After September 11, 2001, a key element of the homeland security mission was to secure our nation’s critical infrastructure from terrorist attack. Our country’s schools are where we build our future by educating our children. What could be more critical than that? For decades our schools have been the target of armed assaults or “active shooters.” Yet, when it comes to school security, basic principles to counter this very specific type of attack are too often ignored in favor of methods which have proven to be completely inadequate. Today, many schools have school safety or security officers. The time has come to arm and train them to repel an active shooter.
Modern mass school and campus shootings (those involving four or more dead victims) go back to the 1940’s when the principal of a Pasadena, California middle school shot and killed five school officials. The next mass shooting at a school occurred in 1966 when a man first killed his wife and mother before going to the University of Texas in Austin where he shot and killed 14 people. Other mass school shootings since the one in Austin include those in Arizona, Minnesota, Arkansas, Oregon, Illinois, Iowa, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia, California and most recently in Connecticut. These do not account for school shootings where 3 or fewer victims died of which there have been over one hundred nationwide since 1980.
While mass school shootings have become a common and tragic fixture in modern America, mass shootings in general have been on a slight decline since the 1990’s. According to a study done by Mother Jones and other sources, from 1980 to 1989 there were 8 mass shootings in the United States, from 1990 to 1999 there were 23 mass shootings, and from 2000 to 2009 there were 21 mass shootings. However, there have already been 11 mass shootings in the United States just from 2010 to 2012. Among the 63 mass shootings from 1980 to 2012, 12 occurred at schools, 19 occurred in the workplace and 32 occurred at other sites.
While mass shootings of every type, and mass school shootings in particular, garner huge media attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1992 to 2006 less than 1% of all homicides involving children ages 5-18 occurred at school. This data of course does not account for the number of planned school shooting attacks that have been thwarted over the years. According to National School Safety and Security Services there have been 120 thwarted attacks just between 2000 and 2010.
All of the various statistics show that from a risk perspective, for any one school among the roughly 139,000 public and private institutions in the U.S., active shooters are still a very low probability. But they are a potentially high consequence event as was seen in Connecticut last week where those consequences – 26 dead including 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School – were absolutely devastating to the nation. Even with the very low probability of an attack for an individual school, from a national perspective, the likelihood of more school shootings (both mass and non-mass) is relatively high, if we use the rate of attacks over the last forty years as an indicator. While past actions can’t guarantee future results, it’s a common tool to try and track future outcomes.
What contributes to the high consequence of school shootings, or what helps turn a shooting into a mass shooting, is the vulnerability of the schools to the active shooter scenario. It is this vulnerability of schools that further feeds into the likelihood of future attacks, since the attacker knows he will be able to inflict large casualties due to a school’s inability to immediately counter the assault through armed security. The only person armed is the killer. Victims must wait for armed law enforcement to arrive on the scene. However, law enforcement response time can vary widely from as low as several minutes to as much as 20 minutes to an hour. Often, it only takes seconds to a few minutes for shooters to inflict mass casualties.
Since the horrific shootings in Connecticut, passing more gun control laws restricting anyone from possessing certain types of “assault weapons” and ammunition is the “solution” that gets most of the attention. Unfortunately, this is probably the least effective response. Indeed, to the extent bans on certain assault weapons and ammunition can truly help they should be explored, but concern over this proposal is less about gun rights, and more about what will actually be most effective in reducing gun related massacres and where our energy should be placed in finding solutions.
There are at least 300 state and federal gun laws on the books already (not counting local laws) and laws that prohibit drunk driving. However, such laws have not stopped mass shootings in the past and do not stop people from getting behind the wheel of a car drunk and causing an average of 13,000 deaths each year on America’s roads. Moreover, when the federal assault weapons ban was in effect from 1994 to 2004, its impact has been determined to be unknown due to insufficient evidence, to negligible at best, according to numerous studies including those from the CDC, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Institute of Justice. There were 15 mass shootings in the U.S. when the ban was in place, including the Columbine mass school shooting (another 2 occurred within 3 months of the ban’s expiration). Among those 15 mass shootings, at least 8 involved shooters with large capacity ammunition magazines.
