UPDATE: This April 2010 report by the US DOJ states, "Moreover, nearly half of all public schools have assigned police officers." Obviously, this statement does not make clear whether or how they are armed.
This is the question posed by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in a piece written for the Atlantic magazine and published just prior to the massacre in Newtown, CT. He recaps some important points from the article here (link to the full magazine piece here). The very title of the full piece, "The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control)," is probably at least 50% offensive to some of you, but the piece itself is well-researched and well worth the read.
Everyone has had their chance by now to mock the speech given by the NRA's Wayne LaPierre. Indeed, he said many mockable things, but is putting a cop in every school really a crazy response to mass shootings? The Atlantic's Michael O'Brien took a much needed look at what it might cost, both economically and socially. He reports some surprising findings, most notably that a majority of Americans favor this solution according to a recent poll by Gallup, that it would not be cost prohibitive in dollar terms, but that it may actually have a net effect of making students feel less safe.
That's all worth considering. That we could conceivably afford to do it means it's actionable. However, even if it were guaranteed that the measure would be make schools safer, it might impact learning. Is that a trade-off we should make?
I'm curious as to how some of you who dismiss this idea immediately feel about measures like putting marshals on airplanes. There are significant similarities between mass shootings and terrorist attacks. They're both events that are unlikely but devastating. They both tend to be perpetrated by people who intend not to live beyond the attack.
There are also some key differences. First, even though the efficacy of some of these measures is dubious, there is heavy security screening prior to boarding a plane. Second, though we did expand the Federal Air Marshal program as a response to the 9/11 attacks, we still don't put a marshal on every flight. Marshals fly undercover and exploit this to increase the deterrent effect without increasing cost.
It's unclear how effective this program has been. Both the Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab took flights that departed from Europe. Both were subdued by unarmed passengers, not marshals. Both made it onto planes with bombs that were poorly constructed, which is why their intended victims lived. Additionally, the program has had its share of controversy, something that we should probably expect by now from organizations that operate primarily in the dark.
I think it's also worth distinguishing deterrent effects from tactical response in this discussion. Most flights don't have a marshal. This means we have them in place purely as a deterrent. Marshals that aren't present can't actually respond to a threat in progress. Attackers might not know whether there is a marshal present, but chances are there isn't.
As others have noted, O'Brien also mentions in his piece that cops did actually show up to the Columbine massacre while shooting was still progress. However, as pointed on this NYT piece submitted by Dag's erica20, Columbine reflected a turning point in how police respond to mass shootings. At that time, the protocol was to wait for back up and attempt to talk the perpetrators down under the assumption that they wanted something. Given this protocol, the officers on the scene kept their distance and engaged the shooters with pistols from beyond the effective range of their weapons.
Obviously mass shooters have no intent of negotiating anything with anyone. As such, the strategy deployed by first responders has evolved. Now, officers are trained to make neutralizing the shooter a top priority. They train to do this even without backup and even when there are victims in need of aid. In other words, get an armed responder to the shooter as fast as possible.
If we accept that this is our first-best response to mass shootings, then there is an obvious advantage to having such a responder present at all times. So, it seems to me that if we were to put a cop in every school, we should consider the potential both for the deterrent effects and the potential for an effective, immediate tactical response that minimizes casualties. I'm not sure what the deterrent effects would be. It might not be possible to know. One thing that we can be reasonably sure of is that the general deterrent effects of police fail in these cases.
If we really wanted to be able to mount an immediate tactical response in these situations, then it wouldn't necessarily be enough to simply station a cop at every school. We would need to station someone there who is specifically trained and sufficiently equipped to respond to these events at every school (and that's just to be concerned with only schools). Perhaps it would be best to station these responders in a secure, private, non-descript room on campus where they could monitor the school via closed-circuit cameras, potentially giving them the advantage in orchestrating evacuation, lockdown or other security protocols. This might also avoid any kind of negative psychological effects of having an armed presence on campus, though this isn't guaranteed.
As I noted in my last piece, it seems to me as if many people have reacted to this most recent shooting, at least somewhat understandably, by doubling down on however they already felt about the attendant issues, particularly the issue of gun violence. Unfortunately, I think that this helps insure that impactful solutions remain elusive. For instance, many people had fun taking shots at Megan McArdle for suggesting that we might train children to rush a shooter, but then some of these same people argue that we should ban high-capacity magazines precisely because it would give victims of these events more frequent opportunities to do just that - rush and overwhelm their attacker. To me, this position does not entirely compute. To be perfectly clear for those who are having a hard time with this sort of thing, this criticism is not an argument against restricting magazine capacity.
It's also a long way from tackling the larger problem of gun violence. Economist Noah Smith notes in this piece that the most impactful policy change we could make to reduce gun violence, outside of a total ban on and collection of all guns, is to end the failed War on Drugs. Of course, maybe we don't care about those deaths so much because most homicides are committed during the commission of a felony.
I'm not arguing that we should necessarily put a cop in every school or train children to overwhelm shooters. I'm trying to find an answer to the question posed by Jeffrey Goldberg. I don't yet have any children of my own, but I do have many in my family. Most of them are of the age of the children brutally murdered in Newtown. They are not in school right now. In a few days, I will get to visit with them. It is one of the great joys of my life. I will get to give them their presents. We'll play together. And I'll be very thankful that they're safe and happy.
When they return to school after their break, we likely still won't have an answer to the question of how to protect them from these events - or if we even can. I think that matters a great deal.
In the meantime, I wish you all an exceptionally safe and happy holiday.