There's no mystery about why the nation currently is gripped in a frenzy over how to protect our schools from mass murderers carrying guns. The roll of 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., tells the story, augmented by a chronicle that dates back through Sandy Hook Elementary (20 children dead in 2012), Columbine (13 victims in 1999) and many more.
These figures contribute to the impression that our schools are uniquely vulnerable to gun violence. They explain why so much of the public debate has focused on how to harden the schools against people bent on mass murder. More security, more security agents, more armed police officers on campus, arming teachers .… What gets lost in the discussion about whether these stratagems will actually work is a most important fact:
When it comes to gun violence, schools actually are the safest places for kids.
Research on gun violence in the U.S. is scantier than it should be, largely due to the efforts of the National Rifle Assn. But the available statistics consistently show that for those ages 5 to 18, schools rank vanishingly low in terms of the risk of shootings.
From 2005 through 2010, according to figures compiled by Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia and colleagues, there were 49 homicides at schools of school-age victims in 37 states reporting to an FBI crime database — and 9,847 homicides at residences. That made homes 200 times more dangerous than schools. (Most of the homicides, but not all, involved guns.
Cornell's research is backed up by work done by criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University on mass murders, defined as those with four or more victims not including the shooter. Mass murders occur 20 to 30 times per year, but only one of those cases on average takes place at a school.
"There is not an epidemic of school shootings," Fox said after the Stoneman Douglas massacre.
These facts have important implications for public policy. But this isn't to minimize the campaign launched by the Parkland students to force our political leaders to confront the issue of gun violence at all.
In fact, the students have it right: They're not calling for hardening the academic campus against gun-toting interlopers, but calling for gun-control measures that can prevent shootings before they happen by keeping guns out of the wrong hands.
Public mass shootings such as those at Stoneman Douglas and the Las Vegas massacre last October aren't typical of gun violence — gun violence expert Garen Wintemute told me last year that "they account for less than 1% to maybe 2% of deaths from interpersonal [that is, non-suicide] firearm deaths every year."
But they have an outsized impact on public debate, in part because they instill an overall impression of public vulnerability: Unlike the most common gun deaths, which involve family members or personal acquaintances, public mass shootings can happen to anyone, anywhere, heightening anxieties about life in our public spaces.
That's especially true of school shootings. "There is understandable public concern over tragic events such as a mass shooting at a school," Cornell and two colleagues observed in 2015, "because they seem so unjustified and unexpected." But they mislead policymakers into "a perception that schools are risky places that need more protection from violent attacks than other locations."
The truth is that schools are among "the safest places in the United States, and should not be regarded as high-risk for homicidal attacks," they wrote.
They point to "a striking counterexample": multiple-casualty homicides are far more frequent in restaurants than schools, but "there have been no public calls to increase restaurant security or arm waitpersons."
The misperception has two notable consequences. One is that it leads to a vast misallocation of educational resources toward security, at the expense of academics and counseling. Assigning police officers to school campuses also takes them out of the community, where they can do more good.
"If our schools were absolutely impregnable," Cornell told me by email, "we would stop only 1 out of every 1900 shootings. We might save 21 students a year, yet more than 1,000 would be killed outside of school. Putting a police officer in a school would make the school safer from a shooting, but leave less protection in the community where far more shootings occur. Putting another school counselor in a school has the potential to help a troubled youth and prevent a potential shooting in our community."
The perception of schools as especially unsafe feeds on itself — the installation of metal detectors and the presence of armed guards only intensifies the notion of schools as dangerous places, creating an atmosphere that interferes with, rather than facilitates, learning. And once the "culture of fear" takes hold, the chances of fighting it with research and facts recedes.
Researchers have pointed to other drawbacks of the proliferation of law enforcement officers on school campuses. Among other things, they tend to magnify what may be minor disciplinary issues into police matters, forcing minor offenders into the criminal justice system where they don't belong. The potential for racial discrimination in those judgments has been widely noted.
Another consequence is that the focus on arming teachers and other nostrums directed at school campus safety shifts attention from gun-safety policies much more likely to work. "We should spend more time and money on preventing shootings rather than preparing for shootings," Cornell says. That could mean tightened background checks and age limitations on gun purchases.
Increasing security at America's thousands of schools, of course, plays into the ideological and commercial interests of the NRA and its main supporters in the gun manufacturing industry. Restricting access to guns works against those interests. Is there any doubt the NRA supports turning schools into armed camps?
For all that public mass shootings and school shootings are a small component of America's gun crisis, they do have the capacity to focus public attention. If there is a positive outcome from the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it's the energizing of heretofore unheard or ignored voices in the gun violence debate — a cadre of young, articulate Americans who have seen the harvest of decades of official inaction first-hand and are about to become voters.
They plainly have a good feel for where money is being wasted and policy misdirected, and how to rectify both errors. The political establishment should start listening.