This week, a seventeen-year-old student at Great Mills High School in Maryland brought a Glock 17 handgun to the school and wounded two students before being stopped by Blaine Gaskill, the school resource officer. The event came weeks after the Valentine's Day massacre in Parkland, Florida, which set off a deluge of public outcry for “school safety” reform. The problem, though, is that nobody can agree on what “school safety” reform is. Before this week, activists have been pushing for stricter gun control, while others pushed various measures to enhance school security.
School shootings are a very unique and complicated problem, further frustrating the likelihood of any coherence coming out of this outcry. They are, in fact, very rare, and generally planned far ahead of time. This makes it difficult for any gun-control law to affect a school shooter. In general, gun-control laws tend to dissuade criminals on the margins--the guy who is vacillating about whether to kill his wife but who may decide to do it if given a gun. School shooters are not that type of criminal. Moreover, Maryland has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the nation. In addition to existing federal law—including the federal prohibition on handgun transfers to persons under 21—Maryland’s gun laws include:
- A comprehensive “assault weapon” and “large capacity magazine” ban.
- A universal 10-round magazine limit.
- Background check requirement for all handgun transfers.
- An exhaustive application process as a prerequisite to being permitted to purchase a handgun.
- Mandatory registration of all handguns, and mandatory licensing of all handgun owners.
- Prohibition on purchasing more than one firearm per month.
- A seven-day waiting period for all handgun and “assault weapon” transfers.
In spite of all those laws, the shooter, who could not legally own the handgun under Maryland law (it was his father's), still shot two innocent students. When laws are being demanded to ensure school shootings never happen again, we must always ask whether a new law would have actually prevented the harm. The paradigm school shooting in the United States, Columbine, happened during the federal assault weapon ban, using compliant weapons.
While the Maryland shooting appears to have been a targeted attack rather than a massacre, we will never know what might have happened had Gaskill not promptly responded. Hopefully this tragic situation can promote a broader debate on school safety and lead to productive discussions that might actually reduce this type of crime.
While the trend line of violent crime continues to wane, and schools remain statistically safer than our streets and homes, school safety is a legitimate objective. Where, as with schools, the government has effectively forbidden people from defending themselves, the government takes on a duty to protect everyone in school zones. For this reason, demanding better protection in state schools is the most reasonable idea that has emerged from the calamity over the past two months.
When policies are proposed, it is important to remember that hundreds of thousands, and likely millions, of Americans use firearms for self-defense every year. Gun-control proposals have a tendency to forget or ignore the lives of those people. It should come as no surprise that tackling violence, especially on the part of motivated killers, is a complex game of chess. There are no obvious answers, only a series of sacrifices, some more grave than others.
School resource officers tend to worsen the school-to-prison pipeline, making criminal cases of juvenile indiscretion. Metal detectors and heightened security are less problematic, but expensive and slow. Arming teachers--whether selecting teachers to be armed, or simply allowing them to carry as they otherwise might when at home, the grocery store, or otherwise--poses a complex series of issues in the power dynamics of a classroom setting, in addition to the possibility of the guns going off in school.
While it's worthwhile to discuss gun control when addressing the problem of school shootings, focusing only on that issue alone could make us ignore more effective solutions to the problem at hand. And the problem at hand--school shootings--is specific and unique, and not necessarily directly related to the broader issue of gun control. After all, before 1968, there were very few federal laws regulating the sale and possession of guns. Guns were everywhere, and schools were easy targets. Why didn't school shootings happen then? Perhaps other factors are in play.
If anything good can come out of the tragic events in Maryland, it should be a renewed focus on protecting schools as a measured and reasonable response to the school-shooting problem.