One of the proposals being discussed after the Parkland high-school shooting — and touted by President Trump — is to have schools protected by arming teachers, hiring armed guards, or otherwise allowing or requiring the proverbial “good guy with a gun” to be on school grounds. Naturally, this idea has attracted a lot of rage and scorn, much of it from knee-jerk dislike of guns and/or Trump. Some have compared it to Archie Bunker arguing that all the passengers on an airplane should be given guns (a satirical proposal that goes to show nobody has had anything new to say on guns that Archie and Meathead weren’t yelling about 40 years ago . . . but that also would have saved thousands of lives on 9/11).
As with many culture-war arguments, this one could use a dose of common sense. “Arm the teachers” has a role to play in our answers to school shootings, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
The problem of school shootings (like other mass shootings) raises three questions:
(1) How do we stop people from becoming school shooters, including law enforcement and other authorities getting them out of circulation before they act?
(2) How do we prevent school shooters from arming themselves, or restrict the quality or quantity of arms they can obtain?
(3) How do we protect students, teachers, and staff once a school shooter is armed and active on the property?
Ideas (both good and bad) proposing to arm teachers, hire guards, fortify school entrances and doors, and even bulletproof backpacks are worth discussing, because realistically, we can never make the promise that we can keep violent people entirely out of schools. As much as we love to say “never again,” there’s no plausible universe in which we can identify and stop every possible perpetrator, or eradicate every weapon. But those conservatives who focus only on how we answer Question 3 as an excuse to dodge the first two questions are making the same mistake as the gun-control obsessives who focus only on Question 2 and ignore the other two.
The common sense answer is to recognize that — just as with so many cultural divides in this country — the right answer will vary by school and by teacher. Lots of teachers across the country are totally unfamiliar and uncomfortable with guns, lots of communities are full of parents who are repelled by the whole idea of using guns for self-defense, and in many places, teachers’ unions would demand all sorts of expensive concessions or would simply block any effort to allow, let alone mandate, arming teachers. The last thing we should be doing is trying to draft inexperienced, gun-phobic schoolteachers, many of them completely inexperienced in any kind of physical confrontation, in an effort to turn every kindergarten classroom in the nation into Rorke’s Drift.
But the gun haters need some common sense, too. There are lots of communities where guns are as familiar to parents and teachers as a fire extinguisher. A school that has teachers, coaches, or staff who are familiar and trustworthy with firearms (especially military and law-enforcement veterans) should be free to let them bring guns to school for defense of themselves and others, with whatever safety precautions are appropriate to the layout of the school building. An armed defense is no guarantee against a determined shooter, for many reasons — the shooter has tactical surprise and may have multiple weapons or body armor, the armed defender may be away from his or her classroom or other place of storage for the gun, and marksmanship in a firefight is hard even for experts — but at least it improves the odds of survival for more people, as it did in the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting in November.
Would this actually require changing any laws? That may depend on the state. While Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie has proposed repealing the federal Gun Free School Zone laws as counterproductive, the law as presently written allows guns in school either “if the individual possessing the firearm is licensed to do so by the State in which the school zone is located or a political subdivision of the State, and the law of the State or political subdivision requires that, before an individual obtains such a license, the law enforcement authorities of the State or political subdivision verify that the individual is qualified under law to receive the license,” or “by an individual for use in a program approved by a school in the school zone” (a provision that relates mainly to educational uses of guns) or “by an individual in accordance with a contract entered into between a school in the school zone and the individual or an employer of the individual.” The third of these provisions provides the easiest way for individual schools to work around the federal law.
The statistical reality, despite the horror of mass shootings, is that our schools are safer and less violent than they were 25 years ago, and the question of whether to take expensive steps like hiring armed guards needs to be evaluated at the local level based on the tradeoff between that reality and the fact that more spending on school safety will, in the long run, come out of the budgets for schools to educate kids. Those are discussions that local schools should make based on local conditions, too (urban schools in some high-crime areas already have guards, metal detectors, and the like).
But all sides of the gun debate should be willing to step back from rhetorical point-scoring and apply some common sense at the local level.