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Armed, and In Charge of a Classroom

February 27, 2018

Many have asked me about President Trump’s recent suggestion to arm school teachers as a method of deterring and responding to school shootings.  My intuition is that it’s a terrible idea, but I decided to listen and consider all of the arguments being put forth in support of this proposal. To paraphrase a philosophy professor I once had: I have considered what you have to say, and I’ve decided I’m still right.

British thinker W.K. Clifford was a proponent of an idea called Epistemic Responsibility: in short, one should not hold a belief if there is no evidence to support it.  Bertrand Russell echoed this sentiment when he observed that  “It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it to be true.”  So what does the evidence tell us?

In a piece headlined “Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows,” Scientific American quoted physician and gun researcher Garen Wintemute’s summary of the state of the evidence: “There are a few studies that suggest that liberalizing access to concealed firearms has, on balance, beneficial effects. There are a far larger number of studies that suggest that it has, on balance, detrimental effects.”  Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research found that “The more guns are readily available, the more shootings occur. That’s what the latest research shows. When states make it more easy for people to carry guns, the number of incidents of aggravated assault grows.”   University of Washington epidemiologist Fred Rivara observed “There is no data supporting [the] argument that the further arming of citizens will lessen the death toll in massacres like [Newtown]. Mother Jones magazine, which maintains a database of mass shootings, pointed out that despite a 50 percent increase in the number of private guns since 1995 and numerous laws making it easier to carry a concealed weapon, there are virtually no cases of an armed civilian stopping a shooting spree. (Thanks to Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for compiling this data).

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Of course, there are some anecdotes about shooters stopping a home invasion, and that’s certainly not to be dismissed. However, there is a difference between using a weapon to stop someone entering your home and having the presence of mind to stop a mass shooter in a public place with people screaming, scrambling for safety, and AR-15s blazing away.  Training someone to use a gun does not automatically suggest they are going to be grace under pressure. We’d all like to think that we will be cool and calm, but the fact is, not everyone is going to be.  Consider that the New York City Police Department–arguably the best trained police force in the country–only has an 18% success rate when discharging their weapon.  It’s hard to imagine the Math Department doing any better–and easy to imagine them doing much worse.  

This also raises the issue of police entering a school in an active shooter situation.  They will have a split second to decide who is the “good guy with the gun” and the “bad guy with the gun.”  It may not always be obvious, and there will undoubtedly not be time to carefully weigh the evidence.   The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper explored this in a piece a couple of years ago. It’s worth watching here: Good Guy With a Gun.

There is also, as President Trump has said, the issue of deterrence.  He insists that shooters are attracted to the fact that schools are gun free zones–never mind that night clubs, country music concerts, malls, and movie theaters are not gun free zones.  The other issue is that the vast majority of school shootings have ended with the shooter’s suicide.  Someone suicidal is unlikely to be deterred by the increased likelihood of their own death.

The entire notion of guns as a deterrent is suspect as it is.  We are told by Wayne LaPierre and Dana Loesch that we will feel safer with armed civilians in our schools, coffee shops, baseball games, etc.  I certainly didn’t feel safer on a tour of Mesa Verde with the guy next to me wearing a sidearm and a KKK tattoo–and I imagine the Navajo tour guide wouldn’t have felt any safer if he had known.  Furthermore, if large numbers of African-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, and South Asians begin going through their days armed, one can be certain the NRA narrative would change almost instantaneously.

Of course what this comes down to is money.  If the percentage of armed teachers President Trump has suggested were to come to fruition, that would be 700,000 more guns. This would be a spike in gun sales that would make the gun manufacturers–the NRA’s largest source of financial support–ecstatic.  The gun manufacturers are already worried: since Trump was elected, the Second Amendment crowd is no longer afraid their weapons will be confiscated and gun sales are way down.  This is the reason that the NRA has tried desperately to play up the violent threat of Black Lives Matter and Antifa.  A new enemy must be found.  

And if they can’t be sold as credible threats, then I suppose my students will just have to do.     

 

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