How Can We Prevent Gun Violence in our Schools?

July 25, 2022

After a spate of school shootings in the U.S., students examine the evidence and consider: What works to reduce gun violence in schools?

To The Teacher

The horrific attack on students and teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May marked the 27th school shooting in 2022 alone, and the 119th school shooting since Education Week began tracking such incidents in 2018.

As the public grapples with the trauma of this event, and with escalating gun violence in general, the question of how to best respond has become highly politicized and controversial. Perhaps the most contentious proposals involve bringing more guns, rather than fewer, into schools. Many experts question whether such measures are likely to stop mass shootings – and whether the presence of more guns may only cause more deaths.

This lesson is divided into three parts that address the American crisis of gun violence in schools and what can be done about it. The lesson includes three readings, with questions for discussion following each:

  • Part 1 explores reasons why bringing more guns and security personnel into schools has historically failed to make schools safer.
     
  • Part 2 provides several charts and graphs that visually illustrate how the United States compares with other countries in terms of gun ownership and gun violence.
     
  • Part 3 focuses on how other countries have responded to mass shootings, the successes that they have had, and the lessons we might draw. Questions for discussion are included in each section.

Before you begin the lesson, consider how your students may respond to a discussion about gun violence in schools. Consider these guidelines for discussing upsetting issues.

School Crossing


Introduction

Ask students what they know about the school shooting that took place in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022. How do they reflect back on that incident?

Ask:

  • What kinds of proposals have been put forward to reduce gun violence in schools?
  • What thoughts or questions to do you have about these proposals?

Share with students that today they’ll be reading about and discussing proposals for how to address gun violence in schools.

 


 

Part 1: 
The Unintended Consequences of Adding More Guns

 

On May 24, 2022, an 18-year-old from Uvalde, Texas, entered Robb Elementary School with an assault rifle and proceeded to fatally shoot nineteen students and two teachers. This horrific incident marked the 27th school shooting in 2022 alone, and the 119th school shooting since Education Week began tracking such incidents in 2018. According to a survey completed in 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun violence, including school shootings, has surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for children and teens between the ages of one and 19.

As the public grapples with the trauma of such repeated tragedies, the question of how to best respond has become highly politicized and controversial. Perhaps the most contentious proposals involve bringing more guns, rather than fewer, into schools. Writing for The 19th, education reporter Nadra Nittle and breaking news reporter Orion Rummler explained that a variety of politicians have argued in favor of armed teachers or adding more armed security officers to schools. As Nittle and Rummler wrote:

After an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers — and injured 17 others — at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, said arming teachers could prevent more mass atrocities at schools in the future.

“We can’t stop bad people from doing bad things,” he told Fox News. “We can potentially arm and prepare and train teachers and other administrators to respond quickly. … That, in my opinion, is the best answer.”

Paxton’s response is not a new one. After a school shooting claimed the lives of 17 students and adults in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, then-President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also expressed support for giving guns to teachers. More than 15 states, including Texas, allow teachers, security personnel or permit holders in schools to have guns, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization.


However, Nittle and Rummler noted that the track record of responding to shootings by bringing more guns into schools is a poor one, and that it may have harmful unintended consequences. They continue:

Allowing school personnel to carry guns hasn’t thwarted mass shootings at schools. The armed school safety officer in Parkland failed to stop the gunman. Officials in Texas have released conflicting statements about whether there was an armed school officer on campus. Overall, 42 acts of gun violence took place at schools in 2021, and 27 have occurred so far this year.

There are also concerns about safety even if guns are being brought to school with the intent to protect students. Ron Avi Astor, a UCLA social welfare professor and expert in school violence, said that he had not seen data proving that armed teachers could prevent shootings — but that available data suggests more guns in schools could lead to more danger.

“Guns can go off by accident and harm the person who has the gun and other people around,” he said. “If people are not super highly trained … they can shoot kids, shoot teachers, shoot other people by accident.” .…

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control advocacy group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords after she was injured in a 2011 mass shooting at her home district in Arizona, has tracked guns being mishandled in schools since 2014, research director Kelly Drane said.

Through collecting local news reports, the group has tracked nearly 100 cases of school officials leaving guns unattended in areas where students later found them, as well as parents or school employees unintentionally firing guns or guns being mishandled during student discipline cases.

Nina Vinik, founder and executive director of the gun violence prevention group Project Unloaded, said calling for more guns to address the nation’s gun violence problem is the wrong approach.

