By Dave Kopel
National Review Online, Oct. 10, 2006. More by Kopel on school safety.
Since the Columbine murders in 1999, several important steps have been taken to prevent or thwart school shootings. Much more still needs to be done.
The good news is that, since Columbine, police tactics in school attacks have dramatically changed. At Columbine, the armed "school resource officer" refused to pursue the killers into the building, and kept himself safe outside while the murders were going on inside. Even after SWAT teams arrived, and while, via an open 911 line, the authorities knew that students were being methodically executed in the library, the police stood idle just a few yards outside the library.
To this day, the authorities in Jefferson County, Colorado, have successfully covered up who made the decision that the police would stand idle.
Fortunately, police tactics have changed dramatically since that disgraceful day. Now, the standard police response to an "active shooter" is immediate counter-action. For example, at a March 2001 attack on Santana High School in Santee, California, the police response was immediate, and saved lives. It was the first time ever that a school shooting had been met with prompt police counter-action.
A second form of progress post-Columbine has been in greater news media responsibility. Time and Newsweek put the Columbine killers on the front cover — giving them precisely the sort of posthumous infamy which motivates many mass murderers. As Clayton Cramer has documented, massive publicity given to mass murderers plays a significant role in encouraging more mass murders.
In the 21st century, the mainstream media have been somewhat more responsible about focusing coverage on the victims, rather than the perpetrator. While stories are still written about perpetrators, they are less likely to be rewarded (in effect) with a big picture on the front of a magazine or newspaper.
Although the copycat effect may have been mitigated by giving perpetrators a little less publicity, it continues. Thus, schools and law enforcement should be especially vigilant right now, and on future anniversaries of school shootings.
After Columbine, there was a great push for anti-bullying programs and the like. Whether bullying was or is a major cause of shootings is debatable. Columbine killer Eric Harris likely suffered from a superiority complex; his problem was excessive self-esteem. Indeed, many criminals have excessively high self-esteem, and one cause of their criminality is the large gap between how most people see them (accurately, as mediocre losers) and their own self-image. Self-esteem programming in the schools, whatever its merits, might even be counterproductive to school safety.
One important value of anti-bullying programs, however, is that most of them strongly encourage students to come forward and report a problem. Much more so than in the pre-Columbine period, students and other community members who hear rumors or threats of a school attack have been willing to warn the authorities. There have been many attacks which have been prevented only because someone did so. The willingness of people to speak up has been the most significant post-Columbine step forward in safety, and has likely saved many dozens of lives.
Compared to the Columbine aftermath, there is much less inclination among the political classes, and, even much of the media, to use school murders as a pretext for irrelevant anti-gun laws. If it were actually possible to ban all guns, and confiscate all of the more than 200 million firearms in America, school killers would be deprived of their most effective weapon — since most killers don't have the skills to build bombs, and a criminal can't use a knife or sword to control two dozen people at a distance.
But it is pretty clear that the kinds of laws which were pushed after Columbine (one-gun-a-month in California, special restrictions on gun shows in Colorado and Oregon) are of little value in keeping guns away from people who plan their attacks a long period of time in advance.
Notably, Canada has adopted almost everything (and more) which American anti-gun lobbies have pushed in the United States. Yet this fall's spate of copycat school shootings began on September 13 in Canada, when Dawson College, in Montreal, was attacked by a 25-year-old man who killed one victim and wounded 19 more, putting two of them into a coma. (Fortunately, two policemen happened to be on campus, and they took immediate action, rather than waiting for a SWAT team to arrive. Their prompt and heroic boldness likely saved many lives.)
The attacks this fall highlight a problem that was forgotten in the post-Columbine frenzy. There are lots of attacks which are not perpetrated by disaffected students. We knew this in 1988, when 30-year-old Laurie Dann attacked a second-grade classroom in Winnetka, Illinois, and in January 1989, when an adult criminal named Patrick Purdy attacked a school playground in Stockton, California. Or when British pederast Thomas Hamilton killed 16 kindergarteners and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland.
One reason why adult sociopaths so often choose to attack schools — schools to which they have no particular connection — is that schools are easy targets. It is not surprising that police stations, hunting-club meetings, stateside army bases, NRA offices, and similar locations known to contain armed adults are rarely attacked.
