There is a myth in American culture of the heroic gunslinger, a character who saves the day by being quick on the draw. Popular imagination typically associates this with the Old West, thanks in no small part to influential novels and films that have commonly depicted shootings at high noon, grizzled sheriffs and deputies forced to act fast, as well as general themes of vigilante justice. Historically, these images are far more fiction than fact, which most of us may already know, but they undeniably make for thrilling entertainment. We still see these tropes today, even outside of classic Westerns, such as in Han Solo’s slick, under-the-table shot at Greedo in the original Star Wars.
Wayne LaPierre, who is head of the National Rifle Association, has claimed that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” This statement very much reflects the myth of the heroic gunslinger. Taken literally, all that’s needed to stop an armed criminal is someone else who’s armed and has good motives. Moreover, this is the only real solution, in LaPierre’s view.
Along these lines of thought, some Americans have started to argue that teachers should carry concealed firearms to help reduce school shootings. A recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University found that 20% of those surveyed believe this is the most practical solution. Of those 20%, 38% of responders identified as Republican, 21% Independent, and 6% as Democrat. For contrast, twice as many participants said that stricter gun laws are the answer (40%), while 34% advocated for more metal detectors in schools.
Factually, though, an FBI report from 2013 has shown LaPierre’s statement to be incorrect. The study found that out of 160 active shooting incidents that took place from 2000-2013, only one was stopped by someone with a concealed carry permit, who just so happened to be a Marine. Armed guards stopped four other shootings, and off-duty police officers stopped two. Yet 21 of the 160 incidents were ended by unarmed civilians that managed to restrain the perpetrator, and of those, 11 involved school principals, teachers, staff, and students. A good guy with a gun is not the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, nor is it even the most common way in this context.
Some conservatives have pointed to an independent study on shootings done in 2012 by a blogger named Davi Barker. Initially, Barker looked at 10 mass shootings and determined that an average of 18.25 people are killed in shootings stopped by police, whereas an average of 2.5 are killed when an armed civilian stops a shooter. Later, these figures were revised to include 100 “rampage shootings,” and it was concluded that the number killed is closer to 14.29 when police are involved, and 2.33 for civilians.
One flaw with this research, though, is that active shooter incidents where 18 people are killed are comparatively quite rare. The FBI report mentioned above found the median number of those killed by active shooters is 2 – the same number as those wounded – and 40% of the 160 incidents it surveyed would qualify for the federal criteria of a mass shooting as involving the killing of three or more people. Dr. Pete Blair, who is associate professor of criminal justice at Texas State University, notes that just 9 incidents could be found out of the 100+ that they studied where more than 14 people were killed or wounded (see previous link). In short, other more thorough and peer-reviewed research casts significant doubt on whether Barker’s figures really can be considered representative.
Civilian gun-owners can have the best of intentions and still make mistakes. A 1998 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery looked at hospital records for fatal and nonfatal shootings in three cities in Tennessee, Washington, and Texas, focusing specifically on incidents where guns were kept at home. According to the paper, “For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.” Another study from 2004 concludes that “regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home,” a gun in the house carries with it an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide at home. A third study I’ll mention, from 2007, found that states where home gun-ownership is higher have significantly higher rates of homicide victimization, even controlling for nonlethal violent crime, poverty, unemployment, urbanization, and alcohol consumption.
Is it reasonable to assume these sorts of problems won’t exist in classrooms if we decide to arm teachers and school administrators?
Brandishing a gun is often said to be an effective deterrent in many cases of self-defense. While some research seems to support this in theory, there has been much discussion of its limitations, too. Reports of defensive gun use are often difficult to evaluate systematically, whether considering the accuracy of self-defense claims made by gun-owners, the appropriateness of their actions, or what other options might have been realistically available to them. There is also an important contrast that needs to be made with the research listed above, some of which suggests that just the presence of a gun in some environments is strongly associated with certain outcomes regardless of its particular defensive use.
When attempts are made to confirm something as simple as the involvement of a gun-owner in a real crime situation, which some early studies did not do, things get pretty sketchy. A 2015 article in Preventive Medicine did just this in analyzing data from the National Crime Victimization Survey. To quote from their results:
Of over 14,000 incidents in which the victim was present, 127 (0.9%) involved a SDGU [self-defense gun use]. SDGU was more common among males, in rural areas, away from home, against male offenders and against offenders with a gun. After any protective action, 4.2% of victims were injured; after SDGU, 4.1% of victims were injured. In property crimes, 55.9% of victims who took protective action lost property, 38.5 of SDGU victims lost property, and 34.9% of victims who used a weapon other than a gun lost property.
According to the study’s authors, it’s very rare that guns are used in self-defense, and when they are, there is little evidence to show that they confer any real benefit over other protective measures.
None of this will probably surprise responsible gun-owners, though, who know that a weapon’s only as good as the person using it. The idea behind arming teachers, it might be said, isn’t just to put a bunch of guns in the hands of people who don’t know how to use them. The point is more precisely to train them to help prevent school shootings, which implies that they’ll receive instruction on how to operate a gun, how to keep it secure, how to use it effectively in a high-stress situation, and so on. Maybe a good guy with a gun isn’t always the best answer to an active shooter, but what about a good guy with a gun who’s been well-trained in using it?
