Confiscation and mass disarmament are pipe dreams. There are better ways to improve school safety.
Making schools safer and keeping guns away from people who shouldn’t have them are not mutually exclusive goals, even if our national discussions following tragedies like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have tended to focus on gun control.
Civilians in America possess somewhere north of 300 million firearms, almost twice as many per capita as 50 years ago, and gun sales have continued to increase in recent years. Some amount of gun mayhem is probably inevitable in our society, and schools aren’t immune. The Second Amendment aside, forced confiscation or mass voluntary disarmament by law-abiding gun owners is a progressive pipe dream.
That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands. Rather, it strengthens the case for taking practical steps in the short run to ensure that our sons and daughters return home from school each afternoon. While TV talking heads carry on about bump stocks, background checks and the villainous National Rifle Association, communities across the country are tackling the more immediate concern of school safety.
After the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the building was razed; a new structure was built on the same site and opened in 2016. It features bullet-resistant windows, reinforced classroom walls, and doors that can be locked from both sides. More schools have installed panic buttons and security systems that include cameras and require visitors to be buzzed in by staff. Regular lockdown drills have also become common and probably saved lives last year after a gunman in Northern California killed five people and then headed for a nearby elementary school. He was thwarted by a lockdown procedure initiated by school officials who had heard the earlier gunshots.
President Trump’s criticism of “gun-free zones” and his calls for arming teachers have been widely and somewhat unfairly mocked. Mass shooters—even the supposedly mentally ill ones—have a habit of choosing places where they are unlikely to find much resistance. Even the Fort Hood shooter chose a gun-free area on the Texas military base to begin his rampage. Mandating that all teachers carry firearms would be silly. Even people who are trained to make split-second decisions in life-or-death situations can panic, as we saw with the first-responders in Parkland. Arming Miss Crabtree won’t turn her into Rambo.
At the same time, there are teachers with military backgrounds or other training who are willing to take on this role if the need arises. Nor should we rule out putting more armed officers in schools and increasing police presence overall. The concern about creating a fortress atmosphere at schools is understandable, but safety ought to trump aesthetics, and children will be safer if a crazed killer on a shooting spree also has to worry about defending himself.
An academic paper published in 2011 by University of Memphis psychologist Richard James and two co-authors found that school-based police officers “appear to reduce crime in their assigned schools” and “had a positive impact on reducing school violence and disciplinary infractions.” The researchers cite a survey of more than 800 school guards and note that “75% reported taking weapons from students on school property.” Increasing police presence in schools made students feel protected rather than trapped. “Student deportment appeared to change in positive ways,” they write, “and students reported feeling safer.”
There are more than 14,000 public school districts across the U.S., and attitudes toward guns in schools vary widely. According to the Pew Research Center, only 16% of adults in the Northeast report owning a gun, versus 36% in the South, 32% in the Midwest and 31% in the West. How you feel about guns in general tends to inform how you feel about them in schools. Which is why school security ought to be a local matter, not some inevitably overreaching federal policy handed down from Washington and incapable of reflecting the country’s wide-ranging views on the best way to protect students and teachers.
If the Trump administration wants to strike a blow for school safety while the rest of Washington is talking about gun control, it could repeal the Obama -era policy that has pressured school officials to take race into account when suspending or expelling students. School officials were effectively told to show more racial balance in school discipline or face a federal civil-rights investigation, and the upshot has been fewer overall suspensions and more disruption in the classroom. The policy was implemented through a “guidance” letter sent to school districts in 2014 and could be revoked as easily. Nikolas Cruz is just the latest reminder that people who pose a threat to themselves and others don’t belong in our schools. They belong in jail or a mental hospital.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal
Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.