Let’s Not Militarize Elementary Schools

In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has a proposal: “National Guard troops could be used to support local law enforcement agencies in protecting our children at schools.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer

The senator announced yesterday that she’d be introducing two bills aimed at “protecting children.” The “Save Our Children” act, Boxer explained, “would expand a successful National Guard program in place since 1989 that allows governors to use the guard to assist with law enforcement efforts related to drug interdiction and counter-drug activities. So we take a successful program, and we say we’re gonna add a new purpose, and that’s what we do in our legislation.”

This seems like an awful idea, but let’s assume it’s sound policy and was on the books last Friday. Would Adam Lanza have been any less able to carry out the shooting? The answer is almost certainly “no.” There would have been no good reason for the Connecticut governor to deploy National Guard troops to Sandy Hook Elementary School that morning. The merits and demerits of Boxer’s proposal might be worth deliberating, but these deliberations would bear no meaningful relation to the Newtown massacre. Therefore, now is probably the worst time to debate the new policy, because current discourse related to school violence is so driven by the aftereffects of Newtown. Any debate held now will inevitably be informed more by emotions and hysterics than statistics and reasoning.

The odds that any given person will ever experience a spree killing remain vanishingly low. And the odds that any given elementary school student will ever experience a spree killing are even lower. (The last elementary school massacre on the order of Newtown occurred in 1927.) Much as politicians might want to be perceived as “doing something” to make future elementary school massacres less likely, crafting policy aimed explicitly at curbing these events is simply irrational.

There does seem to have been an uptick in the incidence of U.S. spree killings as of late, but statistically, the occurrence of a rare event doesn’t necessarily imply that such events have become any less rare. We can debate the possible causes of the recent uptick (as well as the major decrease in overall violent crime) but a statistical uptick in the incidence of rare events also does not itself imply that such events have become anywhere near common enough to warrant a direct legislative response.

As political scientist Patrick Egan wrote after the Aurora movie theater shooting this summer: “First, we are a less violent nation now than we’ve been in over forty years.  In 2010, violent crime rates hit a low not seen since 1972; murder rates sunk to levels last experienced during the Kennedy Administration.” He continued, “Long-term trends suggest that we are in fact currently experiencing a waning culture of guns and violence in the United States.”

This is not to say that the experience of Newtown could never inform a reasonable policy proposal. But that national politicians are seriously advocating the militarization of elementary schools, for instance, is profoundly disturbing. Again, this advocacy is totally disconnected from the event which supposedly spurred our current “conversation.” Another major problem I’ve noticed is that people habitually conflate the phenomena of spree killings with the much broader issue of overall gun violence. These should be decoupled. (Violent gun crime has also been steadily decreasing.)

“Is it not part of the national defense to make sure our children are safe?” Sen. Boxer asked yesterday.

In their adverse impact on rational public discourse, these substance-free emotionalist appeals are probably more damaging than the post-massacre ravings of Christian zealots like Mike Huckabee. After 9/11 — another highly aberrational event — national politicians hastily enacted a massive and still-perpetually-growing National Security State apparatus, which has been a colossal nightmare. Following a similar approach with our elementary schools would almost certainly beget disastrous unintended consequences.

About michaeltracey

Journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow me on Twitter at @mtracey.

  • ortcutt

    I have a really simple solution to gun violence, only allow women to have guns. If experience has shown anything, it’s that men are as a class too violent and unstable to warrant that privilege of owning and using guns. Men account for every mass shooting that I am aware of and we account for the vast majority of violent crime in general.

  • 3lemenope

    Hard cases make bad law.

  • C Peterson

    It reminds me of all the overreaction with respect to air travel after 9/11. We implement a massive system at great expense and inconvenience to millions of people, which has probably not prevented anything similar and probably would not have prevented the original attacks.

