State your case: Do armed teachers improve school safety?

Following the Uvalde school shooting, the question of whether teachers should carry firearms is in the news again


Do armed teachers improve school safety? That question has been hotly debated in recent years following the tragic shootings we have seen at schools across the country including the May 24 shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

We asked Police1 readers if they believe schools are safer if teachers are armed. Nearly 1,000 respondents answered our poll. Sixty-one percent of you do think schools are safer if teachers are armed, while 29% do not.

Read our columnists' take on this issue and share your opinion below.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Joel Shults: As a local school board member, the Uvalde school shooting has re-ignited interest in strategies to deal with intruder violence. One of my frustrations is that, even though I am a concealed carry holder who religiously exercises the carrying part (I don’t do LEOSA), Colorado law makes me a felon if I walk onto school property with any of my small arsenal. This effectively creates one of those fictional gun-free zones we hear so much about.

The core problem of immediate response to an immediate deadly threat on the sanctity of school grounds is waiting for the police to arrive. While the idea that we can predict what a violent attack will look like is unrealistic, one of the few constants in such events is the reality that time spent waiting for law enforcement response is free time for killing to the attacker. Even when a police officer is present or nearby, the ability to have a god-like omnipresence on every acre and square foot of school property simply doesn’t exist.

What if an attacker didn’t know whether they would confront armed resistance before they heard sirens or police commands? What if a counterattack came from inside the classrooms and hallways instead of from outside the doors of the school building? It seems to me that the deterrent value of armed school staff would weigh in heavily in favor of gun-toting schoolteachers.

In an examination of 433 school shootings published in “The New York Times,” 249 ended before any law enforcement arrived. Of the remaining 184, police shot the attacker in 98 cases, otherwise subduing them in 33 cases. Comparatively, bystanders interceded prior to police arrival in 64 cases, 22 by shooting and in 42 by subduing them by other means. (In 10 of the 22 shootings the person using a firearm to end the attack was either a security guard or an off-duty police officer). What I see in these stats is an argument for pre-police intervention, and there would surely be some school staff willing and able to pack a pocket pistol with their brown bag lunch.

Jim Dudley: I am not sure how to say exactly how wrong this idea is without insulting the teaching profession, but I’ll try. There are so many variables when it comes to arming someone with a firearm with an expectation that they may have to use it on another person.

I have a perspective of both sides of this argument, after serving over 30 years in a large metropolitan city. I have been in armed encounters where the offenders were armed with blunt and bladed instruments and on a few occasions, they were armed with firearms. I used my firearm against another person in one encounter, and if I hadn’t, someone else would be writing this side of the argument.

I also have the perspective as a teacher, serving for the past 10 years as a full-time member of the criminal justice studies faculty at my university in San Francisco.

No teacher ever signed up to train with and to carry a firearm. There are certainly some teachers who should absolutely not be armed with a firearm in a school setting. The expectations of both professions overlap with some similarities, but they are more disparate than similar.

Police officers go through vigorous testing from the beginning, with written, oral and physical testing that they must pass above the standard, only to go on to further batteries of psychological testing, a polygraph test and intensive background research. One segment of the 30 weeks or so of academy training involves learning about the nomenclature of the firearm, the circumstances of when to draw it and when to use lethal force upon another. Case laws are reviewed, simulations are experienced, and officers must learn the nuances of force options, resorting to the firearm, only as a last resort. Another 16 to 24 hours (or more) is dedicated to learning about positioning and shooting at targets from 3,5,7,15 and 25 yards or more at a silhouette in the shape of a human being. Most agencies require re-training and qualifications at firearms ranges with a 75%-80% proficiency threshold. Would marksmanship training become a bi-annual part of a teachers new continuing professional training requirement?

It is unlikely that an educator would go through this type of testing and training in the first place. It is even more unlikely for the teacher to draw and fire at another person, perhaps a student, a female, or a person of color. In school shootings, we have seen that young people are often the perpetrators. Studies have shown a reluctance of soldiers to shoot at another human being. These are soldiers. I can imagine the struggle that educators would have when confronted with having to shoot another person.

