by Dave Kopel
They Can Do Better. Maybe We Can Help.
First, The Good News
Despite the media frenzy, the actual rate of school
shootings is very low. There are more than 50 million students in
119,000 public schools in the United States, plus about 5 million
more students in over 28,000 independent or religious schools. Thus
the odds that any given school will be attacked are almost
According to the fbi's Uniform Crime Reports, in 2005 in
the United States there were 936 homicide victims aged 5 to 17.
According to the National School Safety Center, there were 25
school-related murders of students in 2005--if one uses a broad
definition, such as a student stabbed while waiting for the subway
on the way to school.
Of those school-related murders, most involved gang
activity or fights, which attracted little media attention beyond
their locality, while five deaths were the result of a nationally
publicized rampage by a student at a high school in Red Lake, Minn.
Also in 2005, several school employees and police officers were
murdered at or near schools, including two in the Red Lake
So while the actual numbers show there is no real
"epidemic" of school murders, we all want to work toward a goal of
zero murders everywhere--especially at schools, where our most
vulnerable citizens spend much of their time. Significant progress
has been made since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999
forced school shootings into the public eye, but recent events
prove there is still more to be done.
For Consideration: Targeted Police
One very important change that has already taken place in
many communities is a tremendous improvement in all aspects of
police response. As the official investigation of the Columbine
massacre detailed, the "school resource officer" (on-duty sheriff's
deputy) did not pursue the killers into the school building, nor
did the other deputies who arrived minutes later. Although swat
teams assembled quickly, they were ordered not to enter the
building and confront the killers, even though an open 9-1-1 line
revealed that students were being executed one at a time in the
After Columbine, many police and sheriff's departments
have changed their tactics for an "active shooter" scenario. The
new tactics focus on taking immediate action against an active
shooter. Many more officers have been issued rifles, heavy body
armor and ballistic helmets to assist in their response to an
For Consideration: Know Thy Neighbor--And
Another constructive change is that both law enforcement
and the public are much more likely to take preventive action when
there are rumors or warnings of a potential attack.
The Columbine perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold,
had previously been arrested for burglary and put in a juvenile
diversion program. Yet in the months leading up to Columbine, local
law enforcement did little in response to the death threats that
Harris posted on the Internet, and his boasting that he was
constructing bombs--and the discovery of one of his bombs, which
matched the type he said he was making. The Columbine killings were
planned more than a year in advance, and law enforcement (not to
mention the grotesquely negligent parents of the killers) missed
many opportunities to intervene.
After Columbine, several school shootings have been
prevented by students or other citizens who've come forward when
they learned of potential evidence of an attack being plotted--and
authorities then conducted a prompt and proper
As every NRA-trained self-defense instructor teaches, the
most important element of self-defense is vigilance, and heightened
vigilance is clearly saving lives.
In September, an intruder held several girls hostage and
murdered one at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo. The
killer, a 53-year-old man, had been lurking in the school building
and the parking lot for more than an hour before the attack began,
but nobody reported his presence to school administrators. Now,
many schools are exercising tighter control over visitors,
requiring identification badges and urging students to notify
adults if they see a stranger in the building.
"Injury, shock, grief and despair shouldn't be
brought to you by sponsors."
For Consideration: Applying Detection
Some people urge that metal detectors be installed at the
entrances to every school. While detectors can alert authorities to
students with forbidden objects, they also create huge delays for
students coming into the classrooms. Indeed, the long lines of
students waiting to be screened could be easy targets for a
Unless every entrance were backed up by an armed guard, a
killer would simply make the screeners his first victims, as the
Red Lake killer did with the unarmed security guard who was
operating the metal detector at that school's entrance.
Nevertheless, such screening likely is important.
For Consideration: On-Site, Armed
Other persons have called for deploying more police
officers in schools. This seems a sensible strategy, and especially
sensible on the anniver-saries of previous school shootings, since
we know that mass murderers are often obsessed with the
anniver-saries of previous, similar murders.
On the down side, law enforcement resources are already
stretched quite thin. According to the International Association of
Chiefs of Police, there are 663,535 law enforcement officers, of
all types, in the United States. Providing one officer to every
u.s. school for the entire school day--to guard against a very rare
type of crime--would consume more than a quarter of all police
resources, resulting in a significant, and dangerous, reduction of
protection provided to the community as a whole.
Some schools or school districts have already hired
private security guards, and more will probably do so. While a
costly endeavor, if the security guard is readily willing to risk
his own safety and protect children by engaging an active shooter,
a well-trained security guard could, indeed, save lives.
Wisconsin State Rep. Frank Lasee has proposed that schools
have a firearm locked in a safe, under the control of a principal
or other qualified administrator, which could be used in case of an
attack. Even the fastest police response to a 9-1-1 call takes some
time, so Lasee's plan could reduce the time during which killers
could roam a building or classroom and kill victims at will. It is
undoubtedly more difficult for a perpetrator to methodically
execute victims with head shots if the perpetrator himself is being
shot at by a rescuer.
