In this, the fourth installment of this series (#1 is available here, #2 is available here, and #3 is available here), I continue posing common questions relating to preventing and stopping school shooters.
Q: CAN’T WE SECURE SCHOOLS WITH METAL DETECTORS, HI-TECH LOCKS AND OTHER METHODS?
As I previously noted, only recently have architects begun designing schools for greater security, but more secure schools–there is no such thing as an entirely secure school–are massively expensive. In addition, the very nature of schools works against effective security. Particularly in middle and secondary schools, teachers, students and others are constantly coming and going, and a large number of exterior access doors are mandated by fire codes. Crash bars are almost universally mandated on exterior school doors, and on most interior hallway doors as well so that no one can be accidently locked in a burning school. When these doors are combined with large panes of glass as they commonly are, it is a momentary matter to smash the glass to activate a crash bar.
Even if a school was designed with heavy duty metal doorjambs, metal doors, and no windows at all in walls or doors, this would only slightly delay a determined killer. Such doors can be breached in seconds with a crowbar, or a killer could simply drive a vehicle through a door or wall. If they’re plotting mass murder, such destruction is a small matter indeed. The other problem, insurmountable for schools, is the issue of cost. Adding metals doors, metal detectors, a phalanx of video cameras—which require people to continually handle and monitor them—and other hardening measures will only buy additional seconds of time at best, and often, not even that. The biggest problem is simply that these measures are far too expensive, particularly since they provide so little actual protection and virtually no deterrence.
Metal detectors do not protect against anyone who intends to kill, and security guards are often the first killed, as was the March, 2005 case at Red Lake High School in North Dakota. A 16 year-old student, who would surely want his name to be mentioned here, killed his grandparents at home, and began his attack by killing the school’s only security guard, the sole armed adult in the school. The shooter killed a teacher and five students and wounded 14 others before briefly trading gunfire with the police and killing himself in one of the few school attacks in which the police played at least some active part in stopping the shooting.
Teacher Diane Schwanz managed to gather several students in her room and tried to hide on the floor as the killer banged on the door of her classroom. In her case, he did not press the attack:
I just got on the floor and called the cops. I was still just half-believing it.
Ashley Morrison, another student, had taken refuge in Schwanz’s classroom. With the shooter banging on the door, she dialed her mother on her cell phone. Her mother, Wendy Morrison, said she could hear gunshots on the line.
‘Mom, he’s trying to get in here and I’m scared,’ Ashley told her mother.
The Red Lake shooting also clearly illustrates the futility of entirely putting one’s faith in running, hiding and locked doors. The mother of a student wounded in the attack said of her son’s experience:
He heard gunshots and the teacher said ‘No, that’s the janitor’s doing something,’ and the next thing he knew, the kid walked in there and pointed the gun right at him…
Strong locks and substantial classroom doors are not useless, as are video systems, comprehensive intercoms and other security measures, but they are expensive and as such, are often set aside for other priorities, particularly with the ever-increasing costs of school construction and maintenance in our desperately ailing economy.
Good security design of school facilities can, in some circumstances, somewhat slow determined killers, but cannot stop them. By all means, schools should employ these methods–if they can afford them–but that’s not the point. The more capable and determined the shooter(s) the more likely it is that such passive methods will be of little or no value.
The question is what works when these methods have failed, when a killer is in a school and ready to kill? In the Red Lake shooting, Diane Schwanz and Ashley Morrison are alive today only because the killer—for whatever reason—chose not to break in her classroom door. What parent wants to rely upon the whims of madmen for the protection of their children?
Q: WON’T STUDENTS STEAL TEACHER’S GUNS? WON’T TEACHERS LOSE OR MISPLACE THEM?
Anyone carrying a firearm must carry it on their person, invisible, safe and secure from theft. Handguns can’t be locked in cabinets or safes, left in purses or desk drawers; they are not secure and will be useless if their owner is confronted by a deadly threat while thus unarmed. A handgun in a lockbox in a teacher’s classroom will be less than useless to the teacher confronted by a shooter in the hallways or on the playgrounds of their school. The most effective known weapons locked in an armory in the principal’s office suite are useless to people under attack anywhere else, particularly if they don’t have the key because the principal has it, the principal at a meeting at the school district administration building, the principal who is at home, sick, or the principal face down in a hallway, among the first shot by a murderer because he too is unarmed.