“It’s the proliferation of guns in our country and the easy access to those guns that is responsible for the level of gun violence that we’re seeing in our communities,” she said. “And the idea that having teachers or other adults with guns is going to solve this problem, I think is ludicrous. And if you ask teachers, they believe the same thing.”

https://19thnews.org/2022/05/uvalde-school-shooting-texas-attorney-general-suggests-arming-teachers/


In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, another widely discussed proposal to stop gun violence in schools has been to “harden” schools by increasing the presence of police and armed guards, and adding security measures such as fences and security cameras. Reporting for NBC BLK on May 31, 2022, Char Adams, a reporter who writes about race, explained possible downsides to this approach. She wrote:

Experts say that increasing police in schools is not effective in preventing or stopping mass shootings. Furthermore, adding more police officers to schools, they say, would contribute to disproportionate levels of punishment and criminalization on Black and Latino students, and would waste an opportunity to increase security without defaulting to added police presence.

“The research is clear that more police and hardening schools doesn’t work,” said Patrick Bresette, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas. “The millions and millions of dollars we’re spending on more law enforcement is at the cost of more effective ways to help kids; to provide mental health support, to identify someone who might be at risk of some sort of bad behavior, and to have a holistic response in schools. It’s following the evidence. There are ways to prevent this that we’re not investing in.”

This debate over school police isn’t new, though. Organizers have long pointed out the negative impacts of police in schools: Black and Latino children are more likely to be criminalized by school officers, and there are no sweeping federal laws that regulate the police use of force on students. In the last 15 years, police in schools across the country have been reported as punishing students for common childhood behaviors such as talking back to teachers and fighting.

William Bentley previously told NBC News that at least five police officers at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia beat him when he was 14 years old. He said an officer approached him after he accidentally entered the wrong classroom, and more police joined him.

“The police officer grabbed my neck and choked me. I couldn’t breathe,” said Bentley, who said he shook himself free and fled. “I was gripped up, slammed and beaten like I was an adult.”

Bentley, now an organizer with the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer.

This treatment, experts say, will continue to be an unintended consequence of adding more police to schools….

Other experts, academics, and advocates also point to data showing that police don’t stop school gun violence and say schools and authorities should take a different approach: properly staff schools with counselors, social workers and teachers to build relationships with students; introduce strict gun control measures, limiting access to assault weapons; end zero tolerance discipline models; and intervene early when students appear to be at risk of harming themselves or others.

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/police-arent-answer-texas-shooting-experts-say-rcna30763


There is little evidence that arming teachers or adding security in the form of police will work as a preventative measure to stop gun violence in schools. Given this, it is sensible to look for other ways to reduce violence.
 

For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, what are some of the dangers involved with arming schoolteachers? Would you want your teacher to have a weapon?
  1. According to the reading, what are some potential problems associated with increasing the presence of police or armed security guards in schools?
  1. Are there police or armed security personnel in your school? How do you feel about it? Do you think this is a good way to address issues of safety? Explain your position.
     

 

Part 2:  
Looking at Data on Gun Violence and School Shootings

 

The three charts included in this handout provide visual representations of statistical information comparing the United States with other countries when it comes to guns:

  • Chart 1 shows the number of guns present in the U.S. (as of 2017) compared to other countries
  • Chart 2 shows the number of school shootings different countries have experienced between 2009 and 2018.
  • Chart 3 shows the overall rate of homicides involving firearms in the U.S. and other countries.
     

Ask students to review these charts and graphs.  Then ask them to discuss:

  1. What trends do you observe from these charts?
     
  2. What most stands out for you in these charts?
     

 

Part 3:  
How Other Countries Have Responded to Gun Violence

 

According to a 2018 CNN report, the United States had 57 times more school shootings since January 2009 than the other major industrialized countries combined. However, other nations have also experienced horrific mass shootings.

In the aftermath, their leaders have often enacted policies that have had more success in stopping future incidents of gun violence than those responses pursued thus far in the United States.

What, then, have these countries done to stop the violence, and what lessons might we draw for the U.S.?

Reporting for NPR in June 2022, reporters Ari Shapiro, Patrick Jarenwattananon, and Manuela López Restrepo compared policy decisions of officials in Scotland after a 1996 school shooting to the responses of politicians in the U.S. They wrote:

As Americans continue to reel from the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas that left 19 students and 2 teachers dead, headlines and commentators repeat a common refrain: The U.S is the only country where this happens.

Nowadays that may be true, but 26 years ago, it happened in Scotland. In March 1996, a gunman entered Dunblane Primary School, killing 16 students, a teacher, and injuring 15 others. To this day, it is the deadliest mass shooting in UK history.

But that's where the similarities end. In the aftermath of the shooting, parents in Dunblane were able to mobilize with the kind of effectiveness that has eluded American gun control activists. By the following year, Parliament had banned private ownership of most handguns, as well as semi-automatic weapons, and required mandatory registration for shotgun owners. There have been no school shootings in the U.K since then.

"The comparisons between the U.S. and Britain now should make shocking reading to anyone in America," says Mick North, whose five-year-old daughter, Sophie, was killed at Dunblane. He's one of the founding members of the group Gun Control Network, which advocated for new laws in the aftermath of the Dunblane shooting.