For Consideration: Armed
It has also been suggested by many that teachers be armed,
since, after all, they are the ones most likely to be on the scene
when an attack begins, and because many believe teachers should
have the right to save their own lives and the lives of their
students. Some teachers in Right-to-Carry states already carry
firearms for protection against attack by ordinary criminals on
their way to or from school, or when going about their daily lives
away from school.
The idea of armed teachers, however, is unthinkable to
some. Yet many of these same people found the idea of armed pilots
equally unthinkable--until Sept. 11, 2001. Then, 3,000 people died
because in the previous decades, the traditional government and
airline policy of allowing pilots to be armed had been changed,
leaving pilots defenseless against al Qaeda hijackers.
In response, our nation reformed the law so that pilots
can now be armed after receiving special training. The armed pilots
program is supplemented by the presence of undercover federal
marshals on a small percentage of U.S. flights.
Thus, would-be hijackers now know that there is a chance
that the pilots and federal marshals might be armed, but the
hijackers have no idea whether there could be armed resistance on
any particular domestic flight. Perhaps this is one reason why
there have been no attempted terrorist hijackings of any domestic
flight since the law was reformed.
Do similar principles apply to protecting our schools?
Many people in Utah would say "yes."
The state adopted shall-issue licensing for carrying
handguns in 1995 and, unlike most other states, Utah did not make
schools off-limits to the licensed, trained adults who passed a
background check and safety training. Utah is also a state where
there have been no attempts to perpetrate a mass murder at a
school. It is, however, impossible to say with certainty whether
the deterrent effect of the Utah law deserves some
Like pilots, teachers are a diverse group and many of them
would never choose to be armed, even if special training were made
available. Yet some teachers who would never carry a gun would
likely be interested in training with defensive sprays, or in
techniques of unarmed combat--especially how to make a quick move
to disarm a criminal with a gun.
The armed pilots and air marshals programs were not
implemented in isolation, but rather as part of a holistic
improvement of airplane security--including fortification of
cockpit doors, more careful scrutiny of visa applicants and many
other reforms. Similarly, improved school safety is a goal for
which we must search for multiple solutions, rather than expecting
that any single improvement can be a cure-all.
For Consideration: No More Glorification
for the Murderers
Yet another part of the solution is greater responsibility
on the part of the so-called "mainstream" media. School shootings
seem to warrant endless hours of coverage on numerous 24-hour news
networks, often making the phenomenon seem much more prevalent than
it actually is, and frequently delving deep into the shooter's life
Speaking in Denver after the Columbine murders, Charlton
Heston noted that the media too often use school shootings to,
"provide riveting programming to run between commercials for cars
and cat food." He deplored "the dirty secret of this day" that
"media ratings all too often bloom on fresh graves ... Today,
carnage comes with a catchy title, splashy graphics, regular promos
... Reporters perch like vultures on the balconies of hotels for a
hundred miles around. Cameras jockey for shocking angles as news
anchors race to drench their microphones with the tears of victims
"Injury, shock, grief and despair shouldn't be brought to
you by sponsors," he continued. "It trivializes the tragedy it
abuses. It abuses vulnerable people, and maybe worst of all, it
makes the unspeakable seem commonplace."
Even worse, as Clayton Cramer has documented in his
award-winning article "Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in
the Mass Media," (Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 1993-94),
sensational coverage of "great crimes appears to encourage
unbalanced people, seeking a lasting fame, to copy these
Similarly, in the 2004 book The Copycat Effect, Loren
Coleman details how the publicity about mass murders and suicides
leads to more murders and suicides.
It would be wrong to expect the media to surrender their
First Amendment right, and duty, to report the news. It would also
be wrong not to urge the media to exercise their rights
responsibly. School shooters, like other mass murderers, should not
be rewarded by having their pictures placed on the front covers of
newspapers and newsmagazines. News coverage that pays more
attention to victims and rescuers than to perpetrators is probably
less likely to encourage suicidal copycats out for
Too often, the media have given enormous attention to
school murderers as a tactic to promote the gun control agenda. Too
often, such attention has likely led other sociopaths and losers to
conclude that their one chance to become famous is to attack a
Concerning the high-profile school shootings of the past
several years, the Second Amendment is not part of the
problem--never has been, never will be. But that doesn't preclude
the NRA--America's foremost protector of the Second Amendment--from
being part of the solution.
Solving the problem of isolated school shootings isn't a
task easily determined in just a few days, weeks or even months.
Yet any dialog on how to better protect our children in schools
should be an all-encompassing one that considers a variety of
One thing is certain--our children are worth protecting,
whether at home, school or anywhere else. Determining how to keep
them safe should be a priority for all Americans.