It was never my intention to fold gun politics into this blog. I prefer to keep my focus on issues directly related to schooling, school policy, and the politics of education. Our nation’s seemingly intractable issue with gun violence in general and with mass shooting incidents in particular is an issue without direct connection to our schools except via tragedy. The politics and policies involved with the issues are deeply complex with very hardline opponents on either side of the issue seemingly incapable to finding means of discussion with each other. Pro-gun advocates in particular appear to have extremely well organized and highly influential lobbying groups that successfully prevent any action on new laws about guns, even ones that enjoy broad support among the American people, including gun owners. To delve into the politics of guns in America would be to expand the scope and nature of my writing.
But then politicians seem intent to kick the issue right into my wheelhouse.
Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson responded to the recent mass shooting at an Oregon Community College by joining fellow front runner Donald Trump in saying teachers should be armed in our schools, even in Kindergarten. Dr. Carson said, “If I had a little kid in kindergarten somewhere I would feel much more comfortable if I knew on that campus there was a police officer or somebody who was trained with a weapon. If the teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn’t.” Donald Trump also said, “Let me tell you, if you had a couple teachers with guns in that room, you would have been a hell of a lot better off.” While Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump are regarded as buffoons by the media, they are not alone on this issue. Wayne LaPierre, President of the National Rifle Association, spent a blessed few days after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut being quiet – before holding a press conference that called for more armed people within our schools. Legislators across the nation have either proposed or passed laws allowing teachers with concealed or open carry permits to bring their guns with them to work, and by 2014, two dozen states had such laws, although it is currently impossible to know how many teachers are taking advantage of their legal ability to bring weapons with them. The logic is that armed teachers will either deter violence or allow the school staff to stop a shooter themselves.
While I will concede that some states, especially our large, mostly rural, western states, have much deeper gun cultures than most and have an environment where the presence of weapons is normalized and largely safe, and while I will concede the emotional appeal of giving teachers options beyond lock down in an emergency, I also have to state that vastly increasing the number of armed people in our schools is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard. I was tempted to post any number of comedic responses to Dr. Carson’s and Mr. Trump’s bloviations on the issue or any number of cartoons of Mr. LaPierre’s logical pretzel maneuvers.
But this isn’t funny.
While we do not apparently know how many teachers are going to school armed every day (and we can dismiss as logically fallacious the claims that Utah’s current lack of a mass school shooting recently is the result of the “bad guys” not knowing who is armed), we do know realities about schools, and some of those realities are not pretty. I’m going to rely upon anecdote for this, but I believe it is illustrative – and important.
My 7th grade year was the year bullies ruled our junior high school. It was the early 1980s, and, frankly, the teachers and administrators did a terrible job of taking control of our school’s culture back, and by “a terrible job” I mean they did practically nothing. I was bullied pretty relentlessly that year, as were many others, but nobody was bullied as relentlessly and as brutally as one of our classmates who eventually took his own life – which, perversely, finally gave the bullies something to think about and finally led to at least some relief from the physical and emotional abuse.
Sadly, that did not apply to our teachers who were targeted by the school’s bullies as well.
My 7th grade social studies teacher was especially hard pressed. He was not a bad person. Under better circumstances, I believe he would have been a moderately forgettable teacher – not greatly skilled, but knowledgeable and able to create an organized curriculum. But with my classmates, he was pushed to his limits. The bullies in the class were resolutely non-cooperative and sought any available chance to interrupt him, mock him, or otherwise undermine him with the rest of the class. They stole from his desk and briefcase. He found rude messages on his chalkboard. He persevered throughout the year, but he was simply pushed to his limits by students who did not care how many times they were sent to the office and who saw him as an easy victim to torment – even after that same behavior aimed at a classmate had resulted in tragedy. Perhaps because he was an adult, they thought different rules applied to the lessons they supposedly had learned earlier. At the end of the year, they pulled a serious prank in class — setting off a firecracker — and he lost his control. A desk was flipped over and one of the bullies found himself violently pushed against the wall by our teacher.