Even in Europe where they have very strict gun laws they still suffer from massacres involving armed attackers (many of them at schools) as evidenced by those in Germany, Norway, Finland, England, Italy, the Netherlands, and France over the last ten plus years. Therefore, rather than emphasizing blanket prohibitions on certain types of guns, when it comes to school shootings in this country we need a more sophisticated and effective approach that focuses on the types of people who commit these horrible acts and the security at facilities at which they commit them. In too many cases, the shooters were mentally unstable males who attacked educational and other facilities that had no armed security.
After 9/11, we placed armed air marshals, armed pilots, and hardened cockpit doors on airplanes. We also imposed security measures at federal buildings, certain office buildings, stadiums and scores of other infrastructure. Today, walk into even the most mundane federal building and the first thing you will see is armed security. Not surprisingly, there have been far fewer shootings at federal buildings than there have been at schools in recent years despite the high profile nature of federal facilities. By comparison, for too many schools, a locked door, intercom, unarmed safety officer and cameras represent the highest level of security. If al-Qaeda terrorists were responsible for all the school shootings in the U.S. since the 1990’s, would security at schools be as it is today?
Arming and training school safety offers to repel an active shooter will not turn schools into “fortresses” that will disturb the academic serenity of the institutions. The White House is a fortress and a few armed guards are simply no comparison to the security apparatus at that compound. The weapons used at schools (particularly elementary schools) could be concealed similar to how Secret Service agents and law enforcement carry guns to protect the president, governors, and mayors from around the country. Today, approximately, 23,200 schools, roughly one-third of all public schools, currently have armed security. Just recently, the Butler and South Butler County school districts outside Pittsburgh announced they would arm and train their school security officers. This is the right decision because history shows it works.
In June 2009 an armed gunman walked into the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC and opened fire. Armed security guards shot and wounded the gunman before he could engage in his planned massacre. Then Mayor Adrian Fenty said the security officers' efforts to “bring this gunman down so quickly literally saved the lives of countless people.” In December 2007 a gunman attacked worshippers at the New Life mega church in Colorado Springs killing one person and wounding 4 others before being killed by an armed security staff member. Then police chief Richard Myers said the church’s security personnel "probably saved many lives."
There are several other situations including at the Capitol building itself in Washington, DC. There, in 1998, it was armed security that likely saved numerous lives when a man with a gun attacked a Capitol building entrance for members of Congress. The attacker was shot by Capitol Hill Police before he could kill or wound any congressional member. Finally, while not a security officer, there is the case of assistant principal Joel Myrick. In 1997, Myrick, an army reservist, used his gun in his car to help prevent a shooting rampage that killed 2 and wounded 7 at a Mississippi high school from becoming a mass shooting by forcing the teen shooter to surrender at gun point. There are other examples of off-duty law enforcement and military personnel using their guns to prevent a shooting rampage from turning into a mass shooting, including at restaurants, businesses and schools.
While armed and trained security can protect against and mitigate the damage from an active shooter, it cannot stop the shooters from acquiring weapons and attacking a secure school or softer targets. When it comes to preventing active shooter attacks, the emphasis must be on stopping those who are mentally unstable from gaining access to weapons under any circumstances – at a store, gun-show or at home. An effective solution will require greater coordination between law enforcement, the mental health community, gun owners and dealers, and the general public.
Prevention must focus on spotting those with severe mental illness and sharing that information in a way that prevents access to guns, encourages, or in some cases forces treatment, all while preserving as much privacy as possible. This will not be easy and will likely pit privacy advocates against law enforcement, against gun owners, etc. However, we need a serious examination of how to make this work including a change in how we view, treat and discuss mental health, which may help reduce the stigma driving some of the privacy concerns in the first place.
While armed security and better policies concerning the mentally unstable will decrease the risk of an active shooter attack at a school, or elsewhere, neither step is a panacea. There is no such thing as complete security and risk can never be reduced to zero. Nonetheless, each step would be a huge improvement over where we are today when it comes to guns, the mentally ill, and school safety.
The decision of whether to arm school security officers is largely a state and local one. When considering this question, local and state leaders should remember that arming these officers is insurance, which by definition is to protect against low probability high consequence events, such as a major medical procedure or a home burning to the ground. Finally, while the active shooter attack at a school is very rare, if God forbid an armed gunman showed up at a school tomorrow, is it preferable that the school security officer(s) be armed and trained to counter the attack or that the officer(s) be armed only with a cell phone to call others with guns to come and rescue the children and staff? It’s a horrible question to ponder, but that’s what’s at stake, because these attacks will happen again, and we have seen the unspeakable outcome too many times not to take effective action.
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