    We are increasingly locking down our schools, and there’s nothing to suggest it’s preventing any mass shootings. It is, however, creating an environment of fear that our children are growing up in- at the cost of significant psychological damage, I think. Damage that far exceeds anything done by a handful of crazy mass murderers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Funky.Uncle.Matt Matt Begley

    This is, of course, a typical reaction by Politicains who love to over dramatize to be in the spotlight and pretend they are useful. One armed police officeer at each school should be the norm in todays increasingly violent society.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    I agree. Sandy Hook was actually one of the schools that was doing everything right in terms of security, and the massacre still happened. Someone who really wants to do harm to children will find a way. They will break in, or they will wait until the students are on the playground or being released at dismissal time.

    Turning elementary schools into armed fortresses isn’t a solution, and it seems like a prime example of the type of irrational thinking that so often happens in the wake of a tragedy. I read an article today about how parents are now buying armored backpacks for their children! Never mind that none of the Newtown victims would have been wearing backpacks when they were shot.

  • Adam Thorn

    So since African Americans are twice as likely as the next race to commit a gun crime, you’d be cool with not allowing them to have guns either?

  • ortcutt

    For men and women, the ratio is more like 10 to 1. I just think that people, and men in particular, forget the fact that men account for the vast majority of violent crime, and as far as I can tell all of the mass killings. That’s something that men seem to take no responsibility for.

  • sfd4304

    It is so refreshing to read this perspective! I am so sick of the knee-jerk reactionary b.s. in my Facebook feed coming from all sides. Even my kid’s school is implementing new policies, which will be a big inconvenience to parent volunteers like myself.

  • dorothy30

    for a lot more information on this subject, read The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker. A long read, but really worthwhile

  • cathouseumbrella

    Yes, “simple” is definitely a good way to describe that.

  • MichaelBrice

    Uh……didn’t the Newton shooter get the guns from his Mommy?

  • cathouseumbrella

    That picture of Barbara Boxer is pretty great and doesn’t look at all like a muppet.

  • Octoberfurst

    Good lord! Talk about overreaction! Yeah why not just have a one guardsman for every kid in school following him/her around. >eyes rolling<

  • Filthy Creature

    Hi, I am a man and I would like to personally take responsibility for all the violence in the world…

  • Filthy Creature

    Did you not read the post? There is less violence today than since 1972. America is a DECREASINGLY violent society.

    As a Canadian, there would be a huge outcry if an armed ex-mall cop was put in every school. I’d be more afraid of the cop accidentally shooting a student than a random stranger massacre.

  • decathelite

    Yes, the “if-only-teachers-had-guns-this-whole-thing-could-have-been-prevented” fantasy. It’s too bad Adam Lanza’s mother wasn’t a gun owner, or else she could have stopped him, too.

  • SphericalBunny

    You know that whole sexism, feminism, equality thing? Yeah, this doesn’t help…

  • The Captain

    The A+ crowed is going to love you. FreeThought blogs are this way —>

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I just read a story in the news today about a retired military guy who is now standing out in front of his local elementary school in his combat fatigues. My own reaction is “who the heck is this guy hanging around on school property talking to everyone else’s children?” How does having non-school adults hanging around at the school makes things any more safe?

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    One could argue that the extra screening has been a deterrent. However, one would have to face the fact that the screening has caught exactly 0 terrorists.

    Rule #1 we can’t completely eliminate any risk.
    Rule #2 everything else is a cost benefit analysis.

    I think there are better ways to spend that much money that will have better long terms benefits. Like making sure kids in school aren’t hungry. And that they have libraries and counselors and art and music, and recess. Diabetes and heart disease will rob more years of life than people with guns. Heck, we’d probably save more lives by convincing parents to hang up their damn phones when driving.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Just wait until the person who’s supposed to have a gun (be it a teacher or a guard) loses it and takes out a class. Teachers have killed students before. There’s no reason to think it can’t happen again.

