School shootings are both a political hot potato and a concern that directly affects those of us in the security industry.
After every such event, the blame begins. Some blame the National Rifle Association (NRA), gun owners in general, and Donald Trump in particular, and call for banning firearms, or at least banning AR-15-type rifles. Others blame video games, violent movies, the culture, or the Kardashians. And the political games continue.
As security professionals, we must not allow ourselves to be caught up in either the politics or the hysteria of these debates. Our approach must reflect what we have been trained to do: dispassionately apply sound security principles to this security threat.
First, we must look at school shootings in terms of risk and threat analysis, as we would with any other potential threat. And from this perspective, we immediately realize that the risks of a school shooting at any public school in America, despite the media hype, is incredibly low.
Radley Balko, writing for the Washington Post, notes that out of 55 million public and private school students, fewer than 50 people per year have been killed on public school campuses over the past three years; that includes mass shootings as well as what he calls “conventional homicides.” In other words, the odds of a child being killed in a mass shooting at an American K-12 school are less than 1 in one million. The odds of being struck by lightning are only 1 in 700,000.
Balko goes on to note that school shootings, although taking up massive amounts of the news cycle, actually are quite rare occurrences. He points out that “the average elementary, middle or high school can expect to see a mass shooting every 150,000 years.”
If I were protecting a principal and my threat and risk matrix showed me these odds, I would invest my time and money protecting said principal from other, more likely risks.
However, we can agree that despite the incredibly low risk, even one school shooting is too many, and we should do all within our power to safeguard our vulnerable students from these highly unlikely occurrences.
Thus, how do we mitigate this risk?
This is where the controversy arises, and where emotion begins to muscle in on logic and reason. The least logical and most promoted solution to this problem is to ban firearms in general or at least to ban the AR-15 and other semi-automatic rifles.
There is simply no objective evidence to support this argument. The only apparent reasoning behind such a ban appears to be the belief that somehow the very existence of these firearms inspires people to become mass shooters.
Simple common sense denies this. As security professionals, we know that inanimate objects do not inspire violence. Rather, those intent on perpetrating violence use inanimate objects to achieve their ends. A weapon is a tool—a “force multiplier,” to use a term common to our industry. That force multiplier can be used by those intending to do good or those intent to do evil.
The AR-15 semi-automatic platform is often the weapon of choice for school shooters, but, perhaps surprisingly to those who believe that banning the platform will somehow bring an end to school shootings, it is not even the most popular firearm used.
An exhaustive study of school shootings from 1982 to 2017 showed that the most common weapons used were semi-automatic handguns, which were used nearly twice as often (in 67 incidents) as any kind of rifle (35 incidents). Shotguns were used in 23 incidents, and revolvers in 18 incidents.
Consider the following:
- Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, used an AR-15 rifle, but also carried two semi-automatic handguns and a semi-automatic, 12-gauge shotgun.
- Klebold and Harris, the Columbine shooters, used a TEC-DC9, a Hi-Point 995 carbine, several sawed-off shotguns, explosives, and knives.
- Cho Seung-Hu, the Virginia Tech shooter, used two pistols to kill 30 students.
- Chris Harper-Mercer, the Umpqua Community College Shooter, was carrying five handguns in addition to his semi-automatic rifle.
- How can anybody argue that banning the AR-15 will lead to an end of school shootings?
The other roadblock to this mitigation strategy is the Second Amendment. Two recent Supreme Court cases have upheld Americans’ right to individually keep and bear arms—specifically, those types of arms most commonly in use. Semi-automatic handguns and AR-15 style rifles are some of the most popular weapons purchased today. Legally it would be next to impossible to ban any of the firearms commonly used in school shootings.
We can talk all day about the merits of the Second Amendment or these recent Supreme Court cases, but this does not mitigate this risk. So let’s be objective and ask ourselves, what realistic options do we have?
If you work in close protection or in facilities security, you know the answer: we cannot guarantee that those with evil intent will be unable to acquire the tools to turn that intent into action, so we must make our schools into hard targets. Schools are the softest targets imaginable. They are filled with young, largely defenseless children. They are often in “gun-free zones,” (which means that the shooter will be the only armed person in the vicinity until the police arrive). There are often numerous unguarded entry points.
So how do we make our schools hard targets? The answer to this question will be unique to each school, but three obvious answers spring to mind:
1) Hardened facilities: access control is an obvious step. Due to fire codes, schools cannot do what many courthouses do and funnel all ingress and egress to one location, but they can funnel all entry to one location while providing emergency doors at other locations throughout the school. Buzzer entries and other access control techniques can all be implemented to control access to schools, just as we control access to other vulnerable places.
2) School resource officers: many schools already employ these resource officers (a euphemism for armed police), and even though many civil rights campaigners argue that putting such officers on school grounds often ends up turning children into criminals, the fact is that several of these resource officers have already stopped mass shootings.
- At Great Mills High School in Maryland, a resource officer stopped Austin Wyatt Rollins after he shot and wounded two students.
- At Dixon High School in Illinois, officer Mark Dallas stopped and arrested potential shooter Matthew Milby (who, by the way, was carrying only a handgun) before he was able to injure or kill anybody.
- At Sullivan High School in Blountville, Tennessee, Sheriff’s Deputy Carolyn Gudger confronted and stopped Thomas Richard Cowan (who was carrying two handguns) until other officers arrived and shot him.
- At Forest High School in Ocala, Florida, Marion County Sheriff’s Deputy James Long sopped and arrested Sky Bouche, a former Forest High School student. Ironically, the incident happened on April 20th of this year, the same day that a nationwide walkout was planned to protest “gun violence.”
3) Armed faculty and staff: Many in security make obvious our arrogance when we recoil at the thought of allowing teachers to arm themselves as if only we in the industry have the dexterity and presence of mind to be trusted with such things. This is a false assumption.
Hundreds of schools nationwide already allow properly trained faculty and staff to be armed (172 school districts in Texas alone allow this). According to the Crime Prevention Research Center, there has not been one case where a teacher has been disarmed while carrying, and there have been just seven cases of accidental discharges—six of those were on
college campuses, while only one was in a public elementary school, where a teacher’s firearm discharged accidentally in
These are just three obvious mitigations that could be implemented, and in fact are being implemented right now, to mitigate the threat of mass school shootings. It is not my intention to provide all the answers needed to stop such shootings; no single essay from one professional point of view could hope to do that. But it is intended to remind those in the security industry to look at this threat as we do all others: objectively and professionally, using risk and threat analysis, and incorporating workable, pragmatic mitigation strategies, rather than wasting our time playing political games and calling for gun control.
What to Do About School Shootings?
By: Michael Jensen, CSMP, PPS