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January 27, 2019 Policy

Opposition to Arming of School Personnel


American Bar Association

Standing Committee on Gun Violence
Civil Rights and Social Justice Section
Criminal Justice Section
Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence

Report to the House of Delegates


RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association opposes laws and policies that would authorize teachers, principals or other non-security school personnel to possess a firearm in, or on the grounds of, a pre-K through grade 12 public, parochial, or private school, and

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association opposes the use of government or public funds to provide firearms training to teachers, principals, or other non-security school personnel, or to purchase firearms for those individuals.


I. Introduction

Since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, more than 215,000 students experienced gun violence at 217 schools in the United States. At least 141 children, educators and others have been killed and another 287 have been injured. The February 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students and staff were fatally shot and 17 others were wounded but survived, sparked renewed debate over how to prevent such tragedies. At a February 21 "listening session" with survivors and parents of victims of school shootings, President of the United States Donald Trump said he was open to all ideas on improving school safety, but spoke about only one at length--allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons. The following day the President embraced the National Rifle Association position that the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers. On August 31, 2018, United States Secretary of Education DeVos wrote that the Department of Education will not provide guidance as to whether federal Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants may be used by the states to provide firearms training or to purchase firearms for teachers. She stated it is up to the states to determine the use of such grants signaling the federal government will not oppose such use.

II. Background

With significant exceptions, the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, as amended by the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act in 1997, prohibits possession of a firearm "that has moved in or otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce" in a school zone. The "public, parochial or private school" language of this Resolution is taken from the statute. One exception under the statute is for those who are licensed to conceal carry by the state in which the school is located. Because of the exceptions under federal law, prohibition of guns in school zones has largely been by the states. Almost all states have legislation that prohibits guns in school zones. Forty of those states and the District of Columbia extend the prohibition to include those who have a concealed carry permit. Two additional states allow individual schools to decide whether to extend the prohibition to include those who have a concealed carry permit.

III. Opposition to Arming Teachers

The President's proposal to repeal or amend gun-free school zone laws to allow teachers to be armed was roundly condemned by education professionals and others. The suggestion to arm teachers met with immediate, strong opposition from the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of School Resource Officers, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the National Association of School Psychologists. The National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals have strongly opposed arming teachers and principals since that suggestion was made following the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. Following Sandy Hook, The School Superintendents Association adopted a position paper that advocates a comprehensive solution to school shootings and states, "We oppose efforts to bring more guns into our schools by teachers and administrators." Following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, the Superintendents Association sent a letter to Congressional leaders regarding an appropriations bill that noted, "We applaud the language to prohibit the use of federal funding for purchasing firearms or for firearm training of teachers."

When it became known on August 22, 2018 that Secretary DeVos was considering allowing federal Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants to be used by states to arm teachers, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals each immediately expressed strong opposition.

IV. Prior ABA Policies on Gun Violence

For the past 50 years, the ABA has weighed in on gun violence policy. Recognizing there is no simple solution, and consistent with a public health approach to address this national crisis, these policies cover a range of topics including research, education, prevention, enforcement, and regulation.

In 2015, the ABA issued a white paper that concludes the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts have made clear the Second Amendment is consistent with and does not bar a broad array of sensible laws to reduce gun violence. Our nation's courts have repeatedly found that the types of laws supported by the ABA and introduced by legislators across America do not run afoul of the Constitution.

Also in 2015, the ABA joined with eight physician organizations in issuing a call to action. The call to action contains recommendations aimed at reducing the health and public health consequences of firearms. There are now 52 signatories to the call to action.

V. An Evidence-Based, Comprehensive Solution is Required

The day following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the American Medical Association issued a press release that states in part, "Gun violence in America today is a public health crisis, one that requires a comprehensive and far-reaching solution." Shortly thereafter, on behalf of the American Bar Association, then President Hilarie Bass wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee urging it "to take swift, evidence-informed steps to curb the scourge of gun violence." The letter made specific legislative recommendations. The calls by the ABA and AMA for an evidence-based, comprehensive solution is supported by recognized experts in the field of gun violence and school security.

In a thorough book edited by Daniel W. Webster, Sc.D. MPH and Jon S. Vernick, JD, MPH, both with the Center for Gun Policy and Research, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, numerous recommendations are made to reduce gun violence in America. Arming school personnel is not one of the them. A press release issued by the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University, quotes Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and lead author of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, as stating, "Gun violence is a public health crisis, and addressing this will require a comprehensive, multi-dimensional public health strategy." Arming school personnel is not part of that strategy. The Prevention Institute itemizes a comprehensive strategy to reduce gun violence. Arming teachers is not part of that strategy. In testimony before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, Kristin Harper, Director of Policy Development, Child Trends, a research institute known for rigorous and objective research over four decades, makes many specific recommendations for improving school security. None of the recommendations involve arming school personnel.

