What to Do About School Shootings

Pictured is the high school I went to in Ohio.

In the wake of the Michigan school shooting, I’ve once again been thinking in my head, “What’s the solution(s) to this?” Because it is such a frustrating, sad state of affairs every time one of these school shootings happen. There is a sense of hopelessness that sets in, I will admit. So, as usual with the blog, I blog to think through things. Join me, if you also want to think through this problem.

For context, Ethan Crumbley, a 15-year-old, shot and killed four people and injured seven others at his high school, Oxford High School, in Michigan, north of Detroit on Nov. 30.

Naturally, he’s been charged as an adult, and other charges include terrorism. I’ve talked recently on the blog about how ridiculous it is that we charge children as adults. As for the terrorism charge, I also feel like that’s a product of our post-9/11 society run amok, but I digress.

And in a rare case, his parents, Jennifer and James, were also charged with involuntarily manslaughter and arrested today for failing to secure the gun.

In fact, from an NPR article:

James Crumbley called 911 to say that a gun was missing from their home and that Ethan might be the shooter. The gun had been kept in an unlocked drawer in the parents’ bedroom, McDonald said.

Utterly maddening. No other way to put that. Secure your dang guns, even when you don’t have children in the house, much less when you do. That’s what a responsible gun owner does. That’s what a sensible person does.

Let’s also remember this: Aside from sociopaths, we have to have the good faith to establish that most humans do not want to see school children shot, maimed and killed in any capacity or venue, including at schools. The disagreements are about what to do about that, not that it isn’t horrific and awful.

So, let’s turn then to the question at hand: What do we do about mass spree killings in American schools?

I don’t know. That’s the first place I start with and anyone pretending there are easy solutions to this and people just aren’t willing to do them are being disingenuous. As you will see, there are many proposed solutions on the table from both proponents of safeguarding the Second Amendment and those who are more in favor of gun control, but I’m skeptical of many of these solutions as addressing the very specific problem of mass spree killings in American schools.

Because you have to remember a few salient facts:

  • A school shooter and/or a spree killer are typically, particularly motivated criminals more than a normal criminal. That is, given the nature of the crime, there’s not much in the way of deterring them. I’ve seen the comparison that a school shooter is akin to the serial killer in this hyper-motivated sense and I think that’s apt. Does the spree still happen in Michigan, if his parents had been more responsible? Maybe, maybe not. That’s a hard counter-factual to run, but again, given what we’ve learned about the shooter, he fits the mold of being hyper-motivated to do something.
  • There are 300 to 400 million guns in America. That’s the reality you have to deal with. Whatever you think about guns, you can’t wish that fact away or think some new policy or set of policies would erase that fact.
  • It’s not a “solution” to point out how relatively rare (and more rare than people think) school shootings actually are. That isn’t helpful to people who have maimed children and dead children. And it doesn’t prevent future maimed children and dead children. But when you’re talking about solutions, it’s important to remember that policies are often broad and trying to solve a very specific, rare class of crime with a broad policy is not ideal and not likely to actually work. Instead, it will have unintended consequences of ensnaring a lot of people (often innocent people and often people of color and of poor status) who have nothing to do with school shootings. For more on how rare school shootings are (rarer than the risk of traveling to and from school, catching a deadly disease, playing sports, etc.), consider this piece here. As the author points out, part of the fear of these sorts of shootings has led to bad outcomes that do nothing to prevent them: The dreadful, disgusting shooting drills that traumatize children, for example.
  • Flagging a would-be mass shooter — that is, identifying them beforehand — is difficult. Now, in the case of the Oxford High School shooting, the timeline established seems to raise all kinds of red flags that something was amiss, although I’m still not sure anyone can anticipate outright violence of this sort. As another author points out, California has red flag laws in place and have issued a number of gun violence restraining orders, but again, it’s near impossible to predict which people are troubled and aggrieved, but not violent and which ones will take it to the next level of being violent.

So, now that we have all of that further context in mind, what do we do about school shootings?

There’s been some theories, typically among Second Amendment types, that the news media is partly to blame in the sense of sensationalizing these rare events and causing copycat killers to manifest. I think there’s some truth to the idea of the coverage of these incidents creating a sense of them being epidemic rather than rare, but I’m not convinced by this argument as much as I used to be. Remember, if these are hyper-motivated criminals, and I think they are, I’m not sure infamy and media coverage is that much of a determining factor for such criminals. Yes, the serial killer and the school shooters often seem to desire such infamy, but if the media never reported in an outsized way on school shootings again, would it have an appreciable effect on them? I’m skeptical.