It is difficult or impossible to detect a concealed handgun if it has been carefully chosen and concealed. Carrying a firearm entails the absolute responsibility to keep it from unauthorized or dangerous persons. This is true for anyone carrying a concealed weapon anywhere, teacher or not. This is all a part of competent training, and requires changes in mindset, behavior and wardrobe. Anyone interested in these issues might wish to visit my recent series on the rationale for gun ownership, which deals with these issues and more in detail. The first article in the series can be found here.
However, where wardrobe is concerned, very little if any change might be necessary. This is a Smith and Wesson Bodyguard .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) caliber handgun. With a spare magazine, it rests beside a simple Cordura–the type of fabric used in backpacks, fanny packs, etc.–pocket holster I made for it. With the handgun and spare magazine, the holster, which is nothing more than a pouch that easily fits in most pants pockets, measures only 4″ X 5 3/8″ and is only 7/8″ thick. This makes the entire package no larger than most common wallets. Its signature in a pocket is exactly that of a billfold.
The little Smith would, in many ways, be an ideal weapon for this application. Not only is it small, light and very concealable, it comes with an integral laser sight, greatly enhancing accuracy at the kinds of ranges one would find in school shooting situations, and with one spare magazine, provides a total of 13 rounds. Such a handgun, and many similar handguns, would be invisible to students or anyone else, yet immediately available when needed.
Carrying a concealed weapon, on or off school grounds, is clearly not for everyone, but is not inherently, unreasonably dangerous. By this I mean that when we leave our homes every morning, we assume a great many reasonable risks. Driving represents one of the most real and serious risks we face every day, yet we tend to think nothing of it. We trust average citizens each and every day with weapons far more destructive and deadly than handguns: automobiles. Driving is the most complex, demanding task that we do every day, far more difficult than shooting, yet we require less training, background checks and testing for drivers than that required for concealed carry and think nothing of it. Uniformed police officers that carry their weapons openly are far more likely to be the victim of an attempt to take their weapon than anyone discreetly carrying a concealed handgun in any setting.
Fortunately, there is an experience model. In all of the years of teachers carrying concealed handguns in Utah, there has never been an instance of a student obtaining and using a firearm taken from a teacher. While the theft of a handgun is always a possibility, all of life is a matter of balancing risks, of balancing the good against the bad. The potentially life saving effects of concealed carry during a worst-case scenario clearly outweigh, by an enormous margin, the potential negative effects of a lost or stolen weapon.
Q: WON’T TEACHERS WITH GUNS JUST MAKE A BAD SITUATION WORSE?
Worse? Worse than what? Worse than active shooters intent on killing as many students and teachers as quickly as possible? Worse than terrorists feverishly wiring explosive charges? When an armed attack on a school occurs, worse has arrived. The only issue thereafter is how many will be injured or killed. If the good guys have no immediate and effective response, the numbers will be determined by the amount of time available to the killers to run up the final body count.
Unlike feel good gestures, arming teachers is one of the simplest and most effective measures that can have a positive effect if the worst case scenario occurs—ask the Israelis—as I noted in the second article in this series. If it never occurs, the school environment remains unaffected, except for the positive benefits of deterrence.
Teachers who hold concealed carry permits currently live a schizophrenic legal/professional existence. Standing on the sidewalk in front of a school, they are trusted upstanding citizens who have willingly, and at considerable expense in time and money, submitted to rigorous vetting by the state to exercise a fundamental, unalienable right. Step onto school property and they instantly become potentially crazed killers, liable for firing and lengthy jail sentences. The determining factor: geography.
Does the value of the life of a teacher or student change depending upon where he or she stands relative to a school property boundary? Should children under the protection of their parents who hold concealed carry licenses be deprived of that protection merely because they step on school property, crossing an invisible line? Does a gun-free school zone sign confer magical protective properties on the real estate behind it, forcing the most deranged or homicidally determined to obey that inconsequential sign even as they doggedly prepare for mass murder? Unless this kind of magic exists, the only thing worse than an armed attack is failing to prepare for it, and therefore, having no effective response when it occurs.