We’ve already seen some indication that this is generally more successful. The 2013 FBI report noted that the shootings that were stopped by civilians were stopped by a Marine, armed guards, and off-duty cops – each of whom had certainly gone through weapon training as part of their profession or service. But the training that these folks receive is not the sort that can be completed over a weekend or even during a week.
At The Nation, former ATF agent David Chipman, who spent years on the agency’s SWAT team, talks about his own experience in tactical training. “Training for a potentially deadly encounter meant, at a minimum,” he says, “qualifying four times a year throughout my 25-year career. And this wasn’t just shooting paper – it meant doing extensive tactical exercises. And when I was on the SWAT team we had to undergo monthly tactical training.” Chipman goes on to describe some of what they’re taught, such as when to withhold fire, and how to deal with tunnel vision, and he uses the Secret Service as a valuable lesson in restraint. “Here’s an agency that has all the weaponry that they could ever need, all the training that they could ever need, and they’ve never fired a weapon in defense of a president during an assassination attempt… you’re likely to do more harm than good in that situation.”
Of course, no training is so perfect that it will prepare someone for any and every possible set of circumstances that might arise. Even in law enforcement, there are different types of training that officers react to differently, including one known as force-on-force training that puts a participant in contact with other real, live, reacting targets. Studies published in Police Journal and Human Factors have documented significantly higher stress responses among officers who have engaged in this type of training as opposed to other simulated types of training. One of these studies found an average hit rate of 15.7% (this is very close to the average hit rate of 18% found in research on real-life gunfights conducted with NYPD) and a jump in heart rate for the force-on-force training.
The intent behind this more strenuous approach to training is to familiarize officers with a kind of high stress environment they are likely to encounter in their occupation, but it’s also useful in illustrating that, as the cliche goes, there’s no substitute for the real thing. And on this theme, the National Gun Victims Action Council commissioned its own study that put 77 participants of varying skill in three different scenarios. 7 of those 77 accidentally shot an innocent bystander in one scenario (5 were rated as having “advanced skill”), more of those with some skill (33%) and advanced skill (23%) fired at a suspect that did not pose a threat than those with no skill (16%) in another scenario, and in the first two scenarios most of the participants were killed regardless of their skill level.
Weapon training is beneficial in improving one’s accuracy and safety, but it shouldn’t be seen as a magic solution that enables unskilled gun-owners to stop mass shootings. In case after case cited by gun advocates who believe the myth that concealed carry permit holders are part of a revolution that’s stemming the tide of mass shootings, it’s possible to find important omitted details about the skill level of these citizens. Frequently, as previously stated, they are security guards, law enforcement, and active or retired military personnel who’ve had years more experience and training than the average gun-owner probably ever will have. No, not everyone who’s licensed to carry will put your life at risk, and some might even save it one day, but nevertheless it is dangerous to perpetuate the wishful kind of thinking that presents “a good guy with a gun” as the nearest thing we get to a superhero.
This essay has tried to give a few of the reasons for why arming school teachers is a bad idea. We need to seriously ask if we’re willing to pay the costs that have been outlined here, even just in terms of what it would take to really adequately train someone to use a gun with the intent of protecting against school shootings. Educators already spend an inordinate amount of time preparing lesson plans, holding class, grading papers, meeting with students, meeting with parents, taking part in faculty meetings, and more.
Time spent teaching them to use a firearm is time that’ll have to be taken away from all that other stuff – you know, the job they’re actually hired for in the first place. And as we’ve seen, effective firearm training isn’t something that can be taught in a few hours or a couple days. Shortchanging the training we’d give to teachers would run the very serious risk of putting more students and adults in harm’s way by introducing other weapons into the school setting, in the hands of people that would be ill-equipped to use them.
When there is such strong correlation between the astronomically high number of guns per capita in the U.S. and the number of mass shootings we have, it seems as if it should be relatively obvious that adding more guns to the problem is an absurd answer. Although it isn’t exactly that, either. It’s enforcing the use of more guns that this position is advocating. Even if we only instituted this policy for a fraction of school teachers – say those with military or other training experience – this would still be implementing a change that many of these teachers did not ask for and do not want. Not to mention the other teachers and the students that feel the same way and would be put at greater risk without equivalent recourse to defending themselves.
Looking at it like this does make it easier to see why the gun lobby and the politicians taking donations from them are growing more enthusiastic and supportive of such an idea with just about every mass shooting that happens. Enforcement means more money into their pockets. Do they care about your kids? If they did, wouldn’t they be listening to the many students who have been rising up, walking out, and speaking out after the Parkland shooting? Instead, those who want to see action taken towards more effective gun control are accused of “politicizing” a tragedy, while those doing the accusing are starting to talk seriously about getting guns in to public schools.
There are good arguments to be made for universal background checks, for restricting the sale of certain lethal attachments like bump stocks, and perhaps even for reducing the overall number of guns we have in our country. These arguments are beyond the scope of this article, but on the question of arming teachers, the research is clear. There is nothing to demonstrate that it would help in stopping or decreasing school shootings to any significant degree, and there is much evidence, on the other hand, to suggest that it has a wide and disturbing margin of error.
Suggested for further reading: