Sunday, December 30, 2012

a response to comments on Taking Away the Element of Surprise

Recently the American Thinker published my essay Taking Away the Element of Surprise (also seen in a December 26 post below) which advocated encouraging unarmed volunteers to provide ad hoc patrols in their children’s schools. To say the suggestion was negatively received would be an understatement. I would like to respond to some of the comments.

The essay laid out two necessary elements to a successful school shooting. First, the attacker must have a weapon – in this case, a gun is the weapon on all of our minds. Second, in order to carry out an attack, the shooter must employ some element of surprise. Shooters therefore pick unsuspecting targets – in this case, a school is the location. You may not agree that an attack requires these two elements – that would be a fair response, but many commenters ignored the point of the essay, which was to specifically focus on reducing the element of surprise.

The essay began by advocating that communities consider arming school personnel as one response to the problem, but also acknowledged that implementing this will necessarily take time and money, and it will not come without major controversy. In response to Newtown, restrictive gun control legislation is already in the making, and some “Republican” leaders only provide ammunition to gun control advocates. For instance, Chris Christie said “armed guards are not conducive to a positive learning environment.” Incoming GOP Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah reiterated some of the same points, calling arming teachers a “bad idea.” Some schools already provide this protection – Sidwell Friends is attended by children of elite political and media figures, and some community leaders are taking action on their own – Sheriff Arpaio is set to send out his armed volunteer force to protect the schools of Maricopa County in Arizona. But for most communities, the obstacles that must be overcome in an effort to arm our school personnel are real and substantial. In the meantime, children remain less protected while we argue about only one possible response.

The volunteer patrol is a complement to all other security measures. It is not intended to be a substitute for any other safety plan a community wishes to put in place, which leads to the next point – it absolutely is a local solution. It is not intended to be a nationalized mandate, which should be rejected by any respectable states’ rights advocate. This is an action that encourages communities to work together without government intervention – this is the essence of conservatism, and according to Thomas Jefferson, would be a model for communities to embrace: “That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.”

The volunteer patrol merely transplants the idea of a duty officer to the school setting. A duty officer is responsible for making rounds and keeping out a watchful eye – he is not expected to perform any other major tasks while on duty. Recently, a former Marine took this idea to heart when he stood watch at his children’s school in Nashville. The volunteer patrol captures the spirit of that Marine parent, and of every other parent who wants to do something constructive to help ensure the safety of their children. It’s true, parents already do an incredible amount to support their children’s schools, but this volunteer duty might be something even more willingly assumed than chairing the next fundraiser. Additionally, volunteering at school frequently involves duties that moms are more comfortable with, but the patrol provides more opportunities for dads to get involved.

Teachers are in the business of education, and they do that best when they are fully engaged with their students. If they are doing their educator job well, they will not be able to watch for attackers stalking their halls. They may have their gun ready, but the effective use of it will be diminished if they also do not have some warning that they will need to use it. With adequate warning time, even those who do not have a gun will have more of a chance to avoid being a sitting duck.

To make abundantly clear that warning time is important, we need only look at the latest shooting in Newtown. Teachers were only alerted that an attacker was on the premises when he had already shot out the window and successfully entered the school. When teachers ran to see what the noise was, they only had time to yell, “Shooter! Stay put!” before they were fatally shot. Had they had as little as a few seconds notice that a person with an AR-15 was walking through the parking lot, they might have been able to do more to minimize the damage. The PA in the school office was somehow left on, so others in the school did hear the attack, but it still took them a few moments to realize an attack was in progress. Would an armed guard have been able to do more to stop this attacker? Probably yes, but only if he saw the shooter first – even an armed individual needs notice of the threat to have maximum effectiveness.

Parents who might be interested in volunteering for a patrol shouldn’t be characterized as hapless middle aged individuals who will pay more attention to their latte than to their job. The people who would volunteer are interested in their children’s safety and will take this job seriously. The idea that somehow a volunteer patrol has to have Rambo-like capabilities to do any good also isn’t true. Here, I am reminded of Sarah Palin’s joke – the only difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom? Lipstick. Mama bears are formidable forces. The volunteer patrol only requires a person to have the ability to see, and work a cell phone or walkie-talkie. These physical capabilities are widely found in the general population.

Other possible problems with volunteer patrols can be reduced by ensuring the patrol is composed of two members. The two person team will help to keep each member alert and in check (avoiding a situation where an overzealous volunteer creates problems), to enable efficient communication (one can call the front office, one can dial 911), and to provide more structural support to carry out safety plans (in case a shooter was able to take one person out, the other one can still function).  

Further, these volunteers would be very aware that they could become targets. That is a feature, not a bug. While physical interruption of the attack is ideal, simply being able to sound the alarm at the earliest possible moment can be essential in minimizing lives lost. I don’t doubt a shooter would have no reservations about shooting someone in the parking lot before entering the school, but isn’t that better than only being noticed once inside?

Finally, the slippery slope works both ways. I was surprised that no commenter was able to see the possibilities of taking incremental steps toward a goal – the exact same techniques liberals have used against us for years. Once unarmed patrols are in place and working, and become a trusted and expected part of school life, arming them is not far behind – which should ultimately be a community decision. Unarmed patrols could provide the right level of deterrence to future violence, or they could convince a community that more force is necessary.

There is value in finding mutually agreeable solutions to disturbing problems, and unfortunately crisis does indeed give us the opportunity to evaluate new ideas. Tocqueville said, “I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.” I hope that this is not one of those times.

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