Politicians should resist rush to ‘do anything’ in response to school shootings
After a gunman murdered 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas last week, politicians reacted as they always do to such shocking crimes. Democrats have pushed gun control policies ranging from the tokenistic to the blatantly irrelevant, while Republicans have emphasized improving school safety.
At first glance, “hardening” schools so they are less vulnerable to attack seems more logical than banning “assault weapons” defined by functionally unimportant characteristics or expanding the federal requirement to verify background for gun buyers, which is ill-suited to deter mass shooters because they generally do not have a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record.
But the approach favored by Republicans has pitfalls lawmakers shouldn’t ignore in their rush to “do something” about horrific but rare crimes.
To start with the obvious: even reasonable precautions don’t work if they’re not properly implemented.
Although the Uvalde School District has a policy of keeping school entrances and classroom doors locked “at all times,” the shooter entered through an unlocked back door (a teacher closed the door but it did not lock); the door to nearby classrooms where he killed children and teachers was also unlocked.
The school district also had the “good guys with guns” who are supposed to thwart this kind of attack: its own police force and armed guards, as well as local cops and members of a border patrol unit. with “immediate response capability” for “emerging, high-risk incidents requiring specialist skills and tactics. Yet it took police over an hour to confront and kill the shooter – a blatant failure on which the Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin has asked the Department of Justice to investigate.
Beyond these specific failings, we know surprisingly little about the cost-effectiveness of school safety measures. “Any evidence that exists on this front is mixed at best,” notes a 2021 report from the RAND Corporation.
Although safeguards such as metal detectors and surveillance cameras have been widely adopted, the report says “the actual effects of these technologies on detection and deterrence are unclear or mixed.” A 2016 RAND review of the literature found that surveillance cameras are “more effective in preventing or minimizing property crimes (e.g., vandalism) than in preventing school violence or other the school”.
The evidence for “school resource officers” (SROs) is “equally mixed,” the 2021 report states. “Although some studies suggest that the presence of an ORS may be an effective approach to reducing school violence school,” RAND notes, “others show that the presence of an ORS can degrade students’ perception of safety.”
This is not surprising, since ostensible safety measures such as SROs can make students appear to face greater dangers at school than they really are. There is also a risk that SROs turn relatively minor disciplinary matters into criminal cases, sometimes with dire consequences.
“Active fire” exercises raise similar issues. There is little evidence that they improve safety, but there is good reason to think that they make students feel less safe.
Even strategies that seem promising can be prohibitively expensive. In 2019, reports the Texas Tribune, a school district in Texas estimated that adding two secure halls to a middle school would cost $345,000.
Before concluding that the answer is more money, policy makers should take a breath and consider the magnitude of the danger they are trying to address. “Since 2013,” reports Northeastern James University criminologist Alan Fox, “77 K-12 students have been killed in 11 school mass shootings,” defined as attacks that injured at least four casualties and killed at least one student.
In a country with more than 130,000 K-12 schools, the risk of any particular school suffering such an attack is infinitesimal. As Fox notes, 40 times more children die each year in swimming pool drownings than they are killed by firearms in schools, which remain one of the safest environments for children.
“We implore you,” a group of current and former principals say in a recent open letter. “Do something. Do anything.” While this impulse is understandable, it can lead to policies that do more harm than good.
Jacob Sullum is editor of Reason magazine.