Police officers are trained to make quick decisions and use deadly force when all factors are present. It is one thing for a teacher to calmly say they will use a firearm in defense of themselves or other students, but it is quite a different story in reality.

Other factors include firearm accessibility. Will they be concealed carry? Will they be locked in a “readily accessible storage lock box?” Every officer knows the answer to the “quickly accessible” storage containers dilemma.

I understand, Joel, about the immediacy of teachers being on scene long before the police unit arrives, but I believe that the hesitation delay would nullify the advantages.

Teachers running around schools in civilian clothing, firearms in hand, will be prime targets to arriving units. In the heat of the moment, teachers may not be expected to ignore instincts to continue to pursue the perpetrator or to stop firing at them. It is a predictable tragedy. Shooting bystanders is a real possibility as well. As studies have shown, firearms in the home account for unintended consequences that include accidental discharges, stolen weapons and even suicides.

Will teachers be protected with a sort of qualified immunity if they make a mistake and shoot the wrong people or have an accidental discharge?

Teachers have a role in our schools but being an armed defender should not be an added requirement.

Joel Shults: Certainly, there are questions, Jim, about storage, liability, the ability of untrained persons to perform under pressure, and all of the dangers of firearms ownership and use. I think these can be overcome.

The mere arming of teachers who volunteer to carry would only be a part of a prevention/early response plan. As you know, police officers shoot with only a 30% accuracy in the real world, despite their training and stress inoculation. Street criminals using firearms don’t fare much worse (no concern for life, liability, policy, safety downrange, etc., to slow their decision-making), so we know that reflex shooting by a civilian at what would necessarily be close range might not be as messy as we think.

I am still perplexed by the urge to evacuate when students are safest behind a locked classroom door. If the only objective an armed teacher has is to keep an attacker on the other side of a locked door, that would address the greatest likelihood of ever having to fire a weapon – reasonably close range and framed by the doorway.

We’ve also seen the heroism of teachers, and even students and other staff, who have intervened and stopped or slowed attackers. What that proves, I think, is that the willing spirit and desire to protect children can only add positively to the equation. Not everyone will want to carry a gun but those who can, should. If the attacker wants to play whack-a-mole to find out what classrooms will offer deadly resistance, that’s a chance the shooter will have to take.

Jim Dudley: Joel, you present terrific anecdotal examples of heroism, but I would estimate that those done by non-sworn as rare occurrences, rather than the rule. Law enforcement officers undergo the aforementioned training and have experience and expertise. Still, the response does not always go as planned. We have seen some faulty judgment and tactics that may cause tragedies to result. I’m sorry to say the incidences of negative outcomes would occur as a result of universally arming teachers and educators.

Our best defense against these types of attacks is in prevention, not response. We need to have better situational awareness of those behaving erratically, making threats and amassing arsenals. We then need to be able to address them with threat assessments to those situations, rather than ignore or dismiss them. It also reinforces the need to have good, diligent school resource officers in schools with open and clear communication with students and faculty.

Joel Shults: Prevention is absolutely the priority and perhaps making potential shooters think twice about whether they are going to face a teacher with a gun can be a part of that prevention effort. When we imagine school staff with a firearm, we might envision a movie character version of Bruce Willis sneaking through the ductwork to take aim. But really all we have to do is to let a teacher who is willing and able to bear a firearm do so and be clear that their only responsibility is for their kids in their classroom. That limits the chaos that we fear from mistakes and misfires and zeroes in on the greatest point of vulnerability. We need not keep our soft targets soft.