I can think of no circumstance in which the presence of a gun would have made that day better — for either our teacher, the class as a whole, or the 13 year old bully who had finally gone too far.
And here’s the thing – there are tens of millions of students in this country, taught by millions of teachers in over 95,000 public schools across more than 16,000 school districts. This is hard work, and despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers manage their classrooms very well, at any given time during the school year there are teachers who are being pushed to the limit of what they can manage. For some of them, that might be their daily reality, but for many of them it could simply be a matter of a very bad day or even a few student for whom they have not found a way to connect or who refuse to allow a connection. Even if this problem only exists in one classroom every 1000 schools at any given moment, that leaves almost 100 classrooms across the country with an adult who is under serious duress. Under normal circumstances, this can managed — perhaps some such teachers are not capable of classroom management and need to seek different work. Perhaps some simply need a colleague to give them a 5 minute pause to regather themselves. Perhaps some need better structural supports within their schools from colleagues, administrators, and families. Perhaps the culture of the school needs adult and student leadership aimed at stopping bystander acquiescence in the presence of bullying. There are many possible solutions and interventions.
A gun in the classroom is not one of them. And although we do not know the number of teachers in the states that allow them to carry a gun to school do so routinely, if Mr LaPierre and certain legislators have their way, it is only a matter of time before a classroom gun tragedy does not come into school from the outside. I do not mean that every teacher under extreme duress in the classroom is likely to turn into a shooter. But think about what we know about the presence of guns: more permissive gun laws are associated with higher per capita rates of deaths by guns; death by violence is more likely among adults who purchase guns; guns in the home are associated with a modestly increased risk of homicide and a greatly increased risk of suicide; the mere presence of a weapon can increase the aggressive behavior of others. If we follow the advice of Mr. LaPierre and if we understand some of the high stress situations that are possible in school – well, it doesn’t take much imagination, does it?
Even in the hands of teachers who are in full control, the “more guns in school” argument is problematic. We know that in active shooter situations, even highly trained police officers frequently have very high miss rates. In 2005, New York City police officers were on target in 34% of all shootings — and in distances of zero to six feet, 43% of the time. This isn’t because they are terrible shots, but because in a high stress situation, even highly trained people miss – a lot.
This is likely why the FBI provides advice for the general population on what to do in an “active shooter” situation, and the advice is to run, hide, and to fight as the absolutely last choice. As both a father and as an educator, this is what I expect from my children’s teachers and from myself and my colleagues. Tasked with caring for a classroom full of students, responsible action is to take them to safety or to make certain they are hidden from harm as best as possible. Since teachers are in charge of many others and must keep control of them during an inherently chaotic and frightening situation, the chances of ever getting to the “fight” stage is likely vanishingly small. An adult with 25 Kindergarten kids under her protection has much more critical tasks in a crisis.
There are some extraordinary circumstances I am willing to entertain. We have schools in rural areas that are very far from emergency help. It could also be plausible for a weapon to be in school under extreme security that can only be accessed by a highly trained security officer. But the immediate call for “more guns” in schools is a call for more problems and distracts us from debates we ought to be having. We should discuss what levels of security are needed at school entrances and exits that still allow us to teach. We should figure out the most effective actions school teachers and administrators can take in a crisis situation to protect the children in their care.
We also need to stop pivoting directly into the “mental illness is to blame” argument after every mass shooting event, and set aside the pipe dream that psychologists can easily sort out potential shooters from the population. We need to have an honest conversation about the consequences of ready access to firearms, and what laws might be able to slow down or prevent some people’s ability to get a gun in the heat of anger.
And we need politics in this country that is not so craven as to actually ban the CDC from studying the causes and impacts of gun violence or to subsequently block legal funding for that purpose. Gun violence and mass shooting events are problems that are almost unique to the United States compared to our peer democracies. Suggesting that teachers should deter that violence from entering our schools by arming themselves and then doing what even trained police officers have trouble doing during shootings is not only absurd – it is abjectly dangerous.