In January 2013, just weeks after 20 children and six adults were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., three dozen law enforcement officers gathered at the Johns Hopkins University for a series of informal discussions about arming teachers to confront school shooters.
The participants represented 14 local, state and federal agencies in the mid-Atlantic. They ranged in rank from chief to corporal. Everyone had at least 10 years’ experience in law enforcement; each had completed at least one training course on active shooters. They were all taking graduate courses in public safety leadership at the Hopkins School of Education.
At the time, there was a lot of talk about protecting schools. Some were arguing that an armed teacher or principal would have prevented the Sandy Hook horror. The National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre called for armed security guards in every school in the nation. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said, sparking a furor and a national debate that continues today.
Since the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the president of the United States has proposed arming teachers and paying them “a little bit of a bonus” for firearms training. At a town hall last week in Harford County, Maryland’s lone Republican in Congress, Rep. Andy Harris, echoed LaPierre: “I have no problem letting [teachers] carry a firearm in a school building because, honestly, the way you stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
This talk of arming teachers strikes me as cavalier leaping toward insane, an answer to mass shootings that expands, rather than diminishes, the presence of guns in American life, thereby increasing the risk of injury or death.
The idea that a teacher trained in the use of a handgun would succeed in ending a shooting rampage by someone with an assault rifle is simply an assertion, nothing more, based on dubious assumptions and best-case conditions.
Don’t take it from me. Take it from the 36 law enforcement professionals who offered their perspectives at Hopkins.
They came up with 22 assumptions that people, including public officials, make to support the potential effectiveness of armed teachers. To stop a school shooter, the Hopkins roundtable participants found, a teacher would have to:
- Be adequately trained to use a gun in a crisis.
- Be near the shooting or able to get there in time.
- Have adequate time to “size up” the situation.
- Have “clarity of focus/clarity of thought” about approaching the shooter.
- Have a handgun “ ‘at the ready,’ near hand, or in hand when needed.”
- Quickly remove the gun from a safety holster.
- Remember to unlock the weapon.
- Remember to load the weapon.
- Remember to “chamber a round (if a semi-automatic weapon is used).”
- Be left alone to confront the shooter and not engaged in helping students in some other way during a crisis.
- Shoot quickly and accurately.
- Shoot accurately while moving.
- Have “a ‘clean’ shot at a ‘clear’ target.”
- Have a line of fire that does not jeopardize students or others.
- Have “sufficient momentary cover to enable the shot(s).”
- Be faced with only one assailant.
- Hold on to the weapon if forced into a “close combat” situation.
- The shooter would stand still long enough for the teacher to get a clean shot.
- The shooter would not see the teacher or react aggressively.
- If shot, the shooter would die instantly.
- Police officers responding to the scene would not mistake the armed teacher for the shooter.
- The teacher would not mistake a responding plainclothes officer for the shooter.
The last two items were “significant concerns” for the roundtable participants, according to a working paper from Sheldon Greenberg, a Hopkins professor of management and a former police officer with long experience in law enforcement practices.
That’s a long list of assumptions and best-case conditions adding up to an altogether weak case for arming teachers.
There are other factors highlighted by the Hopkins roundtable and Greenberg’s review of numerous studies:
- “Despite their training and frequent exposure to high-risk and life-threatening events, evidence shows that police officers do not shoot accurately in a crisis encounter.” If police officers have trouble shooting straight, what do we expect from people whose primary focus is teaching social studies?
- The potential dangers of having guns in classrooms: Teachers faced with a crisis might use lethal force when not warranted; students might gain access to a gun.
Of the 36 who participated in the Hopkins roundtables, only five saw any merit to arming teachers, but even they acknowledged that teachers were unlikely to perform well in a shooting encounter.
Most of the professionals believed the risks outweigh any benefits.
Little wonder that Greenberg concluded with these words: “The success of a teacher or other school official using a gun to end an active shooter situation is unlikely.”