In the wake of the Parkland massacre, 75 national medical, health, public health, and research organizations sent a letter to House and Senate lawmakers urging them "to find a bipartisan path forward to comprehensive legislative solutions to firearm-related injuries and fatalities." They did not recommend arming school personnel. Four days later an interdisciplinary group of experts issued a call to action to prevent gun violence. The call to action recommended a comprehensive solution citing specific actions to be taken, none of which was to arm school personnel. It was endorsed by 84 national organizations, 165 state and local organizations, and over 4,400 individuals. The National PTA has adopted a position statement with numerous itemized recommendations to reduce gun violence at schools. It does not recommend arming school personnel.

The U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Justice, together with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal Emergency Management Agency, jointly prepared a guide for school emergency operations plans. The guide makes numerous recommendations. It does not recommend arming teachers.

In July 2018 the U.S. Secret Service Threat Assessment Center issued a publication with recommendations for preventing targeted school violence. It recommends specific actions for schools to take. The U.S. Secret Service does not recommend arming school personnel.

VI. Arming School Personnel is Not an Evidence-Based Solution

Available data suggests that arming teachers will increase the risk of students being shot, not reduce it. As part of research for a working paper, a diverse group of law enforcement practitioners serving the Mid-Atlantic region participated in two round-table discussion sessions held at the Division of Public Safety Leadership, School of Education, Johns Hopkins University. The law enforcement professionals concluded that a large portion of the population and policy-makers who support arming teachers make incorrect assumptions about how effective armed teachers would be in an active shooter situation. The round-table participants identified 22 factors that an armed teacher would have to assess quickly and act upon in an active shooter situation. It was noted that evidence supporting the value of arming teachers and school officials is nonexistent. They concluded that the chance of a teacher or other school official using a gun to end an active shooter situation is "remote," and that allowing teachers to carry guns in school creates an undue risk to students and creates the potential for teachers to use a gun in situations that do not warrant lethal force. Other research has found that in 160 active shooter incidents in other locations, there was only one successful armed civilian intervention--and the civilian in that incident was a highly trained U.S. Marine. Using a gun in self-defense is no more likely to reduce the chance of being injured during a crime than various other forms of protective action.

Among the significant risks in arming teachers, there is the risk of bystander injury being increased. Law enforcement officers are trained not only to know how to shoot, but significantly are also trained to assess quickly a situation while under stress and to know when to withhold fire. With shots being fired from two or more directions, the risk of a bystander being shot is increased. Despite their training, a comprehensive study of the New York City Police Department found that in a gunfight, NYPD officers hit their intended target only 18% of the time. It also found that they engaged in "reflexive shooting" or "contagious shooting," without assessing the need to use deadly force, upon hearing certain cues, such as the words "he's got a gun" or upon hearing the sound of gunfire. Other research of police firearm discharge data confirms that in high stress situations the vast majority of shots miss the intended target. A recent example of bystander death is when a fugitive entered a Trader Joe's store in the Los Angeles area. The store manager was shot and killed, not by the fugitive, but unintentionally by a police officer. There is no data to suggest teachers would perform any better.

There is also the risk of law enforcement mistaking an armed teacher for the shooter. During a 2016 demonstration where dozens of open carry activists were present, five Dallas police officers were shot and killed, and nine more were shot and wounded. Two civilian bystanders were also shot and injured. Following the shootings, Dallas police chief David Brown commented that open carry laws can complicate telling the difference between the "good guy with a gun" and the criminal. When a man shot and killed three people at a Walmart in Thornton, Colorado, law enforcement noted that shoppers drawing weapons in self-defense "absolutely" slowed the process of identifying the suspect. When Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and injured in Tucson, Arizona, an armed civilian came very close to firing at the unarmed civilian who subdued the shooter. A recent example is when on July 31, 2018 an Aurora, Colorado policeman responding to a call of a home invasion mistakenly shot and killed the home owner who had just shot and killed the intruder. Police described it as a "very chaotic and violent scene." There is no reason to think a school shooting with many more people and more guns present would be any less chaotic and violent.

There is the risk that a student intent on committing a mass shooting would not need to bring a gun into the school, but would know how to access a teacher's gun. A recent study shows that the majority of children are aware of where their parents store their guns, and that more than one-third reported handling their parents guns--40 percent of them doing so without the knowledge of their parents. Another study of 37 school shootings in 26 states found that in nearly two-thirds of the incidents, the attacker got the gun from his or her own home or that of a relative. Major findings of a study by the Centers for Disease Control conclude that nearly 50% of homicide perpetrators gave some type of warning signal, such as making a threat or leaving a note, prior to the event; and that firearms used in school-associated homicides and suicides came primarily from the perpetrator's home or from friends or relatives.

