Right Opinion

School Safety

Bill Wagner · Mar. 7, 2018

In the wake of the Florida school shooting, I have waited a while to comment to let the dust settle a bit. But now it seems more clear where the debate is headed and what steps should be considered that might have a positive impact.

Whenever I comment on any gun issue, I include a warning label. I am a strong Second Amendment supporter but hardly an absolutist. I’m not quite in Phil Gramm’s league, but I do own more guns than I need, but not as many as I want. I’m an NRA member, go to the range regularly, have taken personal defense and simulated combat courses, and competed in shooting events.

I think the Supreme Court got it about right when it opined that owning firearms is an individual right but subject to reasonable restrictions, and that it applies to weapons “in common use.” I also consider myself a linear-thinking problem-solver who believes that defining the problem is job number one. To use a gun analogy, one rarely hits what one does not aim at. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s turn to what is going on and what to do about it.

Just like the immigration issue, I would prefer to see gun topics addressed in a comprehensive manner. But after listening to the rhetoric on both sides over the last couple of weeks, I have come to the conclusion that this is simply not going to happen at the federal level for a variety of factors. Perhaps a main one is that folks have been severely shaken by the security lapses at all levels of government and simply don’t trust big-government solutions.

Multiple sources had ample evidence that something was seriously wrong with the shooter and misread the circumstances. The FBI was explicitly warned, local police were called to his home to investigate disturbances dozens of times, the school and his classmates knew about his dangerous behavior, armed security personnel apparently broke protocol and didn’t enter the school at the time of the shooting, and the local sheriff refuses to take any personal responsibility, blaming the Florida legislature, his deputies and the NRA instead. All of this leaves the impression that big government is incapable of protecting the kids.

Two teachers I spoke to raised an interesting question: If the government can’t protect the kids, is it its job to do so? Would it shield the kids and risk getting killed? Both of the teachers said they would like to think it would, but that’s not its job and it shouldn’t be. Arming teachers is a separate issue (I’ll comment on that later), but the uncertainty about government being able to do its most fundamental task has been shocking and raises the stakes on what else should be done about it.

I also sense that the rhetoric is different this time. It’s more judgmental and personal. Pleading for folks to “do something” has been replaced with vitriol that those against more significant gun regulations are immoral, evil people responsible for kids getting killed. NRA members are called murderers who should burn. Politicians are accused of taking blood money and shamed into denouncing gun owners and the NRA. Even normal law-abiding gun owners are equated with serial killers, as summarized by our own Connecticut governor who said that it’s clear to him that many Americans are willing to accept dead kids in schools to protect their guns.

The NRA has not been helpful either, flooding the fundraising zone with fear tactics that the Left is going to confiscate your guns, and then come after the rest of your personal freedoms. It is very difficult to have a reasoned debate when both sides are considered immoral and not worth listening to by the other.

Another key difference this time is that the Left has wised-up in its use of imagery and is utilizing the Florida students as a rallying cry. Don’t get me wrong, the kids have been articulate and telegenic, but I don’t think it is smart to entrust our policies to teenagers who have just been through a traumatic event. But the Left has recognized that having the kids front and center makes it very tough to dispute the underlying gun control agenda lest dissenters be considered cold and uncaring.

Maybe it will overplay its hand, as it has done with “hands up, don’t shoot” and Black Lives Matter, but for now trying to focus the debate on the kids might be horrible policy but brilliant politics.

Ditto the enlistment of corporations to denounce the NRA. I would prefer that companies like Delta shut up and just get us from point A to point B, but when the shame merchants start pounding on the board-room door, the knee-jerk reaction is for companies to run for the hills. Backlash is inevitable, and who knows where this will settle. But it doesn’t help the debate on a serious subject.

With 2018 politics in the mix, you have a recipe for folks screaming soundbites at each other with no hope of a rational chat. Even the local Florida sheriff position is an elected one. Need I say more? The Left is petrified about what the Supreme Court might do to the union dues mandate, so there is much more incentive to delegitimize key political strongholds of the GOP and the NRA with its five million members and 20 million concealed carry permit holders.

In that atmosphere, getting any kind of broad consensus is a pipe dream. So the first step to getting something meaningful/effective done is to redefine and narrow the problem. That’s why the title of this commentary is school safety, not gun violence or gun control.

Gun violence has orders of magnitude more to do with suicide and gang killing than mass school shootings. It is also not helpful to the debate to spin terms like “school shooting” or “gun deaths of children.” Mass school shootings are exceedingly rare, but the stats can be inflated with the inclusion of incidents like “guns being discharged within school property,” regardless of whether there were injuries or not or the discharge was accidental.

Ditto child deaths. The stats may sound ominous, but when you define “child” as up to age 18, it turns out that the majority of “child gun deaths” involve 17- and 18-year old gang members. However, while mass school shootings may be a small fraction of gun deaths, it is dramatically more emotionally impactful on gun policy. And based on the reactions to Florida, its time may have come. So let’s focus on defining the problem as keeping kids safe in schools.

But even that has raised so many questions at the national level that agreement on even a narrow set of steps is elusive, not the least of which because of the gulf in the culturally different attitudes toward firearms in different areas of the country. So let’s try to identify a limited set of actions that are best done at the federal level and leave everything else to the states. We are seeing the beginnings of this approach, but it needs to become the norm.

