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How arming teachers would increase the risk of school shootings, not prevent them

“The US President’s big idea, straight from the NRA’s playbook, is also a sinister one.”

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

IN THE IMMEDIATE aftermath of the Parkland school shooting in Florida, US president Donald Trump has suggested arming teachers to end mass shootings at US schools. According to the president: “If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly”.

President Trump’s extraordinary suggestion is worthy of further scrutiny. It is not the first time that this course of action has been hinted at. In December 2012, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting – in which 20 toddlers and six adults were slaughtered by a gunman carrying an AR-15 assault rifle – the National Rifle Association (NRA) suggested arming school personnel.

According to their spokesperson at the time, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun”.

Trump’s suggestion to arm teachers is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a direct echo of the NRA’s preferred response to mass shootings – more guns in circulation, more firearms training for American citizens and the further normalisation of the presence of guns in everyday places such as school classrooms.

Solution based on escalation

The president’s big idea, straight from the NRA’s playbook, is also a sinister one. His bold statement contains within it the assumption that more mass shootings will take place in American schools. He opines an armed teacher ‘could very well end the attack very quickly’.

Intellectually, the President, like the NRA, does not imagine an America free of mass shootings. Instead, he imagines a solution based on escalation – bringing more guns, bullets and shooters into the equation. Nirvana for the firearms industry. A nightmare for the next school community in the US to lose their precious children in the next mass shooting.

UPI 20171207 President Trump sits beside Executive Vice President and CEO of the National Rifle Association (NRA) Wayne LaPierre Source: UPI/PA Images

And what a solution – arming teachers. A useful way to explore this remedy is to consider it under the legal parameters that govern the use of firearms and lethal force in the United States.

First of all, under legal requirements, a person carrying a firearm for the purposes of policing, security or the protection of others must be certified as fully trained on the weapon in question. In this case, it is most likely that teachers would be required to undergo intensive firearms training on 9mm automatic pistols.

Such a weapon – similar to the side-arms carried by US law enforcement officers – could be carried into the classroom environment. The teacher could wear it on their hip in a conventional holster presumably, or carry the weapon concealed under their clothing perhaps.

Armed stand-off

There are approximately 3.5 million elementary and secondary school teachers in the US. In a tweet yesterday, President Trump clarified that he would like to look at giving guns to “only the best” 20% of teachers who had military or special training experience. With this number of people, it would be an armed force almost the size of the entire US military. Apart from the obvious cost implications, there would be serious ethical concerns for those teachers that consented to carrying firearms.

Teachers are in loco parentis and have major duties of care with regard to the educational, pastoral, emotional and psychological development of their students. Introducing firearms into such a relationship is unthinkable. That such an idea is uttered by a US president is a sad and bleak indictment of the current state of affairs with regard to gun control in America.

shutterstock_206744158 Source: Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic

The second legal parameter to be considered in arming teachers resides in the principles framed by legislation around justification and minimum force. All law enforcement officers in the US operate under these rules of engagement. A weapon may only be discharged in order to save life, or critically, to ‘prevent oneself from being forcibly disarmed’.

Therefore, weapons would have to be secured in specially designated firearms lockers or in secure units in classrooms. This would make schools de facto arsenals – with further overarching security concerns. If a student attempted to steal such a weapon or gain access to it or otherwise disarm a designated staff member, a teacher would be faced with the prospect of having to engage in an armed stand-off or possibly shoot their own pupil.

Such a scenario – to return corporal, or capital punishment to the classroom – is anathema to the education ethos of the developed world.

‘Teacher would need to be almost within touching distance’

In relation to the legal requirement to save life,  an armed teacher – in the current cycle of mass shootings – might have compelling legal and ethical grounds to shoot a pupil. But while, in theory, a teacher might have legal justification for opening fire on an active shooter in a school, the realities of such a scenario make it impractical for the most part.

In the case of Sandy Hook, the Parkland incident and many other mass shootings, the perpetrators used assault rifles such as the AR-15. Such a weapon has a very high rate of fire – even in semi-automatic or single shot mode – and has a planning range of several hundred metres. In other words, high-calibre rounds discharged from such a weapon are lethal across the entirety of most school and college campuses. Such ammunition passes easily through closed doors, and the plaster and hollow-block construction of most schools and buildings. Such weapons – designed for the open battlefield – are especially lethal in the confines of a school packed with children.

Funeral Of Sandy Hook Victims - Newtown A woman hangs candy canes on the 26 trees near a memorial for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting Source: Hartford Courant

A teacher armed with a 9mm automatic weapon – with a planning range of around 15 metres – would need to manoeuvre very close to the shooter to subject them to effective fire. In reality this means that the teacher would need to be almost within touching distance of the armed person and would have to discharge at least three or four deliberate rounds in order to neutralise the threat.

‘This cycle of violence will continue’

This entire process – responding to the threat, presumably unlocking and retrieving a weapon, finding a marauding shooter and closing with that individual – would take at least a few minutes. The Sandy Hook shooting took less than five minutes, with multiple deaths and injuries. The Parkland shooting took approximately six minutes, with seventeen deaths and multiple serious gunshot injuries. Arming teachers in a country where assault rifles are available to members of the public will neither prevent nor meaningfully alter the outcome of such shootings.

Indeed, some mass shootings have taken place on military bases where almost everyone is armed. In 2009, Nidal Hasan a US Army Major and psychiatrist, shot dead 13 soldiers and injured 32 in less than ten minutes at Fort Hood in Texas.

The only meaningful armed response to a mass shooting normally arises when law enforcement personnel arrive on scene in large numbers and heavily armed with assault rifles. This meaningful response is always too late. At present, the United States is convulsed in a cycle of mass shootings that will continue.

President Trump’s response to the Parkland shooting contains within it an implied acceptance that this cycle of violence will continue. His suggestion to introduce more firearms to deal with a gun control issue – for a solution that is clearly unworkable – and the stated aspiration of the gun lobby, is deeply troubling. It is a statement of the absurd, uttered by an appalling president in the presence of school children, to placate the despicable lobby that is the NRA.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.  

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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