Arming Teachers: Good or Bad Idea?

Explores the issue of arming teachers as a solution to mass shooters in schools.

Posted Mar 04, 2018

Most of us can reflect back and remember teachers who made a difference in our lives—teachers who taught us to read, to think, to play, and to be contributing members of our communities. In school, my first teacher was Miss Childs. I fondly remember my kindergarten class where we built large block forts, listened to stories, colored pictures, snacked on sliced oranges, and made friends.  I wanted to be the first child on the school bus each morning, as I loved her class. Miss Childs was a graying older woman, slightly bent from age but always quick with wit and warmth. She exuded kindness, joy, and love. What I don’t remember is her ever carrying a weapon.  Moreover, I cannot envision her ever taking up a gun to potentially shoot another child, a young adult, or any other person. How many of us can picture our beloved teachers from years past as individuals prepared to kill other human beings?

Following the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, politician, pundits, and representatives of the National Rifle Association (NRA) have called for arming teachers.  President Trump has stated, “"A teacher would've shot the hell out of him," Why? A “gun adept” teacher would best be able to respond as, "The teachers love their children. They love their pupils and students.”

So is this idea productive? Does it answer the problems of school shootings?  What are the ramifications of armed teachers?  There may be some teachers (e.g., ex-military or police) who may be well suited to protect their young charges. However, as noted in many news articles, arming teachers presents a number of problems placing students, teachers, and first responders at risk. For example:

  • An armed teacher may potentially shoot an unarmed student or a first responder in the chaos of a mass shooting.
  • What are the odds of survival or success for a teacher armed with a handgun against a shooter carrying an AR-15, who is also wearing body armor?
  • Where would a teacher store his or her gun? If in a secured location, how will the teacher access that gun during a mass shooting? If in their classroom, even if in a locked drawer, could it be easily stolen? If on their person, does that gun increase risk to students from an accidental discharge? What if the stressed teacher accidentally leaves it sitting on their desk?
  • Who would pay for the gun and training? Right now, many teachers are struggling to pay for basic school supplies such as crayons and books.  Who is going to pay for and provide the ongoing training needed to turn teachers into professional security forces?

Beyond the practical concerns, there are even more serious psychological challenges concerning the proposal to arm teachers.

Not Easy to Kill:  Too often movies and television portray shooting and killing other human beings as easy and inconsequential.  Yet, for most humans, it is disturbing, difficult, and immensely painful to kill another individual. During World War II, it became evident than many soldiers were missing their targets—they were aiming above the heads of the enemy.  Hence, training was changed so that soldiers practiced shooting at human figures as opposed to bulls-eye targets and drills were intensified and routinized to facilitate the killing process. Much has been written about the extensive education and training provided to soldiers and police officers to prepare them for shooting at and potentially killing another human being (see, for example, Grossman, 1996).  Even with such ongoing instruction and drills, killing is difficult and a second’s hesitation may mean the difference between going home or to the morgue. We should never underestimate the amount of skill and discipline that goes into being and remaining a good police officer or soldier.

So what is the impact for armed teachers? There appears to be the idea that with just a little bit of training and the provision of a handgun, teachers will be able to do the job of the police, specifically SWAT, or military. It is assumed that a teacher whose job is imbued with love for children and the community will somehow be able to take on the calculating persona needed to track and shoot another human being. It is assumed that in the blink of an eye during an incredibly stressful, noisy, chaotic environment that a teacher will be able to instantly transition from reading haikus to become a skilled security force and killer. These are unrealistic assumptions. In Parkland, an armed security guard and perhaps other police deputies didn’t set foot in the school while the shooter was active. Yet, we would ask more from our teachers? The argument is that they could do it because they “love their students.” However, what if the shooter is one of those students or a former student that they loved?  If the face of the enemy looks to be a monster, then that person might be easier to kill.  However, if the face of the enemy looks like a kid or Bobby from last year or my student Jimmy, how many teachers would be able to shoot “the hell out of him”?

Weapons Focus Effect:  When facing down the barrel of a gun, one tends to focus on the gun and not other features of the situation. Witnesses to crimes remember less about a perpetrator due to the weapon’s focus effect (Fawcett, Peace, & Greve, 2016).

So what is the impact for armed teachers? First, a teacher holding a handgun during a school shooting is much more likely to be shot by a first responder.  If SWAT enters a classroom, they are looking to see who is armed and who needs to be brought to safety. Stress, fear, and rapid decisions may leave an armed teacher at extreme risk, as the focus would be on the hand with a gun and not the entire context. The situation becomes worse if that teacher confuses the armor-clad officer entering the room with the shooter. Moreover, how does the teacher in a school hallway know not to shoot another armed teacher if the cognitive focus falls largely on the weapon? One sees the gun coming around the corner, shoots first, and then examines who is the holder of the gun second. Teachers at least may recognize each other or a student in the chaos but certainly first responders will not know who is a potential victim and who is a perpetrator. The more untrained personnel carrying guns, the more likely a tragic scenario occurs in which innocents are killed.

Weapons Effect: When guns are introduced into almost any context, the potential for aggression increases.  As discussed by Benjamin and Bushman (2018), “exposure to weapons increases aggressive thoughts and hostile appraisals, thus explaining why weapons facilitate aggressive behavior” (p. 93).

So what is the impact of armed teachers?  First, anyone who has ever taught a class of students has had moments of anger, stress, and frustration. The research suggests that if one adds a gun to the mixture, then that anger, stress, and frustration may also escalate to violence. Recently in Georgia, a teacher barricaded himself in his classroom and shot a handgun out the window. Fortunately, no student was injured or killed but his breakdown would have been far less destructive had he not had a weapon.  Additionally, teachers are often called upon to break up fights. If a teacher is carrying a weapon, there is little to keep that teacher from being overpowered. A simple fight may go from bad to worse. Sadly, the mere presence of a gun may serve as the ignition and fuel for a school shooting. 

Bottom line: It is doubtful that more guns in schools will act as deterrence.  Most school shooters don’t expect to survive and can do significant harm prior to being shot themselves.  Even on military bases such as Fort Hood, the site of two mass shootings, increased weaponry did not act as deterrence. As I have written previously, we need to approach school shootings from a multifaceted perspective but most importantly, we need to begin enacting serious common sense gun ownership reforms now (See Mass Shootings: What Role Do Guns Play?).

The answer to gun violence is not to arm teachers but rather to reduce accessibility to guns, particularly large capacity, semi-automatic weapons such as the AR-15. We cannot aim simply to “harden” schools and weaponize faculty.  Bulletproof windows, metal detectors, and teachers with concealed weapons are illusions of safety.  Moreover, children cannot simply be locked inside. Children should be able to play on the playground. Children should be able to go outside to participate in soccer, football, tennis, or track. Students should be able to go on field trips to museums and parks. Students still need to find their way in and out of school.  Our children are vulnerable targets to other children and adults armed with guns both within and outside the school building. The answer is not to lock away our children but rather lock away the weapons killing our children.

It is time to enact sensible gun reforms so that a student’s memory of school will not be of gun violence or a locked-down, armed fortress. Rather, we want their memories to be of school environments devoted to exploration and education inhabited by teachers such as Miss Childs.

References

Benjamin, A. J., & Bushman, B. J. (2018). The weapons effect. Current Opinion In Psychology, 19, 93-97. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.04.011

Fawcett, J. M., Peace, K. A., & Greve, A. (2016). Looking down the barrel of a gun: What do we know about the weapon focus effect?. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5, 257-263. doi:10.1016/j.jarmac.2016.07.005

Grossman, D. (1996). On killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. New York, NY, US: Little, Brown and Co.

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