Also, supporters of the Second Amendment have offered more armed security in schools, and even armed teachers, as potential solutions and/or mitigating factors. I don’t like that idea, especially of more armed resource officers because again, the unintended consequence of that over the last 20-some years especially is to ensnare a lot of children into the criminal justice system for things that have nothing to do with school shootings.

And so again, I return to, what do we do about school shootings?

I do not know. I do not know how to take into account both the reality of the country we live in with the reality of how rare these cases are and trying to ascertain a way to enact any sort of public policy response to stop it, or some other non-public policy way.

Since I don’t know, let me turn to what Everytown for Gun Safety, the nonprofit organization founded in 2013 to advocate for gun control and against gun violence, suggests we do. They issued a report about what to do about it here.

They have eight overall items, which include 1.) pass extreme risk laws; 2.) encourage secure firearm storage; 3.) raise the age to purchase semiautomatic firearms; 4.) require background checks on all gun sales; 5.) create evidence-based threat assessment programs in schools; 6.) implement expert-endorsed school security upgrades; 7.) initiate effective, trauma-informed emergency planning; and 8.) create safe and equitable schools.

Without even getting to the specifics yet of the second item, I fully endorse encouraging secure firearm storage (albeit perhaps short of an actual law). Again, responsible gun owners and people should secure their dang firearms!

Another idea I like is the student-based, peer-to-peer concept. I’ve been delving into that as part of my volunteering with the county suicide prevention coalition and there’s a similar concept with that for preventing suicides. Because in either context, one of the biggest barriers to students seeking help from adults is that they think adults will only make it worse, so, we definitely need to work on that messaging. I’m not sure how evidence-based these peer-to-peer groups are with respect to violence, but they seem to be effective with respect to mental health issues.

The first proposal from Everytown seems similar to the California (and other states) GVRO concept, which as outlined before, I’m skeptical of that working.

I’m also not convinced that raising the age to purchase a semi-automatic firearm to 21 will curtail these atrocities. I get the idea of trying to limit access as much as possible, but also, again, we’re talking about hyper-motivated criminals.

One of my aforementioned concerns was applying a broad policy, such as Everytown’s proposed requiring a background check for all gun sales, to a very specific, rare problem, such as school shootings, which is why I couldn’t support the background check idea. One of the authors I cited above highlighted four good reasons to be skeptical of such laws here.

Establishing threat assessment programs within schools seems similar to the peer-to-peer evidence-based idea. My only hesitation there would be, again, ensnaring children who aren’t actually violent into a potentially ruinously broad net. But overall, I think it’s a fine idea.

Securing schools to deter shooters trying to come in is a good idea, although of course, one of the issues there is that shooters are often already inside the school since they’re students. But still, it has deterred shooters and could deter future shooters, so hard to see much of a downside there.

I also appreciate that Everytown advocates for planning in the event of a mass shooting, but specifically without students involved in those awful drills. Again, not only is that traumatic, but keep in mind, often, the perpetrator could be among those being trained on how to respond to such an event!

And finally, creating safe and equitable schools is obviously a laudable idea, although more broad than specifically tailored to address school shootings. I also, again, appreciate that they are against zero-tolerance policies as those have had bad effects, specifically upon children of color.

So, yeah, once again, taking into consideration the context about the reality of the situation, proposed solutions from those with more of an eye toward safeguarding the Second Amendment and those with more of an eye to overall gun control, I return to: I’m not really sure what we do about school shootings and again, there’s no real solace to be had in noting how relatively rare they are.

Yes, we can and should do a number of the things Everytown has outlined and which I noted I agreed with, but would that have an appreciable effect on the number of school shootings if we did? I’m skeptical, unfortunately.

I disagree with the popular notion that there are a set of solutions to exist that would virtually eliminate this problem and we only lack the political will to do it. I think I’ve done a fair job here in trying to round up some of the proposed solutions and why many of them not only don’t really address school shooters, but would have a lot of negative, unintended consequences.

I will finish by restating that it’s a hard, complex problem and anyone trying to tell you otherwise is not taking into account the reality of the situation in a fair, good faith way.

Is there a solution or set of solutions not addressed here that you think would be helpful to preventing school shootings?

3 thoughts

  1. I do know. Start with an analysis of what is different between America and all other westernized nations where school gun violence is virtually non existent. They have something to teach us, I believe. Like caring enough about our children to enact and enforce meaningful gun laws.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      So, that’s the thing — there is no comparison between America and all the other Western nations because no other Western nation has as many guns in circulation as we do. Recognizing that, what do we do, and what’s the policy to specifically mitigate school shootings? I’m not sure.


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