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A girl writes a note on a banner placed on the fence of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to commemorate the victims of the mass shooting, in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins - RC19240F3100
Brown Center Chalkboard

There are ways to make schools safer and teachers stronger—but they don’t involve guns

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Last week, in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., shooting, President Trump called for arming teachers with guns to deter potential perpetrators of future mass shootings in schools. With a tweet last Thursday and a speech last Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he endorsed the idea of getting the most gun-adept teachers trained to carry in the classroom—he estimated 10-20 percent of the teaching population falls into this category. Over the weekend, he added language in a tweet saying a yearly bonus should go to armed teachers.

Though these few details do not constitute a real policy proposal, the larger conversation about gun safety in school could plausibly prompt either the federal government or states to take some reactive steps to help make schools safer. I applaud the intent of creating safer schools, but I want to offer a few reactions about how we can do that in a much more effective way than giving them guns.

Arming teachers is a bad idea

A policy attempting to get 10-20 percent of teachers trained and carrying firearms in schools is a bad idea on many levels. Here are some widely shared top-line concerns:

  1. In an active-shooter emergency, are students actually going to be safer in schools with armed teachers? Professional police officers hit their intended targets less than 20 percent of the time in training situations of an active shooter. Armed teachers will certainly have even lower accuracy rates, and where will all of those stray bullets end up?
  2. It is unclear whether mass shooters can actually be deterred. The presence of armed individuals in a location does not stop mass shootings (as was the case in Parkland), and there is no evidence to suggest that any percentage of armed teachers will stop a shooter intent on causing mass violence.
  3. Physically keeping guns secure in schools would pose immense safety challenges. The proliferation of guns on school campuses will increase the risk of lethal violence in spaces that are, for the very large majority of students and classrooms, currently safe. In fact, it is almost certain that easier access to guns in schools would pose a greater overall threat to student safety than the current threat of mass shootings in schools.
  4. The presence of many armed personnel represents a further encroachment of the police state into schools, amid concerns that we already have an established school-to-prison pipeline. And just as minorities are often harassed by a disproportionately white police force, we should expect minority students will almost certainly be disproportionately harmed in the efforts to secure schools.

Arming so many teachers is entirely impractical

Beyond these leading concerns, Trump’s claim that 10-20 percent of teachers are gun-adept seems entirely divorced from what we know of the teacher workforce. Based on a recent report from the Pew Research Center, 30 percent of American adults personally own a gun. They are disproportionately white, male, over age 50, live in rural areas, do not have college degrees, and vote for Republicans. Compare this to the country’s teachers, who are disproportionately white (the one common factor with gun ownership), but are also disproportionately female, under age 50, primarily live in urban and suburban areas, hold bachelor’s (and often higher) degrees, and favor Democrats.

It’s worth noting that the data available on teachers and gun owners certainly omit a key variable—let’s call it “intrinsic desire to nurture others.” Individuals who choose to enter teaching as a career are almost certainly high on this attribute, where I can only speculate that corresponds to less time spent at the shooting range.

I would not rule out allowing some highly trained individuals on school campuses to carry weapons to provide some security at school—whether they be resource officers, or as Trump suggested, tapping into former military and law enforcement personnel who now work in schools. But these groups would constitute far fewer than the 10-20 percent figure, probably no more than 0.5 percent of school personnel. Trying to build from this group to get to the higher target would be introducing lethal weapons into the hands of untrained and largely unwilling adults, and constitutes a recipe for disaster.

Let’s also consider the potential cost. Assuming schools will need to foot the bill of regular training for their armed teachers (and perhaps even guns as well), the costs can escalate quickly when arming 10-20 percent of the 3.2 million public school teachers in America, running an estimated tab of at least $250 million. Adding in, say, a modest $500 bonus to armed teachers would give an extremely conservative cost estimate of over $650 million, or just shy of $1,000 per armed teacher annually. Depending on implementation specifics, the total cost could easily be two to five times that much.

A fake proposal with real consequences

In the days after first floating the idea, Trump almost immediately declared it “up to states” while maintaining his endorsement. Relegating this decision to states signals that it is off the table at the federal level, revealing this solution as a fake policy proposal from the outset. The fake proposal is useful to Trump as it offers the appearance of doing something to secure schools without upsetting the Republican-backing National Rifle Association, which originally proposed this idea in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.

Yet, though it may be a fake proposal from President Trump, it can still have real-life consequences. After Sandy Hook, a few jurisdictions had made some actions to defend schools with arms. Now lawmakers in Florida are considering a solution that includes arming some school personnel. With the growing chorus of voices demanding action, many states and districts could soon consider similar measures that would increase the presence of guns in schools—something that would have seemed inconceivable prior to last week.

Stronger teachers, safer schools

But this discussion of bonuses for some teachers begs the question of whether guns are the best use of bonus dollars. If the federal government, states, or districts were willing to spend an extra $650 million or more to strengthen the teacher workforce and create safer schools, why not spend it on activities that we know can actually do that?

Instead of arming teachers with guns, we should be strengthening the teacher workforce by paying bonuses for teaching in fields that routinely experience teacher shortages, like special education, math, and the physical sciences. While we’re at it, let’s think about more money for teaching in difficult-to-staff school assignments or rewarding more teachers for excellence in the classroom.

Instead of using guns to create the illusion of safe schools, let’s make schools actually safer places for the kids that go there by increasing spending on mental health support. Let’s help students—particularly those facing serious economic challenges—feel more secure by using schools as portals to deliver more public and community services.

These are the school policies we should be advancing to promote the welfare of our youth—not marksmanship among teachers.

The Brown Center Chalkboard launched in January 2013 as a weekly series of new analyses of policy, research, and practice relevant to U.S. education.

In July 2015, the Chalkboard was re-launched as a Brookings blog in order to offer more frequent, timely, and diverse content. Contributors to both the original paper series and current blog are committed to bringing evidence to bear on the debates around education policy in America.

Read papers in the original Brown Center Chalkboard series »

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