There Is No ‘Epidemic of Mass School Shootings’

Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

It’s been two weeks since a heavily armed psychopath turned Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School into a war zone — and the survivors of that massacre have already changed gun politics in the United States for the better.

With their acts of witness and advocacy, the teenage protesters of Parkland, Florida, shook many voters out of their complacency about pervasive gun violence. Upwards of 30,000 people lose their lives to firearms in our nation each year, a level of carnage unparalleled anywhere in the developed world. And yet, last October — just days after the worst mass shooting in American history — only 52 percent of Americans told CNN’s pollsters that they supported “stricter gun laws.”

Today, that figure is 70 percent — the highest it’s been at any time since 1993. Recent polls from Quinnipiac University and Politico/Morning Consult have produced nearly identical results. In Florida, long a bastion of NRA support, the leftward turn in public opinion has been especially sharp.

Moderate Democrats have had their “come to an assault weapons ban” moment. Moderate Republicans (such as they are) are imploring their party to move left on the gun issue. Major gun sellers are cutting ties with the NRA and imposing their own restrictions on firearm sales. Even Donald Trump has called for strengthening America’s background check system.

By keeping the national spotlight on the mass murder at their high school — and calling on their peers across the country to walk out of their schools, so as to “no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings” in the United States — the theater kids of Marjory Stoneman Douglas have built the broadest public consensus for gun-safety measures that America has seen in a quarter-century.

But they’ve also (inadvertently) triggered a moral panic about the safety of America’s schools that has little basis in empirical reality — and which is already lending momentum to policies that would increase juvenile incarceration, waste precious educational resources on security theater, and bring more guns into our nation’s classrooms.

On Tuesday in Tallahassee, Republicans in Florida’s state legislature advanced a law that aims to put one police officer — and ten gun-wielding teachers — into every public school in the state. The $67 million “school marshal” program would provide teachers who volunteer to be emergency gunslingers with a $500 stipend, a background check, drug test, psychological exam, and 132 hours of training. In total, the bill’s school safety measures come at a price tag of $400 million. One piece of that package — an increase in funding for mental health counselors — is laudable. The rest are either unnecessary or actively dangerous. The average salary for a teacher in Florida is nearly $10,000 less than the national mean; its public school system consistently ranks among the bottom half of U.S. states. This is not a place that can afford to misallocate hundreds of millions of dollars in educational funds.

The bill moving through Florida’s House of Representatives does pair that $400 million appropriation with a few gun reforms — a three-day waiting period for firearm purchases, an increase in the legal age for gun-buying from 18 to 21, and measures expanding the authority of police officers to confiscate guns from people who threaten to commit violence.

By themselves, those reforms are better than nothing. And the fact that Republican state legislators are pushing them forward — over the objections of the NRA — is a testament to the power of the Parkland protesters. But the impact of such modest regulations of the gun market, in a nation where firearms outnumber people, is likely to be marginal at best. And if the bill’s gun reforms cannot be separated from its “school marshal” program and expansion of classroom cops, then Florida’s young people might end up worse off than they’d be if their elected leaders had simply ignored the Parkland massacre, like so many mass shootings before it.

After the atrocity at Columbine High School in 1999, America tested the hypothesis that a massive increase in school policing would lead to lower rates of violence on campus — in 1997, 10 percent of public schools employed at least one police officer; by 2014, 30 percent did. The results of this experiment have been worse than disappointing. The best available research suggests that putting police officers in schools does not significantly deter crime — but does increase the number of students who end up incarcerated for minor youthful indiscretions (and/or, who get electrocuted with stun guns in their classrooms for the same).

Arming teachers, meanwhile, is a proposal so mind-bogglingly dumb and dangerous, even Florida’s GOP governor Rick Scott rejects it. There is no evidence whatsoever that adding a not-so-well regulated militia of amateur marksmen to every school faculty will prevent mass shootings, when armed guards have consistently failed to do so — but there is good reason to believe that such a program would radically worsen our nation’s preexisting crisis of racially discriminatory, teacher-on-student violence. As Patrick Blanchfield argues for the Intercept:

In 2017, researchers estimated that, in a given school year, 589 children are corporally punished (most often struck with paddles) every day. Unsurprisingly, this violent discipline is disproportionately inflicted on students of color. Black students are twice as likely as whites to be struck in Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In Maine, black children are eight times more likely to be hit than white children are. Children with disabilities also suffer a disproportionate share of this disciplinary violence. In a representative year, school authorities pinned down, tied up, or otherwise restrained 267,000 American schoolchildren, three-quarters of whom had some kind of disability; such practices have resulted in multiple fatalities.

