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.

NEXT: Read more "State your case" debates here.

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