Q: WON’T ARMED TEACHERS BE MORE DANGEROUS FOR RESPONDING POLICE OFFICERS? WON’T THEY SHOOT ARMED TEACHERS BY MISTAKE?
Most teachers wear identification cards and look a lot more like teachers than killers. Although I’m sure most of us can think of the occasional teacher who was the exception to that rule, police officers are trained not to fire their weapons without being absolutely sure of their targets. Every police officer knows that they are–morally and legally–absolutely responsible for every round they fire and that they will frequently be required to walk into ambiguous situations. They train for these scenarios. When officers know that teachers might be armed, friendly fire incidents become less, rather than more, likely.
The proper training of armed teachers in concert with the police officers that might respond to shooting can also make such blue on blue incidents far less likely. Teachers might even carry colorful handkerchiefs and vary the colors from time to time, displaying them when armed in case of a shooting incident.
It is true that police officers sometimes make mistakes and injure or kill innocents. But again, the issue is one of balance. Should the mere possibility of mistakes prevent us from providing the single most effective method of protecting the lives of teachers and children at school? “I’m sorry Mrs. Smith, but we were worried that someone might get hurt, so when the killer shot your daughter, none of our staff were armed,” will not be a convincing argument, nor will Mrs. Smith be likely to be comforted–or forgiving.
Q: TEACHERS ARE SUPPOSED TO TEACH CHILDREN; IT’S NOT THEIR JOB TO SHOOT IT OUT WITH KILLERS, IS IT?
Teachers, by law and common sense, act in loco parentis: in the place of the parents. It is this legal doctrine that gives teachers the authority to discipline children, just as their parents would. It also gives them the responsibility to keep those children safe, just as their parents would. A teacher’s primary job is indeed to provide the best educational opportunity possible. But it does not stop there. If teachers do nothing to protect the lives of children when they are under deadly assault, are they acting as the parents of those children would act? Would their parents truly say: “This isn’t supposed to happen at school, so we’ll just act as though it isn’t happening; it’s not my responsibility?”
Q: SCHOOLS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE SAFE, SECURE ENVIRONMENTS FOR CHILDREN. DON’T GUNS IN SCHOOLS GIVE STUDENTS THE WRONG MESSAGE?
Indeed, schools must be safe and secure environments for children. Historically, this has been the case, but never has there been a clear and present–and often demonstrated–danger like that we now face. Never has it been more vital that those responsible for the safety of children entrusted to them at school deal with that responsibility rationally and effectively.
Locks, doors, video, passive security measures are all nice to have–though most will not be able to afford them–but the question that each and every parent must ask is: “what will you do if the worst case scenario comes to pass? How will you protect my child?” Unless the answer is to effectively deter attacks, and when deterrence fails, to immediately meet deadly force with deadly force, your children are “protected” only by rhetoric and good intentions, only by small, metal signs. School shooters have not, to date, been impressed, deterred or stopped by rhetoric, good intentions or signage.
The true gun free school zone message is that we are not responsible for our own safety and security; someone else will protect us. It represents magical thinking: A thing is so because we say it is, because we sincerely wish it to be. Pity poor Virginia Tech Spokesman Larry Hincker, commenting on the defeat in the legislature, only a short time before the attack, of a bill that would have allowed students and faculty to carry firearms on campus. He said:
I’m sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly’s actions because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus.
No doubt he and others felt safe for a time, but feelings and reality are often quite different, an irony that one can only hope will haunt him, and will certainly haunt the surviving relatives of the victims for the rest of their lives.
We are all, by law and common sense, responsible for our personal security. Refusing to take affirmative measures to protect ourselves and our charges is an abrogation of responsibility and teaches weakness, helplessness and victimhood. We have established gun free school zone policies to lull ourselves into the belief that such “zones” are safe, to “send a message” about what we believe to be important, to advertise our belief in peace and safety and niceness.
