Thoughts on School Shootings (pt. 2: Problems and Suggestions)

In the previous article, I tried to sketch out the problems underlying school shootings. As noted, I think the approach to considering the problem has been aimed in the wrong direction(s), and unsurprisingly has resulted in the kinds of policies that have failed to solve the problem. It is helpful to consider the ideas that have sprung up as traditional “solutions,” in order to get a handle on what approaches have not worked – both in terms of practical implementation and consequences, as well as the underlying misdiagnosis.

On the one hand, we have calls for solution via gun control. This position argues that the problem is the accessibility to firearms, and if that accessibility were removed, the problems of school and other mass shootings would be eradicated. The proponents of this position point to countries like Japan, Australia, and the like to bolster their point.

This side takes the position that it is ultimately the access to firearms (and certain accessories) that is to blame. The solution is then to curtail some of the existing rights and freedoms[1] of the general population. This would be achieved by fiat – placing the restrictions from on high. This makes it something of a paternalistic model – with the government in the role of “father knows best.”

However, the argument fails to address the reason why we have these incidents – and why we didn’t have them before. Thus, it is the equivalent of dealing with the problem of a child’s public temper tantrums by refusing to take the child outside. Technically, a problem is solved. Functionally, the problem is masked, and will only manifest in a worse form. Additionally, as noted, lack of firearms access does not prevent violence. It may change its nature, and reduce the degree of harm, but humans have been killing each other just fine for millennia without firearms.

The demand that certain accessories be banned – like large capacity magazines, bump-stocks, etc. are functionally incoherent. For one thing, we can now 3-D print the full-auto option for AR-15s at home – and so the accessories can be home-made, and there’s sure to be a new series of accessories that will replace the banned options in a matter of weeks. In short, these proposed solutions are great PR for the people seeking reelection, but do nothing in practice.

This solution also suffers from a false equivalence in its examples. To say that Japan has no school shootings, and then attribute that to the lack of firearms access is dishonest at best. Japan, Australia, etc. are nations that have radically different social value systems, in radically different state of functionality. Attempting to simply copy one aspect of those societies over to our own, is like cheating on a math exam by copying the answers from a person next to you – while knowing full well that their exam is different from yours. Yes, 4 is the answer to 2+2, but copying the answer with no regard to the context of the question is sheer idiocy, especially if our own question happens to be 3+9.

The approach here ultimately suffers from the problem of using what may be hurdles as the total solution. In failing to properly understand why the shooting occur, the solution is partial at best, and expensively non-functional at worst.

On the other hand, we have the position that calls for more security, militarizing schools, clear backpacks, and bulletproofing your kids. This side argues that the violence is a fact of life, and the way to deal with it is to have armed personnel (teacher or otherwise) ready to shoot the would-be shooter. They point to the ideas of deterrence as proof of their position’s functionality, while calling for the defense of the constitution.

However, more security and deterrence are not functional solutions. Leaving aside the economics of the issue, prisons have amazing security – and they also have gangs, drugs, riots, stabbings, rapes, etc. Sure, no inmate goes on a shooting spree and kills a score of others, but the underlying causes of violence persist, and the violence finds a way to manifest. Deterrence sounds like a great idea, except that it only works against enemies who value the things we threaten through deterrence and when they’re engaged in a symmetrical kind of game.

Timothy McVeigh took on the US federal government and the FBI. One man versus the greatest superpower in history… and won (by his standards of victory conditions). He was captured and eventually executed, but he took half of the Oklahoma FBI office with him – because the deterrent (jail and execution) was not meaningful to him. The 9/11 hijackers – and suicide bombers in general – were/are not deterred by the thought of consequences, because theirs is a suicide mission. There’s no threat that deters a man with homicidal intent and nothing to lose.

This position, essentially, advocates for more localized and individual pursuit of security. This approach again uses possible hurdles as a complete solution. Granted, the kinds of hurdles in play are different, and are far more individualistic than the gun control position – the general idea, though, is the same. However, beyond the problem of assuming hurdles are the only method needed, the position suffers from several other issues.

