Tom Gabor – Focus on School Security Is Myopic.

While Floridians are understandably focused on the mass shooting in Parkland, American schools now experience one intentional shooting a week on school grounds.  Among G7 countries, the US has experienced 288 school shootings since 2009, whereas none of the other six nations has experienced more than two of these incidents.

santa feWhile enhancing school security is a legitimate short-term measure in keeping students safe, it falls seriously short of a comprehensive approach to the problem.  School attacks were exceedingly rare prior to 1992 and armed security, active shooter drills, and lockdown procedures, routine in public schools today, were unheard of prior to the 1990s. Thus, security vulnerabilities alone cannot account for the surge in school shootings, as schools now adopt far more security measures than in the past.

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has shown that 18-29 year-olds are becoming more disengaged from community life.  Their church attendance, involvement in public meetings and political activities have all declined sharply from the 1970s.  Young people spend more time alone than they did decades ago and more time using electronic devices than they do with family and peers.  Those experiencing some form of crisis are less likely to lean on the family, place of worship, or social organizations as their ties to these institutions are weaker.  Depression among the young has increased dramatically and there has been a 50 percent increase in suicide among 15-24 year-olds from 1999-2014.  This is the age group most at risk to commit school attacks.  There is a significant pool of alienated and depressed young people who may experience despair and act out violently following a precipitating event, such as expulsion from school, loss of a relationship, ostracism by peers, or bullying.

Coinciding with this trend toward increasing social isolation, has been increasing access to weapons designed for combat that can fire highly lethal, high velocity bullets rapidly and that, when equipped with high capacity magazines, can allow a shooter to discharge up to 100 rounds without reloading.  The Parkland (Fla.) shooter obtained his AR-15 legally when he was 18, despite numerous disturbing actions and calls to law enforcement.

The combination of a large pool of at-risk youth and easy access to highly lethal weapons is a recipe for the mass casualty shootings we have seen.  Yet legislators, driven by short-term considerations, are often indifferent to the social factors driving this trend and unwilling to risk the political consequences associated with confronting an intransigent gun lobby that resists even the most popular and modest attempts at gun regulation.  Following Parkland, Floridians are primarily offered enhanced school security on a low budget, along with the option of armed school personnel.

There are numerous “soft” targets for shooters, apart from schools, including theaters, shopping malls, clubs, airports, and stadiums.  Thus, hardening schools alone fails to address the risks to which other citizens are exposed and may place other targets at increased risk as perpetrators seek less fortified  targets.  Many schools around the country already have adopted some basic security measures.  In Florida, after the Parkland mass shooting, just $100 million has been allocated for school security, or about $25,000 per public school–enough to install about a dozen security doors in classrooms.

A serious effort to enhance school security involves access control protocols (screening all who enter a school), surveillance through monitored cameras and patrols, adequate perimeter security, intrusion detection systems, security doors and bullet-resistant windows, adequately trained and properly armed security personnel; emergency communications, and lockdown procedures.  Turning schools into prison-like facilities is prohibitively expensive, creates more fear and disruption for students and teachers, and fundamentally alters the learning environment.

In the unlikely event we went down this path, we would only mitigate risk of one type of soft target–schools.  Until we address the factors that drive school shooters and the easy access to weapons capable of mass slaughter, the promise of a safer society will be unfulfilled.

Thomas Gabor is a criminologist and author of Confronting Gun Violence in America.  This article was originally published in South Florida’s Sun Sentinel


10 thoughts on “Tom Gabor – Focus on School Security Is Myopic.

  1. Excellent post. Thanks, Tom.

    Of course the Santa Fe, TX shooting was done with garden variety guns (so to speak): a shotgun and a revolver, so focussing only on ARs and other high capacity weapons isn’t really a solution either.

    The author nails it though. A few decades ago, many more homes had guns, including semiauto guns, but mass shootings were rare. While it seems fewer homes now have guns, they are still common enough (including designs explicitly made for combat situations–whether that means the trigger is pulling the finger is my question) and the sociology of youth has deteriorated to a situation where we have youth with a higher probability of going off the rails due to the issues Dr. Gabor mentions. Failing to address both the sociology and the availability of weapons to at-risk populations guarantees continued disaster.

    I go back to my own post on graduated licensing, combined with a real effort to keep people from encasing themselves in dangerous bubbles and going off the rails. Especially going off the rails while armed.

  2. Note.
    Australian law explicity denies that self defense is a legitimate purpose in regard to gun ownership.

  3. An earlier post went missing. The short version is.. what is the substantive difference between combat and lawful, armed self defense. What type of weapon would serve adequately in one role and not the other. OZ avoids this issue by lumping them entirely together and disallowing both equally.

  4. Maybe school boards and taxpayers, after bewailing the loss of life and then howling about the cost of security, will finally turn to the systemic solutions needed to address these problems as outlined in this column. Unfortunately it seems an armored door with a security guard has more appeal than adding a couple school counselors.

  5. Tom:

    Are you familiar with ‘Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing’ by Dave Grossman and Kristine Paulsen? The at risk young men may be spending lots of their time using murder simulators like Grossman calls video games. He mentions the Game Postal III. This is a link to a Youtube sample of what people see when they play the game: Warning: lots of graphic images and language but that is what the teenage brains still developing are playing with.

    • Bruce, I’m sure these games don’t help and do reinforce violent tendencies among high-risk individuals. However, per capita consumption of video games is higher in some countries (UK, Japan) and they have a fraction of the gun violence, mass and school shootings that we experience.

      • Well, when we combine all the recipes for violent behavior with ready access to the tools of violent behavior, aren’t we stacking the deck?

  6. I tried posting this this morning but it never showed up. What I said was systems are a set of interacting elements. Societies are social systems. Properties emerge from systems so the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Now if we can tamper with the elements what emerges changes. That is what gun control tries to do. Other countries are different social systems than America is so what emerges is different and a lack of guns makes a difference.

    I think making violence in video games equivalent to porn and regulating them by age could mean fewer school shootings where the killer is trying to set a new record. This is only a small portion of overall violence but the one getting the most TV coverage and cries for gun control. The problem here is defining what society should be controlling.

    Mass shootings take capability, opportunity and motivation before they happen. Gun control focuses on capability. The original post said to me it is futile to focus on opportunity at least for mass shootings. That is why we need to focus more on motivation. Video games I think motivate young men to become killers in a small number of cases.

    Other forms of violence will take different approaches when we talk about motivation. The people who work on the streets trying to prevent gang reprisal shootings are one example but they usually are not dealing with people with .223s who watch lots of video games is my bet.

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