by Bruce Dunlavy
(An index to my other posts is available from the pull-down menus at the top of this page, and my blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
In previous posts, this blog has addressed the issue of firearms safety several times, including a four-part series covering the gun issue in depth. That series was published in 2015, and not a whole lot has changed since then, so it is probably worth your while to visit (or re-visit) it. Part One, with successive links to the rest, can be found here.
As I write this, we stand yet again in the familiar position of mourning multiple deaths of children who were shot while attending school. Since it is nearly impossible to hold a sensible discussion on the place of firearms in American society, the battle is joined on the outside of the central matter. Most arguments are still taking place in the “pre- and post-“ phases, that is, how to identify a potential school shooter while an attack is being planned (or even before planning begins) or how to determine what went wrong during the most recent attack.
Let us briefly look at the first of that pair of circumstances. The United States Secret Service has prepared an analysis of mass shootings in American schools, which at its outset reflects something that mental health care professionals have acknowledged for a long time (I first heard it in 1980):
“There is no profile of a student attacker.”
In other words, there is no way to reliably tell who is likely to become a school shooter (nor, for that matter, to identify a school likely to be targeted). Anyone who says that it is possible for mental health professionals, law enforcement, or anyone else to identify a potential school shooter is engaging in unverified speculation.
The second question – how to respond to an attack – has generated numerous suggestions. One, for example, is to “harden” schools to make them less vulnerable. Such notions as a single point of entry to the building are touted as solutions. Of course, having a single point of entry means you must also have a single point of exit, because any doors that could be opened from the inside but not the outside could be used by an invader with a confederate inside the building to let him/her in. One way out for 1000 or more students, crisis situation or not, sounds like a dangerous idea.
School Resource Officers (SROs) provided by local law enforcement agencies have also proved unreliable, as at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 and, indeed, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where the latest mass shooting occurred. The inadequacy of having posted guards has resurrected a call we have heard before, specifically that armed teachers would be the best guardians of their students.
I am a teacher, and I think such an idea is not just ill-advised but also dangerous in itself. At my school, as at most, we have active shooter drills in which teachers lead their students in planned responses. I doubt that many teachers would feel comfortable leaving their students unattended while they go out and try to hunt down a shooter in the other rooms and hallways. I cannot fathom telling my students, “Just sit tight, kids, while I go search for somebody I can shoot.”
I will suggest three other solid reasons why arming teachers is not a wise plan.
First, how will it be decided which teachers are armed? Would it be some of them or all of them? If some, which ones? Just as importantly, how many? If a school has 70 teachers and administrators, should all have firearms? If so, what kind – handguns or long guns? And where would the guns be kept? Will the teachers carry sidearms in holsters? Will pistols be kept in desk drawers?
If the weapons are not secured properly, dangerous students would be able to access guns without having to bring them into school. If teachers are carrying them, they could be disarmed by two or three teenage students. If the weapons are locked in gun safes or other secure repositories at a central location, the teachers would have to go get them. Even if firearms are locked up inside classrooms, the teachers would still have to spend time accessing them. The aforementioned Secret Service report states that 44 percent of school shootings are over in less than one minute and 68 percent are over in less than two minutes. Only 17 percent go on longer than five minutes. Considering the numerous possibilities through which students – potential mass shooters or not – could get hold of firearms and cause damage to others or to themselves, it is not worth the risk.
The second danger is that schoolkids cannot be counted on to take security measures (or much else, for that matter) seriously. There is more than just the idea of students trying to figure out ways to get their hands on teachers’ guns for no reason other than to show they can. There are “class clowns” at any school who would delight in yelling “Gun!!” in a crowded hallway to see how many teachers would come charging out of their classrooms with firearm in hand.
Directly connected with this is the third problem, the possibility of misidentification. Suppose armed teachers do venture out into the hallways. In the chaos of the situation, one armed teacher seeing another armed teacher (many schools are big enough that not every faculty member knows all the others on sight) might take him/her for an armed intruder. The consequences of that might be unintentionally deadly. Then, when outside law enforcement arrives, they will enter a school and see multiple gun-carrying people. How are they to know which, if any, is an intruder and which is a teacher?
I certainly do not claim to have a solution to the problem of school shootings. However, twenty years of teaching in schools leads me to believe that arming teachers is definitely not the solution.