First, the idea that security deterrents will solve the problem assumes that the violence is a necessary part of the American experience – one that cannot be reduced or eliminated, but only disincentivized. Note that the same people who advocate for this position in terms of school shooting security don’t take that position with other threats of violence; they are pro-increased vetting for refugees (i.e. investigation and analysis of the people in war zones looking to escape), denying gun-ownership to convicted felons, etc. Second, the cost of turning schools into fortresses, and adequately staffing them with trained personnel (an annually recurring cost), would be astronomical. A single trained security guard (and training would need to include pseudo-military training), would be some $60,000/year,[2] and covering all 100,000 public schools[3] (colleges not included), results in an annual security cost of 6 BILLION.[4] For context, that’s 10% of the discretionary educational budget in the US.[5] Besides which, one guard per school is not likely to be overly functional as a deterrent, meaning that the $6 billion figure is likely to be closer to $20 billion. Third, even if the “fortress” mentality could solve the school shootings (which is highly doubtful)[6], it does nothing for all the other mass shootings that take place in malls, movie theaters, public parks, etc. Unless we want to go into full martial law mode, the fortress approach fails. And if we do want to go into martial law mode, then we might as well disarm the population.

It is not enough to simply decry the attacks as mental health problems, when nothing is done to address the issue, and the argument is that we should get better barriers to protect against the heavily armed mentally ill. The problem is not a “World War Z” scenario, where the zombies are some kind of an external threat; the problem is coming from inside the house. Also, the “have a barrier” position did not work out so hot in that scenario either.

Against the gun control position, the second side claims that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. They are right. However, people with semi-automatic military-grade rifles and large magazines have far higher kill capacity than those armed with a spoon. They can also be far more dangerous in the final steps of the confrontation because, while the police is generally armed with handguns, the shooter is armed with enough of an arsenal to equip a small army.

There is also the claim that guns must not be banned or controlled to any serious extent, because armed citizens can act as a force that can confront the state, to oppose tyranny. In modern warfare, this is a joke, and a bad one at that. This may have been the case before tanks, planes, and tomahawk missiles entered the picture, but not anymore. While the citizen may buy a lot of weapons, the true military equipment is not available to civilians. Sure, you can buy an AR-15… but it will provide about as much protection against an Abrams Tank as a Nerf gun. Actual militaries can’t seem to inflict serious damage to our military, never mind Bob and Steve from down the street. Waco, Texas is a great demonstration of what happens when an armed compound confronts the government – and not even the military, but the FBI.

It can be argued that the Afghans, without a formal military, have been winning against the US for the last 17 years, and thus a well-armed populace is the key to citizen security. However, that is just as much of a bad-faith argument as trying to adopt Japanese gun control laws for the US. Afghans have had a “shepherd in the morning, bring down an empire in the afternoon” mentality since before Alexander the Great. The documentary Korengal Valley (Netflix) shows just how different the mentality is between the trained US military and random Afghani “civilians,” and how big a difference that makes when the two sides clash.

As for the deterrence theory; it does not and cannot work against people determined not to live but to inflict damage – which is the functional goal of all mass shooters. Pushing for more physical security misses the entire point of the problem: pathological population is prone to pathological acts. It’s the pathology that must be addressed.

Against the fortress position, the first side claims that we should live in a sort of utopia, where we frolic about with nary a care, where all things are wonderful and crime is not a thing that . What’s lost in this utopian dream, is the fact that we live in a world where serious harm is the order of the day. It’s a world where malevolence is an integral part of the human condition – and has been since before written history. When children go missing and are found raped, tortured, dead, or all three, there is a reason why the parents, relatives, and close friends are the primary suspects – because they’re the most common perpetrators of such atrocities. We live in a world where, from the earliest writings, human proclivity towards homicidal and genocidal attitudes has been noted as warning against the naïve idea that we will all just “get along.” There are seriously evil forces about, and they will take advantage of stupidity and naivete. The only way to deal with the evil of humanity is to remain vigilant and to protect yourself – as an individual or a society.