Over the past several years, England, Scotland and Wales combined have seen around thirty gun deaths a year. By comparison, according to the CDC, the number of murders involving firearms in the United States in 2020 was 19,384.

"Even setting aside the difference in the size of the country, that is a horrendous difference," says North.

At the time of the Dunblane shooting, he and other activists did face difficulties making their schools safer – including skepticism from members of the Royal Family. In an interview with the BBC, Prince Philip compared the banning of guns to the banning of cricket bats, saying that both had the potential for danger if misused. It's an argument that's similar to those made by the gun lobby in the United States….

The strong heritage of gun ownership in the U.S. – and the Constitutional right to bear arms – is an obstacle that British gun control activists like North didn't have to wrestle with in the aftermath of the Dunblane shooting. And yet, he sees other countries with similar histories which have successfully passed strict gun control measures.

"Yes, the whole culture around guns is different in the U.S. But there are other countries in the world where there's a frontier mentality - shall we say, Canada, Australia - who have adopted tighter controls over guns," North says. "So I think America should perhaps be comparing itself not necessarily with Britain alone but with a whole range of countries who have unfortunately experienced mass shootings but only a small number of them."

https://www.npr.org/2022/06/01/1102239642/school-shooting-dunblane-massacre-uvalde-texas-gun-control


Some countries with fewer incidents of mass violence and school shootings, such as Japan, are much smaller than the U.S., or do not have a culture or history that involves gun usage. However, even countries such as Germany, where gun ownership is more widespread, have fewer homicides and school shootings. The Guardian investigated this phenomenon for a March 2018 report, which stated:

Recent reports suggest that gun ownership [in Germany] is rapidly increasing still: between November 2015 and February 2016 alone, 20,000 applications were filed for new gun licenses.

Yet in Germany gun homicide rate is one of the lowest in Europe: a death rate of 0.05 per 1,000 people, compared with 3.34 in the US. In fact, incidents of gun crime, including both weapons being fired and used to threaten people, have declined by almost a quarter since 2010.

Experts put this trend down to a number of tweaks to gun law in the wake of high-profile shootings.

In 2002, a 19-year-old student in the Thuringian state capital, Erfurt, shot dead 16 people at the school that had recently expelled him, using weapons he had obtained from his gun club.

Within a year, the law regulating access to guns had been changed: Germany is the only country in the world where anyone under the age of 25 who applies for their first firearms license must undergo a psychiatric evaluation with a trained counselor, involving personality and anger management tests.

Experienced hunters or sports shooters over the age of 25 may be called in for psychiatric tests if they display certain kinds of behavior, such as being caught drink-driving.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/15/so-america-this-is-how-you-do-gun-control
 

Similar trends can be seen in New Zealand and Australia, both of which historically harbored cultures of gun ownership. Reporting for The New York Times in May 2022, international reporter Max Fisher wrote:

In Australia, a 1996 massacre prompted mandatory gun buybacks that saw, according to some estimates, as many as one million firearms melted into slag. The rate of mass shootings plummeted from once every 18 months to, so far, only one in the 26 years since.

Canada also tightened gun laws after a 1989 mass shooting. So did Germany in 2002, New Zealand in 2019 and Norway last year…. Though such restrictions have always brought some controversy, most were broadly embraced by voters in other countries.

Even in Australia, where conservative-leaning politics and rural traditions had long favored gun ownership, citizens broadly accepted the buyback. Some even surrendered weapons they were legally permitted to keep, in a show of support for their country’s tightening gun laws.

Every mass shooting is, in some sense, a fringe event, driven by one-off factors like the ideology or personal circumstances of the shooter. The risk is impossible to fully erase.

Still, the record is clear, confirmed by reams of studies that have analyzed the effects of policies like Britain’s and Australia’s: When countries tighten gun control laws, it leads to fewer guns in private citizens’ hands, which leads to less gun violence — and to fewer mass shootings.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/25/world/europe/gun-laws-australia-britain.html


From Britain to Germany to Australia, many nations have taken serious steps to address the issue of gun violence, including school shootings. Advocates continue to raise the example of foreign countries that have seen a reduction in violence after changing their laws, in the hopes the United States might follow suit.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, how did policymakers respond to the 1996 school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland? What changes were made to their laws and what impact did this have on preventing future violence in schools?
  1. Australia was known to have a “gun culture” that might be likened to America’s, and yet most civilians were in favor of a gun buyback program. Why do you think this might be? Why might the United States be less likely to enact similar programs?
  1. What lessons do you think we can draw from other countries that have experienced mass shootings, and yet have prevented their recurrence?
  1. What do you think should be elements of a successful response to school shootings and other incidents of gun violence in the U.S.?

 

Research assistance provided by Celeste Pepitone-Nahas.