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Eli Lehrer Headshot

Guns Are Good, Cops Are Good, the NRA's Proposal Isn't

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Like a lot of other gun rights supporters, I awaited the National Rifle Association's Friday press conference eagerly. And, like many others on both sides of the gun debate, I was disappointed with it. The proposal the gun rights association forwarded -- placing armed police officers in every single one of the nation's elementary schools -- just isn't good one. The problem isn't the fundamental premise the NRA worked from but, rather, the specifics of the proposal. Placing an armed guard in every school wastes resources, won't prevent violence, and misunderstands the role of police in schools.

First, however, let's concede the NRA's fundamental point: a good guy (or girl) with a gun is, indeed, the best way to stop a bad guy (or girl) with a gun. Unless one really thinks America should ban all guns entirely and forever; having more good people who are armed is a good idea. But that's as far as the merits of the NRA's proposal go.

Putting police officers in every school is just a poor use of public sector resources. Covering each of the nation's 100,000 or so schools would require at least 100,000 more police officers. That's an increase of roughly 15 percent in the nation's total police headcount. It happens to be almost exactly the same size of President Bill Clinton's COPS Program that promised 100,000 new police officers. Whatever its merits or demerits -- and academics remain divided -- COPS did coincide with an impressive and ongoing decline in America's crime rate and spent about $7 billion to fund a police hiring surge between 1992 and 1999. Were crime still at the levels of the 1980s or were school crime overall a major problem, this might be considered money well spent. But, for all of America's problems, overall crime just isn't one of them. Gross crime rates in the United States are actually lower than those in other large western countries. (The murder rate is higher, however.)

So, in tight fiscal times, a huge federal commitment for more police officers in schools seems like a poor allocation of resources given that other programs are certainly going to have to be cut. Even if one were to argue that more police should be a priority--and there's reason to do that -- it's unlikely that it would make sense to deploy all of them in schools.

And there really isn't any evidence the more police will prevent mass shootings. The perpetrators of most mass school shootings have killed themselves and, in two of the highest profile incidents in recent memory -- the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres -- armed police were on the scene anyway. As President Kennedy presciently observed shortly before he was assassinated, a sufficiently dedicated shooter who is willing to die will almost always succeed. Greater gun possession certainly doesn't increase -- and may well decrease -- overall crime and even mass shootings but there's no evidence to that I know of that more police prevent mass shootings.

Finally, although they do immense good, police officers in schools -- called school resource officers (SROs) -- aren't appropriate for all settings. The best SRO programs I saw in my work as a police researcher kept the officers immensely busy doing everything from teaching classes to gathering intelligence on gang recruitment. But it's difficult to figure out what an SRO would even do below the middle school level: elementary school students who get into trouble need help from parents and social workers, not the police. Since elementary school buildings far outnumber high schools, furthermore, most of the 100,000 police officers the NRA wants would be deployed in places where they would have nothing to do except wait for a shooter. This is a huge waste.

The Newtown shootings were an act of pure, unmitigated evil. There's no way to explain them. Banning guns wouldn't have prevented them. But neither will the NRA's proposed scheme.