Unfortunately, reality dictates that such signs will be obeyed only by the law abiding and that they empower, even encourage those who would harm others. There are truly evil people abroad in the world, and any one of us may have the misfortune to meet them at any time of the day or night. We pass by such people on the sidewalk and in parking lots each and every day. They live in our neighborhoods, frequent the same stores and look like everyone else. Do we really want to teach children to ignore reality and rely only on feel good/feel safe measures in this, or any other situation? Do we want them to be utterly unaware of the potential dangers of the world?
A recent focus in schools across the country is the prevention of bullying. Programs are being developed and incredible amounts of money being spent. There is little doubt that some children subjected to bullying, particularly where school authorities do nothing, commit suicide or otherwise suffer. But if we are willing to devote so much energy and so many resources to dealing with this issue, why do we resist the carrying of concealed handguns, an issue that can be addressed at little or no cost to schools? Why not take the logical, rational step of providing the only effective deterrent and method of stopping killers then and there? It is surely reasonable to take prudent steps to prevent bullying and to effectively and immediately punish it when and where it occurs. Why then are so many educators and others unwilling to address an even greater and more potentially deadly danger?
The “message” of a well-publicized and established concealed carry policy is that adults know enough and care enough to stand ready to actually protect the lives of themselves and their students. They deal with reality, not what they wish reality was.
As regular readers know, I am a teacher of high school English. I’ve been fortunate to have some 17 years of experience in this wonderful and vital endeavor and have also had the pleasure of teaching college. These experiences have given me considerable insight into the culture of education.
Many educators, many of those in positions of authority in education, are Progressives. As such, their views of those who own guns tend to run the gamut from disapproval to believing them barely sentient lunatics ready to kill the innocent at any moment for the most trivial of reasons. Some really have an irrational, visceral fear and loathing of firearms, as though inanimate objects have magical, evil powers capable of infecting those around them and compelling them to fiendish ends. It should hardly be surprising that such people would reflexively oppose what I’m suggesting.
And as I noted in a recent article, Progressive philosophy admits no failure. If a Progressive policy such as an “assault weapon” (there is no such thing) ban has failed to produce anything for public safety in a decade of existence, that can’t possibly be because the policy is a failure. The only explanation must be that the policy wasn’t in effect long enough for its wonders to be made manifest, it wasn’t progressive enough, or that it wasn’t enforced with sufficient fervor. Thus are Progressives currently clamoring for another “assault weapon” ban, which must be much more draconian than the first, and, of course, permanent.
However, the times are changing. Only a few years ago, before the Heller and McDonald decisions finally affirmed the Second Amendment as a fundamental American right enforceable on state and local governments, the kinds of laws now being considered and increasingly passed would have been thought impossible. Anti-gun forces still exist, but are more and more marginalized because the positive effects of concealed carry and widespread gun ownership are striking and inescapable. Far more firearms are in private hands than ever before, yet violent crime, particularly that committed with the use of firearms, is at historically low levels. Yet, the field of education is one of the last power bases of anti self-defense stalwarts.
Heller and McDonald were the result of decades of patient, dedicated effort on the part of men and women determined to see that their unalienable rights were recognized and protected. Because of them, America is undeniably a safer place. However, their battle continues, and gun-free school zones—free fire zones for the innocent–are one of the last battlegrounds.
It is little known, but many states do allow weapons on school grounds. Texas, for example, allows parents and staff to carry firearms, concealed or otherwise, in school parking lots and in their vehicles in those parking lots. The law specifies that they are forbidden in school buildings, but allows even that with written permission by appropriate school authorities. Similar laws are already in effect in many states, particularly those with traditions of hunting and shooting sports. The idea of students or teachers carrying their hunting rifles to school and leaving them locked in their cars in anticipation of an after-school hunting trip is far from a relic of the past. However, it must always be noted and understood that the inalienable right to self defense affirmed in the Second Amendment has nothing whatever to do with hunting. It exists for far more important purposes.
In the final installment of this series, which I’ll post within the next week, I’ll lay out a very realistic scenario that may help to persuade otherwise reluctant parents and school board members. It is my hope that America won’t have to suffer through a Beslan-like attack–or many such attacks; Newtown was more than enough–in elementary schools before we implement the only effective means of stopping those who would harm our children. Never has the danger been greater, yet never has the possibility for effective change been greater.