There is the risk of an accidental discharge of a teacher's gun endangering students. Dennis Alexander, a California teacher, was showing the students a gun during his advanced public safety class when the gun accidently discharged. Mr. Alexander was pointing his gun at the ceiling when it fired causing pieces of the ceiling to fall to the floor. One student was injured when a bullet fragment hit his neck. Two other students were injured by falling debris. A Chicago criminal justice instructor accidentally discharged his gun during class striking a file cabinet and wall. A Utah teacher was injured when her gun accidentally discharged in a staff restroom striking the toilet bowl. An NRA gun safety instructor teaching a class for a concealed carry permit accidentally shot a student in the foot. Five people were accidentally shot and injured in 2013 at the first ever "Gun Appreciation Day." The list could go on.

Gun violence in schools is horrific and gets media attention, but it occurs with much less frequency than do shootings of youth elsewhere. That does not minimize the important need to address school shootings, but it should inform the discussion of what would constitute a viable solution. A report issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice found that between 1992 and 2006, at least 50-times as many murders of young people ages 5-18 occurred away from school than at school. During the 2010-11 school year, about one homicide or suicide of a school-age youth at school per 3.5 million enrolled students occurred. Only approximately one percent of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds, during school events, or on the way to and from school. Other studies concur.

But we are not always rational beings. Our emotions cloud our judgment and fear can dominate our thinking. Research on the psychology of risk has found that few risks worry us more than threats to our children. More than a third of parents irrationally think their local high school is "highly likely" to be the site of gun violence within three years. Such false heuristic risk assessments should not inform public policy.

There are two principal assertions in favor of arming teachers. One is that doing so will serve as a deterrent to mass shootings because a "gun-free zone" invites gunmen to enter. The second argument is that an armed teacher can respond more rapidly than law enforcement, particularly in rural communities that do not have school resource officers. The first argument is flawed because it falsely assumes the person who exhibits the high risk behavior of entering the school armed is instead acting with a rational, risk-avoidance mindset. Both arguments are flawed because they assume without supporting data that arming teachers will reduce the risk of students being shot, rather than increase it. Both arguments are also flawed because they incorrectly assume there are no other strategies available.

The assertion that gun-free zones invite mass shootings has been discredited by research showing that nearly 90% of all high-fatality gun massacres since 1966 have occurred wholly or partly in locations where civilian guns were allowed or where there was armed security or law enforcement present. That research also shows that when rampage shootings do occur, very rarely are they stopped by armed civilians." A committee of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine concluded in 2005 that data does not support the proposition that right-to-carry laws reduce crime.

VII. Evidence-Based Solutions Are Available

Reducing the number of school shootings should focus on preventing such shootings, rather than reacting to them. The first recommendation of Kristen Harper, Director of Policy Development, Child Trends, in her testimony previously noted before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee is that the strategy to reduce gun violence in schools should be anchored with knowledge of trends in school safety over the last two decades. Her second recommendation is to prioritize approaches that will help schools prevent school shootings, not merely defend against them. The fact that the majority of guns used in school shootings come from the perpetrator's home or that of a friend suggests that the issue of safe storage in the home should be addressed as a means to reduce the number of school shootings. Data-driven solutions to prevent such shootings are what all the experts noted previously recommend.

For example, the Secret Service recommends that schools

\u2022 establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team,
\u2022 define prohibited and concerning behaviors,
\u2022 create a central reporting mechanism,
\u2022 determine a threshold for law enforcement intervention,
\u2022 establish assessment procedures,
\u2022 develop risk management options,
\u2022 create and promote safe school climates, and
\u2022 conduct training for all stakeholders.

The focus is to have an organized and systematic way to identify troubled students who exhibit threatening behavior and to intervene before a shooting occurs. Other experts also recommend legislative action that has supporting data.

Repealing gun-free school zone laws and arming teachers has no supporting data upon which to ground such a policy change. Instead, legislative bodies should focus on adopting laws to prevent school shootings that do have supporting data. In her letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, then ABA President Hilarie Bass articulated the evidence-based rationale for the following legislative actions supported by previously adopted ABA policy:

\u2022 universal background checks,
\u2022 requiring timely and complete information reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS),
\u2022 restricting access to semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15,
\u2022 funding research on gun violence,
\u2022 providing for civil remedies and greater administrative enforcement such as by repealing the Protection of Lawful Commerce of Firearms Act of 2005 that grants broad immunity from negligence actions against gun dealers, manufacturers and their lobbyists, and
\u2022 state enactment of legislation authorizing gun violence protective orders (sometimes called "extreme risk protective orders").

President Bass noted in her letter there are also other legislative actions supported by ABA policy positions.

VIII. Summary and Conclusion

There are many known, evidence-based means to address the complex issue of school shootings. Arming teachers is not one of them. Available data suggests that arming teachers will increase the risk of students being shot, not reduce it. The ABA should continue its support for evidence-based gun violence policies and its opposition to proposals that lack it. The ABA should stand with the numerous other organizations that have publicly and forcefully opposed the suggestion that teachers be armed. We recommend adoption of this Resolution.

Respectfully submitted,

Joshu Harris
Chair, Standing Committee on Gun Violence
January 2019