… America already has abundant and grim evidence about the outcomes of interactions between youth and armed authority figures. The lethality of our police has no real analog in the developed world: One-third of all Americans killed by strangers are killed by police. Here, too, the landscape of violence betrays stark disparities, particularly when it comes to children: Black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot dead than their white peers, and people with disabilities and mental illnesses are acutely vulnerable as well…Why would we expect different outcomes from arming teachers?

If the policy response to the Parkland shooting ends up hurting more American students than it helps, the lion’s share of responsibility will lie with the Republican Party. The Parkland survivors have been as emphatic in their rejection of arming teachers as they’ve been in their support for gun restrictions — and they’ve won the general public to their side of both issues.

But some of the hyperbolic rhetoric that progressives have embraced over the past two weeks has made it easier for the right to push regressive school safety policies. Such hyperbole pervades the mission statement for the post-Parkland protest movement, March for Our Lives:

Not one more. We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make a choice to jump in front of a firing assault rifle to save the lives of students. We cannot allow one more family to wait for a call or text that never comes. Our schools are unsafe. Our children and teachers are dying. We must make it our top priority to save these lives.

March For Our Lives is created by, inspired by, and led by students across the country who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings that has become all too familiar.

… School safety is not a political issue. There cannot be two sides to doing everything in our power to ensure the lives and futures of children who are at risk of dying when they should be learning, playing, and growing … Every kid in this country now goes to school wondering if this day might be their last. We live in fear.

American children do not “risk their lives” when they show up to school each morning — or at least, not nearly as much as they do whenever they ride in a car, swim in a pool, or put food in their mouths (an American’s lifetime odds of dying in a mass shooting committed in any location is 1 in 11,125; of dying in a car accident is 1 and 491; of drowning is 1 in 1,133; and of choking on food is 1 in 3,461). Criminal victimization in American schools has collapsed in tandem with the overall crime rate, leaving U.S. classrooms safer today than at any time in recent memory.

Illustration: National Institute of Justice

And, perhaps most critically, there is no epidemic of mass shootings in American schools — at least, not under the conventional definitions of those terms.

In the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting, progressive activists and commentators (including this one) repeatedly claimed that there had been 18 school shootings since the start of this year. This proved to be a gross exaggeration. In reality, according to new research from Northeastern University, there have been a grand total of eight mass shootings (shootings that kill at least four people) at K-through-12 schools in the United States since 1996. Meanwhile, over the past 20 years, the number of fatal shootings in American schools (of any kind) has plummeted.

If mass school shootings were the only form of gun violence in the United States, the case for treating the regulation of firearms as a pressing policy issue would actually be fairly weak. For the past quarter-century, there has been an average of one mass murder (a killing of four or more people committed with any weapon, as opposed to just firearms) in an American school each year. Every one of those atrocities is a blight on humanity. But it is nearly impossible to design a policy that can bring the incidence of an already exceptionally rare crime down to zero — and given the inherently limited nature of legislative time and resources, it would make little sense to prioritize such a marginal and difficult issue over public health challenges that kill exponentially more people.

There is no “school safety” crisis in the U.S.; only a gun violence epidemic that consists primarily of suicides, accidents, and single-victim homicides committed with handguns. In the decades since Columbine, progressives have often led the public to believe otherwise. And for understandable reasons. Spectacular acts of mass murder committed against children (especially upper-middle class children in “good” public schools) attract a degree of media attention and political concern that our nation’s (roughly) 20,000 annual firearm suicides — and daily acts of urban gang violence — simply do not. The most misleading piece of the Parkland survivors’ message — that their experience is representative of a widespread social problem that threatens the lives of all American children — may well be its most politically effective component.

But if misrepresenting the nature of America’s gun problem has political benefits, it also has policy drawbacks. After all, if the March for Our Lives mission statement were actually true — if “every kid in this country” went “to school wondering if this day might be their last” — then there would be a reasonable case for filling American schools with law enforcement agents and increasing the use of juvenile detention.

And the right is already making that case: In recent days, conservative media outlets have suggested that the Parkland shooting could have been prevented if only Broward County hadn’t implemented the PROMISE program (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports & Education) in 2013 — a policy that aimed to reduce juvenile arrests by promoting non-carceral approaches to correcting student misbehavior.

All of which is to say: The Parkland teenagers, and the movement they have launched, has made a vital contribution to American politics. They’ve stiffened the spines of Democratic gun safety advocates; unnerved Republican NRA stooges; improved the prospects of meaningful gun reform at the federal level in the medium-term; and provided a model of civic engagement to a rising generation whose political participation our country desperately needs.

But to ensure that those contributions aren’t shadowed by the unintended consequences of overheated rhetoric, the March for Our Lives and its supporters must take pains to ensure that their advocacy always affirms this basic truth: Schools don’t kill people, guns kill people.

There Is No ‘Epidemic of Mass School Shootings’