Because of the spread of concealed-handgun licensing laws, now in 40 out of 50 states, whenever you walk into a place with a large crowd of people — a restaurant, a theater, a shopping mall — you can safely assume that several people in the crowd will have a license to carry a concealed handgun, and some of them are currently carrying.
Schools are one of the few places in the United States where the government has guaranteed that there will be no licensed, trained adults with a concealed firearm that could be used to resist a would-be mass murderer.
Since this fact is apparently obvious to random psychopaths, it would be very dangerous to assume that the fact is not obvious to terrorists also. Beslan, Russia, shows that terrorists with al Qaeda connections consider schools to be good targets. There is also the danger of self-starting jihadis, such as the man who attacked the Jewish community center in Seattle. Every Jewish school and community center should very seriously consider having at least one full-time security guard.
Israel has successfully used a combination of security guards, armed teachers, and armed escorts on field trips to protect schools from terrorist attack. Thailand is likewise allowing teachers to obtain handgun-carry licenses in southern regions where schools have been targeted by Islamic terrorists.
One confirmation of the strength of the case for allowing teachers the choice to be armed is the weakness of the arguments against it. Significantly, we have real-world tests of the policy — not only in Israel and Thailand, but also in the United States.
Like many states, Utah enacted a concealed-handgun licensing law in 1995. Unlike most states, Utah did not make schools an exclusion zone for lawful carrying. Not only a teacher on duty, but also a parent coming to pick up a child from school, can lawfully carry a concealed handgun in a Utah school building — after, of course, passing a background check and safety training. (See Utah Code sect. 76-10-505.5. In 2003, the legislature expanded the law, by allowing principals to authorize firearms possession by individuals who did not have a concealed-handgun carry permit.)
After eleven years of experience in Utah, we now have exactly zero reported problems of concealed handgun licensees misusing guns at school, or students stealing guns from teachers, or teachers using their licensed firearms to shoot or threaten students. During this same period, we also have had exactly zero mass murders in Utah schools.
My proposal, however, is not that other states go as far as Utah. Rather, I simply suggest that teachers and other school employees be allowed to carry if they obtain a handgun carry permit. If a school wants to require special additional training for school carry, that's fine.
Some people who do not like the idea of teachers being armed to protect students simply get indignant, or declare that armed teachers are inconsistent with a learning environment. I suggest that dead students — and the traumatic aftermath of a school attack — are far more inconsistent with a learning environment than is a math teacher having a concealed handgun.
"Teachers don't want to carry guns!" some people exclaim. True enough, for most teachers. But there are about six million teachers in the United States, and it would be foolish to make claims about what every teacher thinks. The one thing that almost all teachers have in common is that they have passed a fingerprint-based background check, meaning that they are significantly less likely than the general population to have a criminal history.
There are plenty of teachers who have served in the military, or the police, or who have otherwise acquired familiarity with firearms. And there will be other teachers who would willingly undergo the training necessary to learn how to use a firearm to protect themselves and their students. After all, almost all the teachers in southern Thailand are Buddhists, and if some Buddhist teachers will choose to carry handguns, it would be ridiculous to claim that American teachers, as a universal category, would never exercise the choice to carry.
We know that school shootings have been stopped by armed citizens with guns. In 1997, a Mississippi attack was thwarted after vice principal Joel Myrick retrieved a handgun from his trunk. The killer had already shot several people at Pearl High School, and was leaving that school to attack Pearl Junior High, when Myrick pointed his .45 pistol at the killer's head and apprehended him. A few days later, an armed adult stopped a school rampage in Edinboro, Pennsylvania.
It is commonly, but incorrectly, believed that the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act creates an insurmountable barrier to arming teachers. Not so. The GFSZA has a specific exemption for persons who have a concealed handgun carry permit from the state where the school is located, if the state requires a background check before issuance of a permit.
It is state laws, not the federal GFSZ Act, which are in need of reform to allow schools to be protected.
