By Craig Lawrence, CPP CAS
In the aftermath of Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, President Obama complained that we have become “numb” to the frequency of school mass shootings in America, and he may be correct. He then rattled off a list of some of the worst that have taken place over the past two decades or so. And after listening to that list, we must admit to ourselves that this seems to be a recurring pattern in our society.
According to the Wikipedia List of U.S School Attacks there have been 79 deaths due to school shootings in the 33 years from 1966 – 1999, pre-Columbine High School Massacre. In the 16 years from 1999-present day (post Columbine) there have been 210 deaths due to school shootings.
The definitive event marker that seems to have signaled a shift in school mass shootings was the Columbine massacre. Why do we see such an uptick in the frequency of school mass shootings post-Columbine? There are a number of reasons, but the most obvious is that it was one of the most exposed, media-covered mass shootings in U.S. history. For the weeks, months and even years following the shootings, the media relentlessly plastered the faces of the two adolescent killers all over TV and print media. Security camera footage of them during their killing spree, along with scenes of terrified students running from the school with their heads down and hands behind their heads were played over and over ad nauseum. Even several movies were made about the incident, including a full-length Michael Moore documentary. Images of the massacre were burned into the consciousness of the national psyche.
This could of been a good thing, had Columbine been taken as the wake up call that it was. Columbine was a canary in the coalmine which was ignored and silenced. This was the time to re-examine how we protect our kids, how we identify potentially violent kids before they lash out, and how we care for emotionally disturbed kids. But school systems are bureaucracies after all, and inherently resist change.
While working as a private security consultant after Columbine, I had the opportunity to pitch several school district administrators on conducting vulnerability assessments and helping them to enhance their security plans to include contingencies for active shooters. To my surprise, the overwhelming response that I received was that they were not ready for the new reality. Some administrators were worried about the liability of documenting security vulnerabilities that they may not act on. Others were very concerned about the impact that additional security enhancements would have on the students “learning environment”. “We don’t want the kids to feel like they are in a prison” they would tell me. I eventually gave up on pitching my services to school administrators, because although there was clearly a need, it seemed that school bureaucracies were not willing to adapt to the paradigm shift that should have taken place.
The effective result was that instead of functioning as America’s wake up call, Columbine became a call to action for angry, hate-filled emotionally disturbed students looking to enshrine their name and face into the annals of history. And the media granted their wish. With every new school shooting, came another 15 minutes of fame for the (usually deceased) killer. This effectively perpetuated the cycle of sensationalizing school shootings for continuing generations of disturbed would-be killers seeking the spotlight of national media attention.
If you have gotten the impression that I am blaming the media for encouraging school mass shootings, you’d be right. The media along with Hollywood and video game makers all bare heavy responsibility in the way they glorify violence and desensitize our children to gun murder. That being said, the lack of preventative strategies falls squarely on the shoulders of school administrators.
What exactly has changed on school campuses since Columbine? The answer is not much. Or at least not much of the right things. True to form for academia, the most significant changes in counter-violence strategies we have seen on school campuses has been policy changes. We see more bullying awareness. We see gun-free campuses with “no weapons” signs on the walls and stickers on the windows. We see zero tolerance policies concerning weapons and violence on campus. Instead of taking definitive steps towards making campuses a safer place, school administrators enacted policies. Do policies make schools a safer place? Do stickers on the windows make schools immune to gun violence? Obviously not, but clearly school bureaucrats all over this country thought so. Is this an ideological commitment to failed gun control policies? It is quite clear to most Americans that gun laws, policies and regulations only affect those willing to abide by them. Criminals, by their very nature do not follow the law and therefore do not abide by gun laws. However, highly educated school administrators were lulled into a false sense of security by thinking that declaring a school campus “gun-free” makes it so. I contend that by declaring a “gun-free” zone anywhere makes it a more likely target for gun violence by telegraphing to violent criminals that they are unlikely to encounter armed resistance there.
Case and point- the vast majority of mass shootings in America take place in “gun-free” zones such as schools, government buildings and facilities, movie theaters, malls, and other areas declared as “gun-free”. Have you ever heard of a mass shooting at a law enforcement expo? How about at an NRA convention? Perhaps at a gun show? Studies of mass shootings has taught us that disturbed people who want to kill the most numbers of people will target a venue where they think they will not encounter armed resistance. Typically once active shooters do encounter armed resistance, in most cases they either hide or commit suicide before police have a chance to confront them. This is common knowledge that school bureaucrats choose to ignore.
Gun laws cannot prevent violent killers from killing people. Banning, heavily regulating or severely restricting access to guns, even if it were constitutional, cannot stop an evil person from getting a gun or other weapon and committing mass murder.
So what is the solution? How do we stop school shootings?
There are 3 straightforward strategies that I believe would drastically reduce the number, if not eliminate mass shootings at schools.
- Get serious about protecting our kids.
Getting serious means a commitment to not sticking our heads in the sand and rationalizing inaction with “it can’t happen here- not in our community”. Every community needs to hire at least one armed security person per school. In larger schools, there should be a bare minimum of one armed security person per 500 students- at all times while kids are on campus. There should be enough armed personnel so that there can be one inside every campus building where there are kids along with one patrolling the grounds at all times. If we can afford to do this for our government buildings and military installations, we can afford to do it for our schools. Our kids are at least as important as government workers and politicians. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune- there are a plethora of retired police officers with federal authority to carry their guns, ready and willing to serve their communities. Many of these officers would likely volunteer or work for a daily stipend if they knew that is all the community could afford. In those cash-strapped communities that don’t have many retired police officers, school administrators and teachers can be trained and armed effectively, as they do in Israel. Anywhere there is a group of children in Israel, whether on a field trip or in school, you can bet there are armed personnel close by. However it is accomplished, this must be done. The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun. Calling the police is not good enough. As the saying goes, “When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.” In the time it takes the police to respond, an unacceptable amount of carnage can be inflicted by a single shooter, as was demonstrated in Umpqua Community College shooting.
- Identify mental health problems early.
In Argentina, most psychologists are government workers who get assigned to schools. The average-sized urban school in that country likely has five, full time psychologists on staff. If a child is developmentally challenged, they have to see a psychologist. If a child acts out in class, they have to talk to a psychologist. If a child has an absenteeism problem, they have to talk to a psychologist. The psychologist decides if the child needs a course of treatment or therapy based on these contacts. In the U.S., if a child acts out in class they have to go to the principal’s office and/or detention. If they are developmentally challenged, they have to go to “special ed” after which they may be ridiculed by other kids. If a child has an absenteeism problem or gets into a fight, disciplinary action is taken and they are punished. In this system, it seems that any opportunities for recognizing and documenting early indicators of emotional disturbance are missed, and instead handled as a disciplinary issue. Using the Argentine model, psychologists’ contacts with students would be often and productive. School psychologists can be specially trained to recognize indicators of emotional disturbance and treat behavioral issues early. If Argentina can find the resources for staffing schools with in-house psychologists, then surely we can. If the federal government needs to pay for school psychologists’ training in return for some years of service working in economically disadvantaged school systems, then so be it. The government does this with medical doctors- why not with school psychologists? Aren’t our kids worth it?
- Stop the media sensationalism.
The media must take responsibility for their role in perpetuating the cycle of school shootings by refusing to participate in the sensationalism of the crime. The media has to deny the killers the payoff they seek by refusing to show their picture or identify them in detail. Killers want to be infamous and the media has the power to deny them- by not showing their image, home, social media postings, manifestos….nothing. As little information as possible about the killer(s) should be published, to disincentivize the perceived fame surrounding the inhuman act. For the first time that I have seen, there were actually several news shows on a popular cable news network that did this during their coverage of the Umpqua Community College shooting. This is a positive sign, and hopefully a trend that will gain momentum. In addition, the entertainment industry needs to take responsibility for marketing violence to teens. Video games and movies directed at the adolescent market should not glorify violence and killing- this only serves to desensitize our kids to violence and teach them that it is an acceptable method of expression. The military has known for years that realistic video games (called simulators) are effective in teaching soldiers to kill and operate effectively in combat, and that video images of combat desensitizes people to the carnage they may see in the battlefield, making them more effective under the stress of real combat. Why doesn’t civil society recognize and accept this fact? Just like we have made it illegal for alcohol and tobacco companies to market their products to kids because of the negative impact it can have on their health, entrainment companies should also be prohibited from marketing violence to teens because of the negative impact it can have on their mental health.
In order for this 3 point plan to succeed, there must be a bi-partisan commitment to the objective of keeping our kids safe. To achieve this, we must do exactly the opposite of what President Obama has suggested, which is to politicize the issue and double down on failed gun control policies. We need to do away with theoretical arguments based on political ideology and confront reality head on, with clarity of mind and purpose. Our kids are too important to be experimenting on their safety and security with academic hypotheses. It’s time for the adults to grow up and take responsibility for their children.
The author grants all parties permission to freely distribute and post this article, provided that the content is unadulterated and presented in it’s entirety including the author’s bio below.
CRAIG LAWRENCE CPP, CAS is the author of “Forced To Shoot: A Comprehensive Guide to Surviving the Aftermath of a Deadly Force Confrontation” and Chief Instructor for United Risk International’s Training Division. Over the past 25 years, Mr. Lawrence has worked as a law enforcement firearms instructor, private detective, and corporate security consultant. United Risk’s Training Division has conducted seminars throughout the Chicago metro area on self-defense law, civilian concealed carry classes as well as firearms training to law enforcement, military and private security contractor personnel. Mr. Lawrence is a Licensed Private Detective, Certified Anti-Terrorism Specialist (CAS), Certified Protection Professional (CPP), Certified Law Enforcement Firearms Instructor, as well as an Illinois State Certified Firearms Instructor and Illinois State Police Certified Concealed Carry Instructor.