A prank caller made a false report to the Broward County Sheriff's Office in Florida this morning, claiming there was a hostage situation unfolding at a certain address. The address was the family residence of Parkland survivor and activist David Hogg.
Thankfully, no one was home—Hogg is in Washington, D.C., with his mother, accepting an award.
In a statement to the media, Hogg brushed off the "silly prank." "It's not going to take our focus off what we're super excited about; the March for Our Lives bus tour to get young people to vote and promote gun law reform" he said.
But swatting—the practice of reporting a false but serious crime at a certain location, in hopes that a SWAT team will show up—is a very serious matter that can get people seriously injured or killed. Plenty can go wrong when law enforcement officers are sent, under false pretenses, to what they believe is the scene of an ongoing crime.
Consider what happened to Andrew Finch, a 28-year-old resident of Wichita, Kansas. On December 28, 2017, two online gamers—Casey Viner and Shane Gaskill—began arguing over the internet. Eventually, Viner threatened to swat Gaskill. Gaskill dared him to do it, and even gave Viner an address. Gaskill then contacted a third man, Tyler Bariss, who was known for swatting people. Bariss contacted the police and told them he had killed his father, was holding another family member hostage, and had doused his home in gasoline. He then gave the police the address.
But Gaskill had tricked them. He no longer lived at the address he supplied; its current occupant was Finch. Police shot him to death as he opened the door for them.
Bariss, Gaskill, and Viner were all arrested. Authorities charged Bariss with involuntary manslaughter, and Gaskill and Viner with wire fraud, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.
Obviously, a cop who shoots an innocent and unarmed man has made a grave mistake, and police need to be held accountable for their actions. But there's a strong case to be made that swatters are also morally culpable for the actions of the cops. The officer who shot Finch might have been recklessly negligent, but he didn't intend for an innocent person to come to harm. Bariss, Viner, and Gaskill were all fully aware that their criminal actions could very well get somebody killed—indeed, the whole purpose of the prank call was to cause harm. Philosophically, that's the difference between manslaughter and attempted murder.
"Calling an armed law enforcement response to someone's house is attempted murder," he wrote.
I am always hesitant to recommend a legislative remedy. But in the case of swatting, it seems plausible that existing laws are simply not equipped to deal with this frightening method of hurting another person.