One week ago, the House passed a bill designed to prevent school violence, one that would fund programs ranging from increased security to suicide prevention and safety education. Conspicuously absent from this bill was any provision to arm teachers; there’s a lot of discussion about that, with opinions predictably divided along partisan lines.
As with any other contentious issue, however, it’s not that simple — certainly not as simple as Democrat versus Republican.
Why should we arm teachers?
Statistically, school shootings come in waves, and we’re in the middle of one now. The consensus is that ‘borderline’ individuals are inspired to act due to the televised notoriety of each successive actor. One might conclude that the wisest response to a school shooting would be media silence, but that’s as much an oversimplification as “ban all guns” or “stop printing the Bachman Books“; complex issues rarely have simple answers.
During the last wave, it became common practice to install an armed police officer or security guard at most schools. Euphemistically referred to as a “School Resource Officer”, this position created a full-time armed law enforcement presence in over 40% of America’s schools. Programs like DARE and GREAT were designed to educate students about the dangers of drugs and gangs, respectively — and GREAT, at least, has demonstrated its effectiveness (even as DARE has not).
SROs are common in wealthy suburbia, but far less so in the inner cities or rural schools. The main reason for this is funding; SROs generally get paid better than the average teacher. In poorer schools with local control over budgets, they’re likely to be an easy target for cost-cutting.
Many rural districts with law enforcement response times averaging an hour or more are strongly in favor of arming staff members who are already present, a way to avoid paying the high cost of an SRO. In some areas, this does include teachers; in others, only administrative and engineering staff are permitted access to firearms. Similarly, many inner city school districts lack SROs only because of a lack of funding.
One other argument in favor that carries some weight is that schools are frequent targets for terror attacks in other countries. Indeed, it’s arguable that domestic incidents like Columbine are effectively terrorism. What’s beyond argument is the conclusion that American schools are, in a great many instances, startlingly vulnerable to attack.
Why we still shouldn’t arm teachers:
I tried to be neutral on this; I really did. However, the arguments against are far more powerful than any I could find in favor. Apart from a few specific instances, I simply can’t honestly pretend to recommend arming teachers or most school staff.
The most powerful reason is the simplest: Teachers exist to teach, a duty which one cannot perform effectively when one views the student as a potential assailant. Teaching requires empathy, a relationship, and the development of a rapport, each of which is inimical to most situations involving an armed party in charge of a roomful of the unarmed. The major exception is Stockholm syndrome, something that should not be encouraged in the classroom.
Another strong counter-argument can be extrapolated from home protection studies. The most frequently cited of these is from the New England Journal of Medicine, the conclusion of which is often misused to argue against guns for self-defense. Just as with Joe Biden’s famous statement that “…the bulk of the people… end up being shot with their own weapon”, the numbers actually only show that the most common shooting correlation by far is with suicide. In this case, it’s reasonable to conclude that a large increase in teacher suicides would, statistically, be the most significant result of arming them.
The argument that arming teachers would tend to actually endanger students by introducing guns into their environment is not without merit. Studies have shown that law enforcement officers and trained soldiers are in fact likely to effectively use firearms for self-defense, whereas the average non-combatant is far more likely to accidentally injure or kill themselves or, even worse, to lose control of the weapon. Counter-intuitively, many of these studies were funded by the firearms industry itself.
So what should we do?
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer recently said that “…This is not a partisan issue.”
And no issue ever is partisan — until it’s made so by a politician with an axe to grind. Not to single out Hoyer unduly, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a rare politician who won’t grind an axe even if they have to beg, borrow, or steal one (but never buy, not with their own money). Rather, the entire issue of gun violence in schools has become one of the hottest political topics of the year. It is so highly charged that party operatives would be criminally negligent if they were to permit it to fall off the radar.
So what’s likely to happen is that this will in fact be used as a political bludgeon to unseat Republican congressmen in the upcoming elections, and that in consequence several harsh and restrictive laws will be passed. Unfortunately, they’re unlikely to be effective; mandatory minimums and the War On Drugs are excellent illustrations of why.
In lieu of this, it would be wise to consider steps that might be effective:
- Improve violence prediction efforts
- Increase trained school security presence
- Fortify schools: control access, enable lockdowns, and increase monitoring
- Fight known triggers: bullying, isolation, depression
- Encourage safety training for gun owners
- Encourage gun safes and trigger locks
In a future article, I intend to explore several of these in detail, providing both pros and cons for each. As well, it’s worth addressing proposed solutions that are likely to be ineffective, particularly as some seem at first glance to be only sensible. Like, for example, arming teachers.
Until then, I’ll leave you with some words from Michael Crichton. He was referring to environmental policy, but it’s a sentiment equally applicable here:
“Nothing is more inherently political… and nothing is more ill-served by allegiance to a single political party. Precisely because the environment is shared it cannot be managed by one faction according to its own economic or aesthetic preferences. Sooner or later, the opposing faction will take power, and previous policies will be reversed. Stable management of the environment requires recognition that all preferences have their place: snowmobilers and fly fishermen, dirt bikers and hikers, developers and preservationists. These preferences are at odds, and their incompatibility cannot be avoided.
“But resolving incompatible goals is a true function of politics.”
(from the book “State Of Fear”)