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Primary Education News
News How the NRA's proposal to put guns in schools became credible | Ana Marie Cox
After Sandy Hook, a plan for armed guards in schools seemed absurd. But the NRA's moral universe has proved seductive
This week, the National Rifle Association is starting up its propaganda machine to argue in favor of using federal money to put armed guards in schools. They're calling it the "National School Shield Program" – nomenclature that invites us to imagine guns as defensive barriers, only pointing outward against threats. But guns can point in any direction. What's more, they can fire in any direction. That's what makes them guns and not, you know, shields.
In the immediate aftermath of the NRA's disastrously received post-Sandy Hook press conference, the "National School Shield Program" was easy to mock (I did!). But as the weeks have worn away at support for gun control, the gambit appears increasingly, depressingly savvy. Public sentiment whipsawed between unimaginable grief and inchoate rage, and the NRA provided a concrete proposal whose very outlandishness contained a glimmer of hope: no one has ever before seriously proposed weaponizing public schools. It could work! At least it hasn't failed!
While guns themselves took on some of the toxicity of the incident, the NRA's idea neatly capitalized on the understandable human fantasy that accompanies any senseless death – "If only I could have done something" – as a way of re-imbuing firearms with the romance of heroism. When we hear, "The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," the focus is on bad guy versus good guy, not "how did that bad guy get a gun?" What's more, that reduces the problem of gun violence into "bad guys" and "good guys", when the reality looks more like "good guys who believe they're bad": most gun deaths – about three out of five – are suicides.
In the context of school-age children, the math is not quite so bleak, even if the idea that they could be so hopelessness is all the more grim: for children and teens, 66% of gun deaths are homicides, 29% suicides. There is a simple reason for this reversal of proportions: adults have greater access to guns.
The National Rifle Association's program to put guns in schools will change that.
For me, that is the end of the argument. Reams of documentation point to the correlation between access to firearms and the deaths of young people – most likely due to suicide. One study of state-level data, controlling for mental illness, substance abuse, income, family structure, urbanization, employment found that in the 15 states with the highest levels gun ownership, risk of suicide was double that of the six states with the lowest levels (though the total populations were about the same). Among those young people who have committed suicide with a firearm, another survey found that 82% used a gun that was legally obtained by a relative or some else they knew.
Increasing the number of legally-obtained guns will increase the number of deaths. It's almost a mathematical certainty, and these cold statistics point up the (literally) fatal error that's made its way into the debate over gun violence: that these deaths are somehow the product of faulty laws, that if we could just figure out the right mechanism for enforcement, the right filter for ownership, the right place to set up our perimeter, then gun deaths would decrease … to some level that's tolerable, I guess.
But when all is said and done, it's not the laws that are the problem, it is the guns. They are lethal machines, made to be lethal. I like shooting guns, myself. At targets, sure. But you know what makes shooting guns fun? The idea that they're lethal.
As I've written before, the tragic foolhardiness of putting such objects in the vicinity of children might be clearer to people if we substituted "Ebola virus" or "thermonuclear device" for "gun". Both those things are safe enough, in the right hands and following the right protocols, but there's a reason we don't let teachers keep biological weapons in their desks: what if something went wrong? What if they fell into the wrong hands?
The NRA posits a universe in which both the bad guys and the good guys are, in their own way, perfect: the bad guys will be expert gun-handlers for whom reloading cartridges is so easy that no lives would be saved by decreasing the capacity of their magazines. And they would meticulously avoid schools foolish enough to be "gun-free". The good guys, on the other hand, never miss, always store their guns safely and, of course, are unassailably good and non-homocidal and non-suicidal: no intentions ever change; no circumstances lure them into depression or rage.
Those of us who argue against the NRA's policies also have to argue against the NRA's universe; it's the latter that's more difficult. The popular appeal of the "School Shield" program hinges on believing in heroics; good public policy depends on preventing the need for them.