Police1 readers respond

  • I have been teaching a nationally recognized armed teacher/school faculty program in Ohio for the past nine years. The program is called FASTER Saves Lives. I would love to explain how our program works and how we have trained and certified hundreds of school faculty and SROs. My opinion is based on 20 years of full-time LE experience. I do not believe arming faculty is the only answer but it is a significant part of the equation that should not be discounted. The FASTER program is not about just handing firearms to school faculty. They are currently trained and qualify to a higher standard than Ohio LEOs.
  • Teachers should just be teachers, they don't have the mindset to be armed unless they just got back from active combat. School resource officers should be active deputies, not part-timers or auxiliaries. 
  • It's neither necessary nor desirable to arm all teachers. Volunteers, including staff, should be vetted to root out anyone with questionable mental stability and they should be required to train in both marksmanship and tactics at least monthly (as should all SROs.) Schools with armed teachers and staff should advertise that fact to ensure that a potential shooter knows they will face armed opposition. That alone reduces the chances of an active shooter.
  • Only trained cool-headed individuals. Preferably people who have been in life or death situations, i.e., military vets, cops and yes, hunters. Those who know that once a round is fired there is no recall and no second chances to get it right. Others who can pass some kind of mental stress assessment, to show the ability to think under extreme pressure. In these cases, I think it can be a good idea. Children will not be traumatized and do not even need to know.
  • I think Deputy Chief Jim Dudley is drastically underestimating the intelligence and ability of those in our educational system. If we follow his line of thinking, teachers should not have to know how to use an AED or perform CPR because that is not why they came to school that day; perhaps they should "leave it to the professionals" and call the fire department. As a law enforcement officer of 38 years (36 years as a firearms instructor), and as a civilian CCW instructor, I must say that there are civilians out there who are more capable with firearms and utilize better critical thinking than some of our fellow officers. Deputy Chief Jim Dudley also fails to take into consideration that many veterans, some of whom have more combat and stress experience than some law enforcement officers, have gone into the field of education after serving our country in the military. The school districts that have looked at this concept do not lean toward "handing out firearms to every teacher to leave unattended in their purse." These programs are voluntary and selective. He is correct that there are some teachers who should not be armed, but there certainly are some teachers (or administrators, custodians, librarians, school bus drivers, etc.) who could be armed and trained. When I taught in an urban school district here in Ohio (to supplement my police income and to give something back to the community), only the school district superintendent, assistant superintendent and the building principal knew I was a police officer and carrying a handgun concealed on my person. No one else knew or needed to know. Armed staff in an educational environment CAN be done safely. 
  • I tend to agree with Joel for all the reasons he has brought up. First off, no teacher is being mandated to carry a gun. It will be a choice. Second, either training or some sort of certification would be required for them to carry. I've been in law enforcement for 40 years and we have all seen certain individuals who cause us to scratch our heads and wonder how they made it through all the testing, screening and training and are still wearing a badge. Third, the teacher may already have a background in firearms. I know of civilians who are impressive in what they know and the experience they have.
  • My first impression, after reading both sides of this debate, was unnerving to say the least. For a seasoned, experienced long-time law enforcement officer, and now educator, to bunch all educators together as inexperienced, inept, unpredictable and unwilling to have the mindset of being able to be trained to have access to a firearm in the classroom is very discouraging to me. My thoughts are, how many educators have prior experience with firearms? How many educators, male and female, are former law enforcement officers or have been in the military? How many have combat experience? How many are avid hunters that grew up handling firearms? How many are sport shooters, or just like guns? How many educators, if asked, would be willing to take training during the summer months to be able to have a gun in their possession during the school year? Has anyone asked that question or considered that as something possible to make schools safer? I'm sure the majority of educators don't fit this profile, but I believe it to be one more option in protecting our schools. There are "Red Flag" laws in place. There are, literally, thousands of gun laws in place right now (not my opinion but easily checked with a little research). Have they stopped the plague of mass shootings so far? There have been 309 mass shootings in the United States so far this year! Several in schools and churches that are so-called "gun-free zones." There definitely needs to be better security in our schools, but, there are a lot of choices on how to do that. In the Ulvade shooting, the intruder gained entrance through an unlocked side door. How does a school become so complacent that doors aren't secured as a rule? 
  • Can you really expect a teacher to go armed in a school that has to separate two kids yesterday, possibly have to hug one of them today and maybe have to shoot that same kid tomorrow or next week? They don't have the experience built up inside from dealing with the public on a daily basis and possibly have hyper-vigilance to think ahead as to what might happen. The best idea is to have police academy-trained officers with the extra training for schools, know the layout, know the personnel and recognize the kids. The officers have to work and take orders from the department and police supervisors only and none of the school personnel. There has to be a separation of powers and supervisors for that job must be chosen for their comprehensive job performance and not their test score.
  • My opinion is that arming teachers is a good decision under the right conditions and stringent policy. I have experience with a rural school in our county that has done just this. The teachers are hand-picked by the superintendent and must undergo strict firearms and active shooter training by law enforcement (two weeks). Their identities are kept secret and known only to each other and the first responders in the county. There are mandatory training sessions in the summer during off times again with law enforcement. They also have completed joint training with law enforcement in their school for an active shooter. This negates Jim Dudley's comment about doubting whether teachers are willing to go through the training and maintain it. Signs are posted at the drives to each school stating that it is a guardian school with armed teachers and they will take whatever action is necessary to protect the schools. There are schools and teachers out that that are serious about this and put in the training, work and policy to support it. Only schools with this level of commitment should move forward with such a policy.
  • A teacher's responsibility is to ensure the safety of their students. I feel it is best that they are unarmed. However, administrators and other school personnel could be armed. They would need to be trained in the use of the firearms that they will carry. They should also be trained specifically in mass shooting events. They do not need to have training in other police matters as they would specifically respond only to mass shooting situations.
  • With the amount of firearm training we do in law enforcement,  even our abilities are tested in UOF encounters. I can't imagine the responsibility that could be shouldered by educators having to use a firearm in a critical and stressful event.
  • Any adult school staff member (teacher, admin, janitor, support staff, parent, etc.) who is willing and able (legally, mentally and physically) should be allowed and encouraged to be an armed good guy on campus. The idea of "gun-free zones" is insane because we end up with defenseless, criminal victimization zones. See John Lott's "More Guns, Less Crime" if you need to see hard evidence. Why do you think the mass murderers select schools for their rampages? No armed opposition will be expected there. If they know that any adult on campus could stop them with deadly, effective gunfire they will less often choose to commit these violent massacres at schools, and anyone that tries is likely to get some acute lead poisoning (except in CA which prohibits lead bullets!). All it takes to stop a murderer in the school is a person who is able to inject an effective gunshot (or several) into the known vital organs of said murderer. The issue of training can be addressed by the local LE agency or a reputable private training organization putting each armed person through a basic defensive firearm course. If you can teach these people to drive a motor vehicle, they can likely be taught to use a firearm in a defensive encounter.
  • As a school security officer, a reserve deputy, a volunteer firefighter and a veteran of two combat deployments in the US Army, I would absolutely invite any teacher who is willing to be trained and carry the responsibility of protecting our students with a firearm. Not ALL teachers, but I do know of a few who would be more than capable and would gladly accept their assistance if our worst nightmare ever comes true.

