be no complete answer to such a profound question. But in the meantime there are more practical questions to be answered.

For the federal agencies involved in the standoff, there must be an honest reassessment of the tactics used, and the intelligence they were based on. Tactics used in Monday's final assault and in the original Feb. 28 raid on the Branch Davidian compound that left four ATF agents and six cult members dead must be investigated--not just by the FBI and ATF, but by the White House and Congress if necessary.

Congress must also take a fresh look at federal gun-control laws to close loopholes that allowed religious extremists to become so heavily armed that they were able to first beat back, and then hold off, a small army for more than 50 days. The same is surely called for in Texas, where lax gun laws allowed Koresh and his followers to continue arming themselves--even after authorities charged some of them with murder.

Given the vagaries of human nature, there may be no way to keep events like the Waco standoff, or the Jonestown massacre, from happening. But human institutions, like government, can at least try to minimize the terrible damage human beings sometimes do to themselves.

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