NRA: Let's Airportize Our Schools

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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The unhingedness of this morning's National Rifle Association news conference, in which Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre blamed the Sandy Hook massacre on essentially everything except guns, has been adequately covered all over the web. I don't need to rehash it. (Here's the transcript in all its glory.)

Instead, I want to focus on one bad idea from LaPierre's rambling speech, because it's a fairly popular one: more police in schools.

Or, well, maybe they would be police. LaPierre called for "a police officer in every school," but at other points in his speech he just referred to "armed security." His colleague Asa Hutchinson, a former U.S. representative and Drug Enforcement Agency head, suggested the armed guards could be volunteers, to save money.

At least if the guards are police, the public seems to be on board with this idea. And the NRA is hardly the only entity pushing for schools to add more armed security since Sandy Hook.

This is misguided. Schools are already safe, and increases in physical security should not be a policy priority.

In the 2008-09 school year, there were 15 homicides of students at K-12 schools in the U.S., compared with a student population of 55.6 million. That is, the odds of being murdered at school were less than 1 in 3 million. Students age 12 to 18 were twice as likely to be victims of serious violent crimes away from school as at school.

That is not to say that every measure to increase security at schools is misguided. A minority of schools have non-homicide crime problems that need addressing. Some low-cost, low-impact measures might be good ideas even in safe schools. But a broad increase in armed personnel isn't targeted or low-cost and would have negative unintended consequences.

Some armed "security" measures would have an indeterminate effect on safety. More police officers would likely make students safer, but as Matt Yglesias notes, extra police officers could do more for public safety if you posted them elsewhere.

"Volunteer" armed guards, as Hutchinson proposed, are a dicier proposition. Ostensibly well-meaning volunteers with guns may cause trouble, either through incompetence or malfeasance; George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, was a volunteer armed security guard. There are similar problems with arming educational personnel, an idea that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has floated.

But the biggest problem with putting more people with guns in schools is how it would affect the educational environment, regardless of whether the guns are ever fired. Adding more armed guards or armed principals sends the message that school is an unsafe environment in need of armed defense.

This is especially a problem with the idea that teachers or principals should be armed. Handing somebody a gun changes the power dynamic in his or her professional relationships. I don't think it's desirable for students to start interacting with teachers more like they are police officers, there not just to teach but to use deadly force as necessary.

Even if the armed personnel aren't educators, a more visible security presence will make schools feel more like airports. It's bad enough that airports are like airports. We should find approaches to combating violence that don't send the message that school is a scary place where you need a cadre of men with guns to protect you -- because that's just not true.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.