  • As a 30-year veteran law enforcement officer of which part of my career was a D.A.R.E. officer, an SRO and a patrol captain, I have responded to two active school shootings. One was over before anyone arrived and had no SRO, the other was at my son's school and was very much active when I arrived because we did not where the shooter was. There was a Sheriff's Department SRO at my son's school. but the shooter knew where he was and opened fire in a crowded commons area where the deputy wasn't. Could an armed teacher have prevented either one? Maybe, maybe not. In both instances, the shooters who were both students had reason to believe no one at the time was going to shoot back. Both shooters had an abundance of ammo, one had multiple firearms. Both students choose to end the shooting on their own. One was disarmed by the principal when his first gun went empty after killing three and wounding five, the other disarmed himself after killing two and wounding 12 and then fled with other students before being pointed out and apprehended by law enforcement. The point is that criminals (murderers, shooters, whatever you want to call them) do NOT follow the rules, they are not bound by morals or ethics, or any reasonable standards at the time of their action. If someone is willing to die themselves there is not much you can do to prevent others from getting hurt. To quote the phrase, "a good defense is a good offense," is understated in these situations. I AGREE to some extent with both arguments, HOWEVER, I wholeheartedly agree with giving teachers who are qualified, trained and willing to take responsibility for their actions the ability to carry a handgun if they want to. I saw teachers doing courageous things and taking care of wounded students while putting their lives in harm's way! Please let us look at this as another tool in the toolbox to make our schools LESS of an easy target.