  • Adam Thorn

    We don’t have to take responsibility for it, Men are not some hive mind that when 1 man commits a crime it’s because the rest of us wanted too or are going too. One of the main points of equality for me is just because one person performs a act either good or bad that it doesn’t reflect on his static characteristics of that person such as sex/race/sexual orientation etc but it seems to be a point you’re not grasping.

  • Octoberfurst

    Regarding your comment about Lanza’s mother being a gun owner—excellent!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Travis-Dykes/19217851 Travis Dykes

    I really liked this piece. I dont necessarily agree that its a bad idea to use National Guardsmen as security for schools. I think for it to make sense though it would have to be at the school/districts request if they could not afford to hire police officers for the school, and any guardsmen who are put in this position should be specially trained for it. School shooting sprees are rare, but there are other reasons to have police officers on campuses and if a school can not afford to have a police officer this seems like a good way to make up the difference.

    I love how you made the point about separating out shooting sprees and other gun violence.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1348368679 Dexter M Vilchis

    In 2007, there were an estimated 270,000,000 fire arms legally
    owned by the U.S. population of 301,139,947. It was reported gun ownership decreased since then, believe it or not! Let’s look at some stats.

    Before we do, let’s get one thing crystal clear. Gun “murders” as opposed to gun “deaths” or homicides, are what I am looking at. Some groups will throw out the highest number possible to push their agenda, to claim gun deaths (“violence”) are an all-time high since the assault weapon’s band expired. I just looked at the Brady campaign website and they post the number of people SHOT this year. It’s 96,553.
    It is true, a population with more of a certain thing, will tend to have more of whatever outcome certain thing will produce. More cars, more car related accidents, more
    alcohol more alcohol related injuries, more fast food restaurants, more fat asses. Therefore, I didn’t annotate justified homicides, accidental deaths, manslaughters , undetermined deaths by guns or any other gun related DEATH unrelated with the root of the current issue people always ignore. Gun MURDERS, where one human, with ill intent, decides to kill outside the scope of defending themselves or others. Got it? Good. Let’s compare the U.K. and U.S.

    2011 Gun MURDER numbers:

    U.K 550

    U.S. 8,583

    (I could not find the actual gun murder number for the U.K. for this year, probably because not many U.K. citizens own guns. No brainer there, but we’ll keep this number.)

    2011 Population numbers:

    U.K. 63,181,775

    U.S. 314,982,000

    Percentage of population that was MURDERED by guns, (or
    just plain murdered in the U.K):

    U.S. %0.0020

    U.K. %0.0008

    *Keep in mind the U.K.’s total population was %20.05 of the U.S., whose citizens own the most firearms than another country in the world. True statement!

    My conclusion:

    A country where the number of legally owned weapons is as much as % 85
    of its total population, only has % 0.0012 more gun murders than a country
    where hardly any citizen can own a firearm. Not to mention the amount of violence we glorify in the U.S. (because let us face it, we do.) By the numbers alone, one would expect the U.S. to have a firearm MURDER count well into the tens of thousands! But we don’t. As an atheist, I cannot in good conscious get on the “guns are bad! let’s ban assault weapons!” band wagon because it would be extremely hypocritical of me. Those who simply ignore reality, and say “well guns are bad anyway you cut it! So I support whatever restriction we need” is like a theist saying “well I don’t care for the vast evidence against god, I still believe in him because god is good!”
    From most of the posts I’ve read regarding this issue, I don’t know, I just expected better from us. Lets not get evangelical and cry for banning this magzine and this weapon or that type of stock… it would be no better than wanting to keep bibles in every classroom, or just as delusional as saying “oh prayer could have stop this killing!”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CE6FTHLHRMXUGOOGCMG3ROXBH4 David

    I doubt that will even be the biggest problem. Having a loaded firearm around always imposes some baseline level of risk from accidents alone. Sure, it comes in handy for the incredibly rare event of a spree killer attack, but every other day in every other school it means having loaded weapons around in an environment where there’s dozens of mischievous children for every adult. With good safety measures, you can make accidents rare, very rare even. But can you make them more rare than spree killings?