It was only natural that the mass murder of 26 children and staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, would bring out the best and worst of people’s emotions. The frenzy of accusations and name-calling from educators, teachers’ union bosses, reform leaders, policy wonks, gun lobbyists, and editorial writers has yet to subside. The reaction that attracted the most hostility, on the left and on the right, was National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre’s call for an armed guard in every school “immediately,” funded with federal tax dollars.
The denunciations were instantaneous. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued a joint press release that flatly asserted: “Guns have no place in our schools. Period. We must do everything we can to reduce the possibility of any gunfire in schools, and concentrate on ways to keep all guns off school property and ensure the safety of children and school employees.” Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, now CEO of a school-reform group, also weighed in: “I have come to the conclusion that StudentsFirst must publicly oppose legislation that would bring firearms into schools, anywhere.”
Perhaps Rhee, who now lives in Sacramento with her husband, Mayor Kevin Johnson, is unaware that the Golden State allows schools to employ armed guards if they choose. A man with a gun and a badge might not be patrolling a school near Rhee’s home, but he’s in a school somewhere in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, San Bernardino, or Riverside. LaPierre may have thought he was proposing something radical, but the protection he recommends is already in place in many parts of California.
When I was a middle school teacher in Los Angeles from 1994 until 2009, we had an armed cop on campus just about every day. My school was hardly unique. State law has long allowed for an armed presence on any school campus “as needed.” The public has no problem with this. In a recent Gallup poll, when asked if increasing the police presence at schools would be effective in stopping mass shootings, 87 percent of respondents said that it would be “very” or “somewhat effective.” And 64 percent agreed that having at least one official at every school carry a gun would be “very” or “somewhat effective.” The idea of greater police presence in schools enjoys bipartisan support, with 55 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats saying an armed officer would be “very effective” at deterring or stopping another spree shooter.
What clearly doesn’t work is the policy of designating public schools—or any venue where large numbers of people congregate—as “gun-free zones.” After last summer’s slaughter at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, political scientist John Lott noted that the location wasn’t the closest to the killer’s apartment or the one with the largest audience. “Instead,” Lott observed, “out of all the movie theaters within 20 minutes of his apartment showing the new Batman movie that night, it was the only one where guns were banned.” In Colorado, individuals with permits can carry concealed handguns in most malls, movie theaters, and restaurants. But private businesses can determine whether permit holders can carry guns on their private property.
Though ignored by most of the media, some mass school shootings have been stopped because an authority figure with access to a firearm intervened. In 1997, at Pearl High School in Mississippi, 16-year-old Luke Woodham shot nine students and staff, killing two, before Joel Myrick, the school’s assistant principal, confronted and subdued him with a pistol he retrieved from his truck. In 2001, senior Jason Hoffman opened fire on the attendance office of Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, California. Hoffman wounded five people before being shot and incapacitated by an armed school cop. Even the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, horrible as they were, could have been even worse but for the intervention of Neil Gardner, an armed Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy having lunch on campus at the time. Gardner exchanged fire with one of the shooters and summoned help, giving several students a chance to escape.
An armed presence on campus is not the only solution to spree shootings, though, and LaPierre may be overreaching with his call for federal intervention. After all, if deep-blue California can let its schools have armed guards on campus, surely other state legislatures are capable of making similar judgments without a federal mandate. Policymakers also need to consider how best to identify, confine, and treat mentally ill people who may be prone to violence. The effects of violent video games on certain personality types are worth study as well. But while our contentious society wrangles with these thorny issues, children must be protected from those deranged human beings who kill for reasons that none of us really understands. An armed presence on school campuses is but one step in the right direction.