How to stop school shootings right now: Abolish pretend “gun-free zones”

Real gun-free zones (enforced by metal detectors backed up by armed security guards) are fine for certain buildings. Pretend gun-free zones (bans on gun carrying by licensed people, but no procedures to keep out criminal gun carriers, and exacerbated by the absence of armed security) are magnets for mass killers. There is a reason why mass killers frequently attack schools, movie theaters, or shopping malls which are pretend gun-free zones.

My article Pretend “Gun-free” School Zones: A Deadly Legal Fiction, 42 Connecticut Law Review 515 (2009), examines the policy arguments. The article details some (but far from all) of the instances in which a lawfully-armed person at the scene has thwarted attempted mass murders. The reason that everyone knows about Sandy Hook Elementary, and few people know about Pearl High School is that the latter had a Vice-Principal with a gun.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s call for armed guards in schools is a good idea. Especially in light of the copycat effect which results from heavy media coverage of notorious crimes, the policy ought to be implemented right away.

Opponents of LaPierre’s proposal say, wrongly, that armed security at Columbine did no good. At Columbine High School, the attack coincided with the “school resource officer” (a sheriff’s deputy) being off-campus.  The officer returned during the start of the attacks, and fired some long-distance shots at the killers, who were on the school porch. Those shots drove the killers into the school building, and saved the lives of several students who had been wounded. Atrociously, the officer failed to pursue the killers into the building. Dozens of additional officers arrived within minutes, but none of them entered the building either, even though an open 911 line indicated that killings were taking place in the library, while police stood outside, near the library door, just a few feet away. At least 11 of the 13 Columbine deaths could have been prevented if the police had acted promptly. Fortunately, since Columbine, police tactics have changed drastically, to emphasize that whoever is at the scene should immediately and aggressively counter-attack an active shooter. Unlike gangsters or ordinary street thugs, mass killers tend to be weaklings and cowards who crumble quickly at armed resistance.

The limitation of LaPierre’s proposal is that a single guard cannot cover a large building simultaneously, and on a large campus, such as Virginia Tech, campus police may be spread too thin to provide prompt protection.

So LaPierre’s idea ought to be supplemented by the Utah model: if a teacher has (after a fingerprint-based background check, and a safety training class) been issued a permit to carry a concealed handgun throughout the state, there should not be a special exception which prevents the teacher from carrying at her place of employment.

People raise all sorts of speculative objections to this policy. But the Utah experience refutes the speculation. The policy has been in effect for years in Utah, and there have never been any problems caused by armed teachers. Not a single one.

At Utah public colleges and universities, the same law has applied for years, so that school employees, and students who are least 21 years old, can carry lawfully. That has been the rule at Colorado State University since 2003, at almost all other Colorado public institutions of higher education since 2010, at the final hold-out (the University of Colorado) since early 2012, when CU lost 7-0 in the Colorado Supreme Court. Opponents have raised all sorts of hysterical scenarios (e.g., 18-year-olds bringing Kalashnikov rifles to a kegger; students pulling a gun during a heated debate in a literature class), but of course none of these scenarios have come to pass.

The various gun control proposals of President Obama, Mayor Bloomberg, Senator Feinstein, and Rep. McCarthy might or might not be a good ideas in themselves, but even under a best-case scenario, they are not going to instantly and drastically reduce the death toll from mass shootings. Pervasive armed resistance–the abolition of pretend gun-free zones–would have that effect.

To recognize and then eliminate the deadly peril of pretend gun-free zones does not preclude a person from also supporting new gun controls, or improvements in mental health care, or less glamorization of criminal violence by  Hollywood, or whatever else the person thinks could be helpful in in the long run. In the short run, stopping the next Sandy Hook means ending the deadly policy which gave the killer 20 minutes (until people with guns, the police, finally arrived) to fire 150 shots and repeatedly change magazines, murdering at leisure.