That is a direct quote from the NRA's chief lobbyist Wayne Lapierre. In the same NYTimes piece he goes on to say that declaring our schools gun free zones serves only: "“tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to effect maximum mayhem with minimum risk.” There has been some mild outrage in response to this comments but I don't know what people would expect from the NRA. They see guns as a solution to everything. They literally believe that with guns there is less crime despite the hard data that points to the fact that the USA has the highest (by far) homicide rate by firearms, the highest rate of gun ownership, and the highest rate of assault deaths of any of the top 30 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In fact, this NY Times graphic of the data shows that over half of the homicide rate is firearm related. The total homicides in the US at 9,960 is nearly seven times greater than the total of all the other countries on the list. The total number of suicides by firearms greatly exceeds this number (18,735 in 2009). It seems to me that the gun data suggests that we currently have maximum mayhem with maximum risk.
Getting back to the proposed NRA solution. Let's look at the arithmetic first. Just considering the number of public schools in the US, current data from the National Center for Education Statistics puts that number at 98,817. Assuming a cost of one armed guard per school with vacation coverage and benefits I would conservatively estimate a cost of about $100,000 per year or a total of about $9.8 billion dollars per year. That is a substantial outlay of capital for what is an unproven strategy. According to the Wikipedia list there have been 40 school shootings since 1989. Using a a mean number of schools during the period (or about 91,638) would mean that the odds of one of these armed guards encountering a shooter would be about 2/91,638 on an annual basis. The Transportation Security Administration responsible for airport security has a total budget of $7.7 billion and they cover 450 airports but confiscate 1,300 firearms and 125,000 prohibited items per year. $929 million of the TSA budget is for the Federal Air Marshal Service that assigns agents to commercial flights. To put an armed guard in the schools would roughly cost what it costs to secure air travel in the US. The main difference would be that school guards might have a much lower level of vigilance than air travel security and they would need to be very vigilant to head off a sudden and potentially very lethal attack.
Arithmetic aside, there is also the question of associated costs. In medicine we are familiar with the screening arguments for breast and prostate cancer. There is always a false positive and false negative cost. With false positive PSAs and mammograms there is the ordeal of unnecessary biopsies and exposure to other unnecessary tests. There is no way to estimate the impact of armed guards at schools. Currently there are about 500,000 violent crime and over a million thefts committed against teachers in America's middle and high schools. In a previous Institute of Medicine report, the authors found that a "substantial number of boys" carry firearms in schools. That same study reported:
"Despite all this effort to keep guns from children the committee was somewhat astounded at the ease with which the young people in these cases acquired the weapons they used. Only in the Jonesboro case were the powerful weapons in the home of one of the too well secured for them to access. But it was easy to defeat the security measures of another relative and get hold of a powerful semiautomatic rifle with a scope. In general, it is easy for young teens to circumvent both the law and informal controls designed to deny them weapons they use in their crimes." (ref 1)
There is also the risk of unintentional discharge of weapons. The New York City Police Department keeps a public record of all weapons discharges from its 33,497 police officers. According to this report there have been 15-27 "unintentional discharges" per year over the past ten years. With a school workforce nearly three times as large and possibly less vigilant than an NYPD officer that is potentially a lot of accidental discharges. How many are acceptable in and around our schools? The false negative/false positive cost of putting armed guards into schools based on these factors is really unknown.
Considering this problem has also led me to think about some epidemiological concepts that we were all taught in medical school. Primary prevention measures are designed to reduce the incidence of new cases of disease. Secondary prevention is focused more on people who are identified as being at risk but who are unaware of the fact that they may have the problem. Tertiary prevention occurs after the problem is declared. In the case of suicidal or homicidal behavior that means after the critical incident occurs. This paper looks at these concepts in the case of suicidal behavior. As far as I can tell there has been no exhaustive look at a timeline of all of the preventive factors that occur prior to mass shooting events or school violence events. The usual method of analysis is looking at cases for a common profile and as the IOM report showed - there was none.
This analysis cannot predict whether the NRA stand on guns in schools will be protective or not. It is much more complex than a statement that guns are a solution to gun crimes. Based on what we know about these situations a key strategy is preventing the shooter from picking up the weapon in the first place.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
1. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. (2003) Deadly Lessons - Understanding Lethal School Violence. Case Studies of School Violence Committee. Mark H. Moore, Carol V. Petrie, Anthony A. Braga, and Brenda L. McLaughlin, Editors. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
2. Ganz D, Braquehais MD, Sher L (2010) Secondary Prevention of Suicide. PLoS Med 7(6): e1000271. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000271
3. New York City Police Department. Annual Firearms Discharge Report 2011.
4. Meet the Press Transcript. Sunday December 23, 2013. Wayne LaPierre discusses current NRA positions on school safety and gun control.