Pending legal reform, there are several steps that school districts can take to improve school safety. Almost all teachers spend several days a year in continuing professional education programs. Every school district should begin, at least, offering self-defense training as an option to teachers on "in-service" days.
These programs should explain the critical importance of decisive action by teachers in the very first moments when an armed intruder has entered a room. The faster that students get out, the more lives that can be saved. Allowing an intruder to take control of the room, and line students up, or tie them up, is extremely dangerous. If students flee immediately (especially if the room has at least two exits), the criminal will have a much harder time obtaining control and taking hostages.
Undoubtedly, the criminal might begin shooting immediately. But if the victim is moving and is constantly getting further from the shooter, it is much harder for the shooter to deliver a critical hit. In contrast, when the victims are stationary and under the shooter's control, the killer has an easy time delivering a fatal head shot from a foot away. At Columbine, some fleeing students were wounded, some of them very seriously. But almost all the fatalities were the result of up-close executions of stationary victims.
Defensive training for teachers can also include how quickly to disarm a person with a gun, especially when his attention is distracted. This can be a dangerous move, to be sure, and it does not always work. If it does, perhaps everyone's lives can saved. If it does not, the killer has no greater power than if the move were never attempted.
At a more advanced level, there are programs such as Krav Maga ("contact combat") — a technique of unarmed self-defense currently used by some U.S. police departments, and the Israeli Defense Forces. It was originally created by Jews in Bratislava, during the 1930s, for self-defense against anti-semitic thugs who might have weapons. Every school district should offer to pay half the tuition for a teacher who takes classes in Krav Maga or similar programs. Introductory versions of these programs could also be offered for free on in-service days.
Of the teachers who would never choose to carry a firearm, some would choose to carry non-lethal defensive sprays. Basic training in defensive spray-use takes an afternoon. Schools could offer more sophisticated training as well, focused on the situations most likely be encountered in a school.
Pepper sprays are not always a panacea (they don't work on some criminals, especially ones who eat a lot of spicy foods), but they can save lives. While a predator is writhing in excruciating pain, he will lose control of the situation, allowing students to flee, and giving the teacher a good chance of taking the gun.
And what about self-defense for students? Incorporating several days of self-defense into the annual physical education curriculum would be sensible anyway, even if there were no problems with school shootings. Self-defense training will make students less vulnerable at isolated bus stops, and everywhere else. The core of all self-defense training is greater awareness of one's environment, so that a person can get away from potential trouble before it becomes actual trouble.
Self-defense training also teaches that it is dangerous to let a criminal take control of your surroundings; even if a criminal is pointing a gun at you, you are probably better off to try running away, than to let him put you in a car where he can transport you to an isolated location.
Teachers and students would also learn that it is sometimes better to submit; if you can surrender you purse to a mugger, and protect yourself from injury, that it often the safe choice. We know, however, than when an armed criminal attempts to take over a school, there is no realistic hope that the criminal will be satisfied with stealing some money.
Consider a 12th-grade classroom containing 15 healthy males, several of whom are athletes. If the males rush the perpetrator en masse, some of them would might be shot, but it also likely that the perpetrator would be quickly subdued, all the more so since most school shooters are not physically powerful. The school shooting in Springfield, Oregon, ended when several brave students, including wrestler Jake Ryker, rushed the shooter; Ryker was shot, but recovered.
To some people, the notion that teachers like Joel Myrick or students like Jake Ryker should engage in active resistance is highly offensive, and the idea that teachers and students should be encouraged to learn active resistance is outrageous.
Our nation has too many people who are not only unwilling to learn how to protect themselves, but who are also determined to prevent innocent third persons from practicing active defense. A person has the right to choose to be a pacifist, but it is wrong to force everyone else to act like a pacifist. It is the policies of the pacifist-aggressives which have turned American schools into safe zones for mass murderers.
School shootings are the ultimate form of bullying, and long experience shows that the more likely and more effective the resistance, the less the bullying.
If a trained teacher carries a concealed defensive tool, such as pepper spray, there is no downside except an offense against the self-righteous sensibilities of pacifist-aggressives. Except for criminals, everyone would be a lot safer — and not just at school — if teachers and students were encouraged to learn at least basic unarmed self-defense.
— Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute.