The tragic Parkland, Fla., shooting on February 14th is yet another dreadful reminder that schools are no sanctuary against mass violence. Americans are surely united in wanting reforms that could prevent these rampages and make the schools safer. Some reforms look promising and are worth discussing. But the reform that is getting the most attention in this bizarro era we live in — arming teachers with concealed handguns — would likely make things worse.
Assessing policy options in this area requires a realistic sense of the odds. When school shootings happen, feelings of sorrow, fear and anger reverberate nationwide. They happen often enough that people perceive them as commonplace.
But the fact is that, statistically they are — thankfully — an extraordinarily rare event. There are more than 130,000 primary and secondary schools in the United States. During the first two months of 2018, there have been four instances nationwide in which someone was shot inside one of these schools.
If we limit the count to instances in which at least four people were shot (one definition of a mass shooting), the number drops to two – Parkland, and an incident in Benton, Ky., in January, where two people died and 14 were injured. So the rate of multiple shootings in schools has been one per month.
This is unacceptable, of course, but implying a probability for any one school of one in 130,000, or less than .00001. The rate over the last five years has been even lower.
This analysis is relevant because the proposal to introduce guns in every school has its own risks. For the sake of argument, say that 10 teachers in every school volunteer to carry a concealed handgun. That’s 1.3 million additional guns in the nation’s schools, with all the attendant risks of accidents and guns somehow ending up in the hands of students. (A recent study found that 23 percent of all shootings that happen in hospital emergency departments were with guns taken from armed guards who were posted there for protection.)
There is also a more subtle risk, associated with the change in mindset that comes with carrying a gun. It is common for people who carry guns in public to become hyper-vigilant, scanning for and preparing for the worst.
If elementary school teachers adopt that mindset, what energy will be left for nurturing their students? If our high school teachers adopt that mindset, how will they respond when a fight breaks out in the corridor or a student challenges their authority?
Secret Service data
Instead of asking every school to respond to the minute chance of a mass shooting by arming teachers, with the known and unknown new problems that entails, we should be discussing measures that will genuinely promote safety and preserve a healthy educational atmosphere.
A place to start is in recalling the lessons of the wave of school shootings in the 1990s that culminated in Columbine. At the time, the Secret Service collected detailed data on dozens of these events. One conclusion was that in many cases the shooters had informed classmates and others of their intentions — which was certainly the case with the Parkland shooter.
A very specific response to the risk of mass shooting, then, is to do everything possible to overcome students’ reluctance to “snitch” to the authorities with this kind of information, and to equip those authorities with the capacity to act effectively when they learn of an impending attack.
Another specific response for North Carolina would be to create the authority for the courts to issue a gun violence restraining order, as have Oregon, Washington and California. These allow families and household members, as well as law enforcement officers, to petition a court to remove a person’s access to guns (on a temporary basis) if he or she poses an imminent danger.
That tool could have made all the difference in averting the Parkland shooting, and would make our schools genuinely safer.
This article was originally published in the News & Observer. Philip Cook is ITT/Terry Sanford Professor Emeritus of Public Policy Studies at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the co-author of “The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know.”