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April 19, 2015

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The NRA’s off-target plan

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Theodore Roosevelt was appalled by the lack of firearms training within the constabulary when he was appointed president of the New York City Police Department Board of Supervisors, a rank now known as police commissioner.

He would, I suspect, be equally appalled by a National Rifle Association-funded study released last week that recommended putting guns in every school in America.

Upon becoming New York’s top cop in 1895, Roosevelt recognized the danger of large numbers of undertrained officers carrying firearms in crowded urban environments. He created a “shooting gallery” to train city cops how to shoot, when to shoot and how to hit what they were aiming at.

The shooting gallery became the country’s first police academy, which eventually begat John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. Since that time, the evolving science of law enforcement has come to recognize that lethal force decisions require training and professionalism.

That science doesn’t appear to have influenced the NRA’s response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn. To the group’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, the solution seemed simple: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” There is a fundamental problem with that logic: I am a good guy, I am a smart guy, and I am a good shot at a target range. But I am not competent to be in a shootout with a bad guy surrounded by children.

Shooting a weapon during a crisis is a difficult thing. According to The New York Times, NYPD officers opened fire on individuals some 60 times in 2006 (the last year for which data were available). Their “hit ratio” was 34 percent, which means they missed the person they were aiming at with 2 out of 3 shots. The NYPD, which has among the best-trained officers in the nation, claims its “hit ratio” compares favorably with departments across the country. The LAPD hit rate for the same period was 29 percent.

The NRA-funded study proposes placing an armed security guard or staff member in every American school. It suggests that armed staff members at schools would need 40 to 60 hours of training at a cost of $800 to $1,000 per officer. By contrast, NYPD cadets get 13 days of weapons training (more than 100 hours). Federal air marshal trainees are required to take 155 hours of firearms training. Do we think that the “school resources officers” proposed in the study would be more accurate shooters with less training? And, if they’re not, do we really want 2 out of 3 shots fired by security to be ricocheting down school corridors?

Another unanswered question is who will fill these jobs. According to a national survey, the average armed security guard makes $21,000 a year in major urban areas and closer to minimum wage in most of the country. That’s less than one-third the pay of a veteran NYPD officer. So we are going to compete with McDonald’s for top talent, give a person a gun and $1,000 worth of training and put them into a crowded elementary school? As schools across the country are making do with less, will they buck market trends for more expensive security guards?

Another concern relates to types of weapons. The Transportation Safety Administration has spent much time choosing the weapons and ammunition used by air marshals. An armed lunatic or terrorist on a plane must be put down quickly. But heavy-duty rounds can go right through targets and rip through the fuselage of a plane, potentially creating greater catastrophe. For that reason, the TSA recommends special ammunition that combines stopping power with a slug that stays in the first body it hits. What kind of weapons and ammo does the NRA propose as being right for schools? I found no mention of special ammunition in the 225-page study.

So, what would Teddy Roosevelt say?

My guess is that he would look at the NRA-funded study and implement many of its recommendations, especially those related to preventing crime through environmental design, a concept to use architecture to make buildings less vulnerable to attack and provide safe zones when the unthinkable happens. He would also agree that everyone needs more training.

School staff members need to learn how to recognize ticking time bombs like the shooter students at Columbine, and schools need to have evacuation, reverse evacuation and lockdown drills. There is some complaint that such drills would traumatize children, but we have fire drills that don’t seem to terrify students. And I suffer no identifiable long-term effects from my elementary school Cold War-era training to hide under my desk in case of Soviet attack.

But as a student of Roosevelt and a teacher at a school that grew from his legacy, I’m terrified by the idea of the NRA plan to put a gun in every school.

James Mulvaney is an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York and teaches police science courses. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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  1. Truth be told police and armed guards are already present in 1/3 of the U.S. schools including many grade schools in the inner cities, like Newark, New Jersey. And have been for decades. The NRA suggests it, and the critics come out of the woodwork. Where have these critics been for the last decade?

    Carmine D