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To keep our children safe, keep guns out of schools

A sign outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is seen adorned with flowers on May 25, 2022, after an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and two teachers. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Schools are opening this week, and millions of children are returning to the classroom. After the Uvalde, Texas mass murder of 19 children and two teacherspoliticians in Texas called for more teachers to carry guns in classrooms to protect their children and themselves. Ohio recently enacted a law permitting teachers to be armed after 24 hours of training.

A closer look at the data reveals that any benefits of such concealed carry are far outweighed by the risks, particularly to children.

In spite of the perception offered by the media, mass murders, defined as four or more people killed during a single event, excluding the shooter, occur around once every 12 to 13 days, or around 30 such events per year. The range of venues where they occur are highly varied. Mass murders at schools in Uvalde, Texas, Parkland, Florida, and Newtown, Connecticut certainly grab everyone’s attention. Yet, with around 130,000 public and private K-12 schools in the nation, the practical need for concealed firearms by teachers and on school grounds is questionable. 

So, what are the risks and benefits of teachers being armed?

There is risk that any such firearm accidently discharges or inadvertently ends up in the hands of children, both of which could collectively cause significant harm.

In 2021, there were approximately 700 deaths attributed to mass shootings, defined as four or more people killed or injured during a single event, excluding the shooter. Such events occurred around 55 times per month. At the same time, around 600 people were killed unintentionally, including accidental discharges. Therefore, the number of deaths in the nation in 2021 attributed to mass shootings and unintentional events were similar, although the former gets much more attention in the media than the latter. Moreover, mass murders accounted for just 177 of the deaths, yet the media portrays them as the dominant problem.

The loudest argument made by those advocating for guns in schools is that “good people with guns” will stop “bad people with guns.” In theory, this is correct. In practice, the issue is not just the possession of a firearm, but how the firearms can be used and the skills of the user. Law enforcement officers undertake several weeks of training on how to use their firearms judiciously to ensure that if discharged, only the target of a criminal act is impacted. Expecting such a level of precision by all teachers carrying a firearm is unrealistic.

If anything, the biggest value offered by carrying a concealed weapon is its deterrence value. If a possible shooter believes that there may be resistance at a venue, alternative plans would be needed to address any such confrontation. This argument is flawed. Most shooters end up being killed during their act of violence, the shooter’s actions and behavior are suicidal, hence is willing to undertake their shooting with such risks.

Does this mean that teachers must continue to be helpless when confronted with a shooter in their school?

Of course not. What was learned from the Uvalde, Texas response is that rapid response — and decisive action — are necessary. All school room doors must be accessible at any time by appropriate authorities. Waiting for “the right moment” to act is inexcusable. If a shooter is in a room with children, immediate controlled confrontation is imperative. Such actions carry risk to the children. However, the risk of inaction may be even worse.

In an ideal world, all schools would be safe from shooters and others intent on causing harm and destruction. In the real world, there are risks. Such risks also exist in churches and other places of worship, entertainment venues, and shopping malls. Anytime people are prematurely killed or injured during a mass shooting or mass murder, the harm isunspeakably tragic.

The good news is that in a country as large and expansive as the United States, the number of incidents, while all tragic, is small. We would all want it to be zero, much like how we would like to see zero drug overdose deaths and zero automobile accident fatalities. These are aspirational ideals that are worthy objectives, but unrealistic to achieve in practice.

Adding more weapons in schools adds marginal benefits in their deterrence value with significant risk with unintended discharge. Indeed, the laws of unintended consequences often prevail in the most unsuspecting ways, and at the most unsuspecting times.

To keep children safe, keep firearms out of, not in, schools.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. With a background in probability modeling and data science, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.

Tags Firearms Guns Sheldon H. Jacobson Uvalde shooting

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