In response to the recent, tragic shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, one proposition keeps bubbling up among legislators who strongly support 2nd amendment rights: We can better stop school shootings if teachers carry guns. This isn’t going to be an indictment of the 2nd amendment or a treatise on gun control, but I do want to address this particular suggestion because some states are already moving to enable teachers to be armed at school. Research (and some common sense) indicates that this is a very bad idea.
The most fundamental problem with teachers carrying guns is that rather than reducing risk, it introduces a host of additional risks into the school environment. Consider:
- When law enforcement responds to an active shooter, every weapon at the scene is considered a potential threat. The presence of a lot of weapons makes law enforcement’s job exponentially more difficult as they try to assess where the actual threat is coming from. They may lose precious seconds trying to sort out who the bad actors are among all those carrying guns; they may even make mistakes and fire on innocent people. As one state school safety expert from Texas put it, “One of the most candid conversations we have with school districts is: When an officer shows up and doesn’t know if you’re the good guy or the bad guy, he’s not gonna ask questions.”
- Armed teachers can become targets for students seeking guns. If students know a teacher carries a gun, there is a persistent danger that the teacher might be overwhelmed and the gun stolen and used to hurt or kill others. And let’s not forget that the majority of teachers are women and the majority of school shooters are male; at the secondary level, a high proportion of those students would be strong enough to subdue a female teacher (or even smaller male teachers), even at peak fitness, and I say that as both a woman and a former high school teacher.
- Armed teachers may precipitate workplace shootings. This is one where the research should give us pause: by far the most common type of mass shooting is workplace shootings. While school shootings make up 6.5% of all mass shootings, workplace shootings make up 31.5% — nearly a third. In light of this, arming people at work who aren’t SROs is not a good idea.
- Teachers are trained to teach, not shoot guns. That lack of training — and nearly every state that has tried to pass laws allowing teachers to carry guns has greatly reduced the training needed — makes actual deployment and use of those guns even more dangerous for everyone on the scene. Let’s spell that out: it means an untrained (or lightly-trained) teacher with a gun is more likely to shoot a student bystander by mistake than to take out an active shooter. Law enforcement officers spend hundreds of hours in weapons training. A teacher with a gun would have nowhere near the same precision or skill. Handguns, especially, are hard to aim accurately without a great deal of practice. And school shootings are chaotic and frightening, increasing the chances that innocent bystanders will be hurt or killed.
Beyond the additional risks, there’s a human element that is a little harder to quantify but still critically important:
- 91% of school shooters are current or former students. This is important because despite what we see in movies and video games, it’s not so easy to pivot from the role of caregiver and supporter to fire on a student or former student. Hurting a child flies in the face of everything teachers do. No one can say whether a teacher — or anyone not trained as law enforcement — would be capable of this type of response until faced with such a situation. And no one can predict the psychological repercussions on a teacher if they undertook such an action; trained police officers and military personnel struggle tremendously with shootings and it’s part of their job.
- Armed teachers increase fear and may inflict psychological trauma on students. It’s one thing to be disciplined by a teacher and a completely different thing to be disciplined by a teacher with a gun. Consider how the presence of a gun on a teacher’s belt changes the perception of this type of interaction: it escalates from uncomfortable to terrifying.
Let’s talk for one minute about what a teacher’s role should be. A very high percentage of school shooters (87%) show signs of crisis prior to enacting violence. The most important thing a teacher can do is know the signs of crisis in kids and report them immediately. Crisis may encompass a host of scenarios, from violent or suicidal ideation to evidence of self harm. The teacher prior to the Oxford High School shooting in Michigan did everything right: she reported the student’s violent messages and drawings and got counselors and administrators and the child’s parents involved. The failure here was that there was no school/district plan with what to do with a child in crisis to protect other students from potential violence, particularly when the parents refused to take immediate action.
Another important role for teachers: be a safe space for students to report threats of violence or violent agendas. A majority of school shooters (78%) revealed their plans before the shooting, usually on social media. Cultivating trust with students so they feel safe telling what another kid may have written or said on social media may help prevent violence in schools or other public places.
There’s more to discuss on this topic, but we’ll leave it there for now. If, however, you’d like to understand better why threats or the death penalty, expulsions, and even lockdown drills don’t help deter school shootings, there’s an excellent article from a pair of criminologists that does a deep dive on the psychology of the school shooter. And here’s another good one from EdWeek picking apart the can of worms that arming teachers opens.
Our hearts are broken for Uvalde, just as they were broken for Oxford High, for Parkland, for Sandy Hook, for Columbine. I don’t know how much more heartbreak we can take. It’s my sincere hope that we never, ever, have to have this national conversation again.