The Biden Commission gave several recommendations to reduce gun violence to the President yesterday and I doubt any of them will please Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president. As you probably have heard, his plan is more simple and direct: The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. His idea is to put a well trained good guy guard with a gun in every school in America. This is a textbook example of the notion that for every complex problem there is a simple solution – and it’s wrong.
If you think about it, it’s also absurd. I admit, the thought of being defenseless before a vicious shooter grabs my gut and makes me want to have a gun. And the thought of having children in a school defenseless before such a killer makes me want to put a “good guy” with a gun in that school. However, even if that sounds good, reality is more complicated and likely to get in the way.
For one thing, the good guy might panic and do more harm than good. In violent conflict mistakes are made. In the military it’s called death by friendly fire. Even if well trained, a security guard in most schools is not going to be ready to do battle like a tactical squad member or even a regular policeman. He or she is not likely to be ready to handle the sudden onslaught of a killer out of nowhere. After all, the vast majority of schools have never experienced this kind of violence and are not likely to, so how would the guard keep his or her edge?
There have been less than 400 shooting incidents in American schools at all levels over the past 20 years, a large majority with only one death or injury. Just for a point of comparison, over that time we’ve had between about 85,000 and 100,000 public secondary and elementary schools leaving aside post secondary and private schools. That means that even as things have been, well over 99% of our schools have never experienced this kind of tragedy over the past 20 years, and only a relative few of them had guards.
Under Lapierre’s plan we would need to hire at least 100,000 guards at – what? – maybe they’ll work cheap out of public spirit – so we’ll pay each 30k. Isn’t that three billion dollars a year? If we are going to spend three billion on measures to reduce gun violence, is this what we want to bet our money on? Even if we already had all these guards in schools, do we really have much sense of what good they would do, since only a small fraction would have faced an attacker?
Take Columbine High School as a case in point. It illuminates how messy reality can get and how hard it is to assess the value of having an armed guard. Columbine had an armed security guard assigned by the Jefferson County police department when Eric and Dylan, the two classmate killers rampaged through the school. If that security guard had been at the “A”-period school lunch per usual, he might have had an impact on stopping them… Maybe.
On this day, however, he didn’t like the teriyaki on the menu, so he went out to get a sub instead and was eating in his car outside when all hell broke lose. He acquitted himself well exchanging fire outside with the two boys who had hoped to blow up the school and watch the show from their cars. The problem was their many homemade bombs largely fizzled. So they went in with their guns while exchanging fire with the guard.
It has been argued that the boys might have done even more damage without that armed guard there. That seems reasonable, but not in keeping with the facts. From my reading of Columbine, which thoroughly covers the event and people involved, the guard remained outside the building as did the police when they arrived employing a policy of containment. What stopped the boys from killing more is their suicides, not the guard and not even the police, who were criticized for not entering the school sooner. By the time the tactical squad members actually found the boys they had been dead for about three hours from self-inflicted wounds.
Of course, if the lunch special was different that day and the armed guard was in the cafeteria per usual, he may have saved lives, but the key word here is MAY. He may also have been gunned down, or in the confusion might have shot innocent kids. The place was pure chaos, with smoke and fire from partially exploded bombs and most of the kids and staff in total shock. This would not have been clear cut like the gun fight at the OK Corral. Once you replace Lapierre’s probability – a good guy with a gun will likely help – with the notion of various contingencies that reality might fling at us, you begin to see anything might happen. Whether there is an armed guard on duty or not.
The killers’ plan wasn’t to mow people down in the school with their guns. The dud bombs were to be the main event. They placed close to one hundred of them around the school. Fortunately they didn’t wire them right. The guns were to finish off those who survived the bombs and themselves.
The power of Wayne Lapierre’s vision is that we feel better when we imagine a good guy with a gun at least having a chance at stopping the bad guy (most mass shootings are done alone). It makes us feel we are doing something to protect our children, but having background checks and restricting the sale of semi-automatics and large magazines would be doing something, too. In the Columbine case, background checks and restricted sales may have made a bigger contribution to reducing violence than the guard, as three of their four weap0ns were bought at a gun show with no questions asked. Or the boys might have obtained more guns elsewhere. But, again, the armed guard turned out to be no sure thing, either (*1 ).
In conclusion, let’s imagine Lapierre’s best case scenario over time. Let’s say we hire a guard for all the schools that don’t already have them (though of course schools who do already have them would get money, too). And these guards acquit themselves amazingly well, like commandos repulsing the relatively small number of vicious invaders. Will we celebrate then?
Don’t you think future killers will see that and pick off the kids on buses or in parks or shopping malls? They don’t have to go into schools to find plenty of kids to kill. Kids are everywhere. Lapierre’s full vision leads to placing armed guards on almost every corner. Is this the future we want for America?
One based on an illusion, perhaps even a delusion, of security.
(*1) It seems the best chance of stopping these killings was for the police of Jefferson County to follow up on complaints that Dylan was threatening to kill a former friend and that he was making bombs. Thirteen months prior to the slaughter, an affidavit was filled out but a search warrant for Dylan’s house was never issued. That seems to remain a mystery according to the author of Columbine, Dave Cullen. What isn’t a mystery is that local officials covered this up for nearly five years in classic “CYA” fashion.