A key role for the federal government and the Supremes is monitoring what is being done to restrict the Second Amendment at the state level to be sure the states don’t go too far. Remember, the Second Amendment is an inherent right, so any changes are always to restrict, not expand, it. Elections mean things, so that will always be a campaign issue, as it should.

What else should be done at the national level? How about background checks? As of now there are three main problems here — the criteria for what would justify rejection of gun ownership is not sufficiently clear; the underlying databases are incomplete; and there are loopholes for private sales that do not require such a check.

It seems to me that if background checks are deemed appropriate at all (which they are), then they should apply to every sale. Remember why the private sale loophole exists (it’s commonly referred to as a “gun show” loophole, but that is a misnomer; most gun-show sales are by licensed dealers and require checks, while private sales involving folks “not in the gun business” do not). It was a negotiated compromise between those wanting universal checks and those wanting none. But the logic fails because it’s the buyer who is being checked, and that should happen regardless of how the sale is conducted. Maybe exempt “family gifts,” but put me down as being in favor of universal background checks as a federal requirement.

We hear all the extreme horror stories about the process taking too long and being too much of a burden on private citizens. We even hear non-sequiturs like people on the terror watch list being able to buy guns. But those are process issues and should not be barriers to proper checks. Fix the processes, get the databases current and easily accessible, and make everyone get checked.

Because the databases are national, the information is best housed centrally by the federal government, even if criteria for application are left to the states. And finally, the federal government is best at.spending money. Let the states decide what works best for them, but have the federal government stand ready to help fund those actions.

The issue of “mental health” criteria has been front and center, mostly because a universal factor in virtually every mass school shooting is some evidence of mental instability and/or erratic behavior by the shooter. By all means, that should be on the table, but it’s not as simple as it seems. There is a huge trade-off between privacy and security; and not every person with “mental health issues” is potentially violent. At some point we have to trust someone, and maybe the best approach is to put laws in place at the local level that define a process to get restraints against individuals shown to be dangerous and trust the courts.

Make due process clear and fair. Require documentation of dangerous behavior from those close to the person, and include relevant police reports that at a minimum would raise red flags. All should be presented to a court that then makes the ruling, with opportunities for it to change over time if behavior changes. I do not agree with Trump that the guns should be taken first and due process later. Ideally, this should be a national issue, particularly if national medical privacy laws that limit inputs without litigation exposure are involved. But if it proves too difficult to define, send it all to the states.

Federal laws on gun-free zones around schools should be dropped, not to permit a free-for-all but rather to allow states/districts to decide. I’m all in favor of extending federal laws that ban or highly regulate “automatic weapons” to any device (like bump stocks) that can turn guns into automatic weapons. That’s a good role for the feds but will do virtually nothing to improve school safety.

Any focus on banning “assault weapons” will merely revisit the ineffective and counterproductive process of 20 years ago when huge calories were burned trying to define whether certain handgrips turn a rifle into an assault weapon (whatever that is) rather than focus on what might have positive results. And when the restrictions were enacted, the impact on gun violence was negligible. So don’t waste time going there.

Then there are things like age, waiting times and magazine capacity. Behavior matters far more than age, and whether the threshold is 18 or 21 will make little difference. Leave it to the states. Ditto for waiting times. Improve the data systems so that full background checks can be done quickly and stop the fiction that adding a couple days will better identify at-risk gun purchasers. That falls under the category of “do something.” It may sound good, but results rule, not soundbites.

As a practical matter, it makes little difference in a mass shooting if the mag capacity is 10 or 30. Most competent shooters can swap out mags in a couple of seconds. On the other hand, even with trained law enforcement, the percentage of shots that hit the target in a combat situation is shockingly low, often less than 10%.

I remember one of my early simulated combat course exercises where I missed an 8" x 11" target, 11 out of 11, from less than 10 feet away. If anyone is put in a self-defense situation, limited mag capacity could be a life/death factor. If states want to address this, have at it, but it would be nice if the unintended consequences were explained as well. Either way, this does not belong at the federal level.

Back to school gun-free zones. This is perhaps the most important factor for states rather than the feds to consider. I am not in the camp of believing that arming a significant number of teachers is the way to go. As noted above, dealing with a combat situation like a school shooting is extremely dicey, even for professionals. While I’m sure that familiarity and competence with guns varies dramatically in different parts of the country, the training and practice required to be effective is a full-time job and is not something I would want to see entrusted to teachers, whose day job should be to teach.

Maybe I’m biased by where I live, where most teachers I know have never held a gun, much less been trained on when/how to fire on another human, so universal decisions on this at the federal level is absurd. I would much rather see an increased presence of professional armed guards at schools with the feds writing checks, not making rules.

The bottom line is that deterrence that helps make potential shooters think twice in the first place is infinitely better than confronting an active shooter. Let states decide whether to hire armed professionals and/or allow some small number of teachers or other officials to carry if they are in the same competence category and are willing to do the ongoing training needed. But in either case, get rid of the gun-free zone signs and replace them with deterrent warnings that armed security is present.

No single action will prevent all school shootings, but the combination of the above elements not only has the best chance of improving school safety but also has the best chance of actually being enacted. The bigger issue of gun violence will have to wait, as will societal factors like media violence, fatherless homes, mental illness, and attitudes of personal responsibility and morality/judgment. Let’s drop the political posturing, recognize the futility of many nationwide proposals, and focus now on keeping the kids safe.

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