  • Thoughtful arguments were presented by both sides. With over 45 years of military/law enforcement experience including instructing in firearms and tactics, I continue to interface with law enforcement all over the US in providing training and consultation in reconstructing shooting events. Three points to consider: 1. No policy can create total immunity from a bad outcome. Some risk is inherent in any proactive prevention plan. 2. Armed teachers can be an effective part of that plan providing a viable chance for a good outcome, where there may otherwise be no such chance. 3. Schools are not monolithic. Policy must consider the unique makeup, nature, personalities and characteristics of the school community and tailor its program accordingly.

  • It simply is a math issue, average response time vs average time an active shooter event lasts. Without immediate responders on scene, there will be a large casualty count. We have been teaching the School Protection Officer program in Missouri for several years and I am a former police academy director so I am very aware of the training both groups receive. The SPO program is commensurate with LE academy firearms requirements. There are many people who are totally capable of being trained to protect students. Well-trained, vetted, ready willing and able, intervention-capable immediate responders are the answer to this math problem.

  • A one-size solution does not fit all school districts. Rural vs. urban systems are often staffed by teachers with disparate backgrounds and levels of experience with firearms. Geography also dictates response times; a large county in west Texas will likely have a longer response time than will a small district in the middle of NYC. Additionally, it is equally likely that more teachers in that Texas county have more experience with guns than might their NY counterparts. IMO, just as in most aspects of our shared profession, each jurisdiction must consider the best way to use available resources to address local needs. Just as the threats differ for each department, so do the solutions. We certainly should learn from each other, but ultimately must best serve our own citizens. No single nationwide answer will ever be appropriate to the tragedy of school shootings.

  • We already have the answer to this question: the State of Utah has permitted teachers to be armed for at least 15 years. To date, the only school "attack" has been an attempted bombing. Not knowing which and how many adults are armed in the school is the greatest deterrent, just like the greater number of people carrying concealed correlates to lower violent crime rates. There is no need for extensive training because we have to understand the context of the incident: one or more armed individuals shooting unarmed victims at their leisure. Videos of incidents show potential victims fleeing or going to ground. The shooters walk upright and don't engage in tactical behavior. History has shown these suspects tend to suicide at the first hint of armed response. At least, the shooter will focus on the adult who is armed rather than children. And there is the Second Amendment right of bearing arms because, even if an SRO is somewhere in the school, the minutes it will take for the SRO and/or responding police will leave children and teachers defenseless. If any teacher or administrator wants to carry concealed, they should be permitted to do so.

  • I agree that there should be an opportunity for teachers and or staff to be trained properly. I am an SRO, patrol deputy and former US Marine and feel that if we can put the right people in these positions lives can be saved.

  • As the leader of our (School Security Group) here in our county and an LEO myself, I have the same mixed feelings about arming "carte blanche" anyone who is a teacher. Going back to the day I decided to enter law enforcement, my biology teacher was also a law enforcement officer. Would I feel totally comfortable with him carrying most definitely, would I feel the same about my government teacher at the time? No! This whole problem of active shooters has to be addressed on so many levels; from mental health care on down. A continued "threat assessment" evaluation process must be done on any individual meeting the profile.

  • I have been the criminal justice instructor at my local high school for 23 years, and am also a part-time police officer at the local community college. I have been a cop since 1972. By order of the principal, I do not carry at the high school, which I think is ridiculous. This is not a "one size fits all" issue, but there ARE people in education who would carry if allowed, and would do a very good job of protecting students. When we have the occasional "lockdown drills," I have to just lock the classroom door and think about how I would protect my students if it were a real situation.

  • Armed police officers should be School Resource Officers assigned by a unit of the local police department and trained by them with daily briefings from cell phones, emails, or other optical messaging, so they can read it and keep a copy for reference. Reading it puts the message in your mind, being just told is less reliable. The unit should be governed by the PD, not by school personnel, so as not to cause conflict with supervisors. Officers should rotate through several schools. The unit should also be knowledgeable regarding the history of students, gangs, rivalries, and Facebook information, have access to dedicated computers, have building duty keys for access, and not allow school students or personnel family members without their personal knowledge to be on the property. Officers would be knowledgeable regarding suspensions, and problem areas like divorces and arrests. Teachers would be too close to students, breaking up fights and counseling students one day and be faced with possible altercations the next, without knowledge of incidents. Resource officers should have totally different command structures, separate from the Board of Education or school personnel.

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