Ultimately, neither position works. Both focus solely on the hurdle aspects of the solution, while leaving the actual cause aside.

While I do not have sufficient expertise to offer a complete solution, I will propose several possible approaches for both the hurdle and deep solutions. I am not advocating for these specific ideas, but am simply throwing out the kind of thing that seems to address the inadequacies of the existing proposals. My own lack of detailed knowledge means that I may be unaware of functional problems in these solutions, and so the proposal should not be taken as some sort of hard position on my part.

One possible approach may be something like a psych evaluation for would-be gun owners. It seems that, in the wake of the massacres, we are usually able to find some rather strong indicators of mental instability and nihilistic tendencies that signal the kinds of pathologies that lead to mass shootings. Requiring a psych evaluation for gun ownership would mean that these signs could be detected before one obtained a firearm, and thus – like dangerous criminals – they would be barred from gun ownership. This is a hurdle, not a correction of underlying pathologies of school shooters. The expected counterargument is likely to be based on the ability to get illegal weapons, but more on that later.

We already have similar “test” rules for other licensed activities. For example, the DMV restricts driver’s licenses on the basis of things like eyesight – so that the blind, or people without depth perception, are not allowed to operate vehicles – because that would endanger others unreasonably.

As a core solution – one helping to identify the underlying pathologies of school-shooter creation – something like regular psych evaluations of school-age children might be a functional idea, administered at 2-3 year intervals. This may make additional sense, given the rise in mental illness among the youth, and would enable early detection of the problem, and allow for perhaps more effective treatment.  The program would not need to be overly invasive – it could take place in schools, and could focus exclusively on the issues that seem to create the kind of person who turns homicidal. In terms of data collection – which is big on many people’s minds – the records could be sealed, with only the resulting conclusion visible. For some, even that’s a step too far, but I think that most reasonable people could agree that a specialist examination of children on a regular basis, for the purpose of monitoring their mental health, is not inherently problematic. In fact, the same is already in progress by the mere fact of attending a school – since the teachers are required to keep tabs on students, their progress, their mental health, etc. (hence the school and teacher recommendations regarding the placement of the child and possibly recommending psych interventions). The difference would be simply in the expertise of the evaluator, and the time they devoted specifically to the psych analysis of individual students.

Additionally, such a step could be used to help identify what precisely went wrong in our social-ethical structure, why it allows for the kinds of violence that have begun manifesting, and possibly at what point and why children fail to integrate into social norms.

The gun-owner psych evaluation would also mean that the sale and resale of weapons would probably need to be regulated, so that sane Bob can’t just resell the weapons to crazy Steve. This would probably require something like gun registry – again, no different than registering a vehicle, though the registry may not be the only or the best solution. With an annual registration fee, this could disincentivize illegal resale of weapons, because the cumulative costs to the gun owner would eat away the profit-margin over time. Thus, the unregistered sale of weapons would require that the cost of those weapons was significantly higher – and thus restricting illegal trade from that angle.

What about just getting a weapon illegally? If the registry system were in place, the increase in cost could reduce illegal sales by increasing the cost. On the other hand, foreign imports could be used to get around the issue, as could simply more expensive guns. However, a dedicated individual can also make a gun in their garage, so there’s that. The point of the psych evaluation is not to solve the issue, but to provide a meaningful hurdle, and reduce the incident-rate. For that goal, something like a psych evaluation could be useful.

Another common issue is the question of placing an unreasonable burden on law-abiding citizens. This one is tricky, because we’re not in agreement on what exactly is reasonable. Let’s assume that a gun license required an initial evaluation, and license renewal every 5 years or so. The evaluation costs can be set at, say, $200. That’s $40 annually ($3.34/month) for the ability to purchase and operate firearms. That does not seem like an unreasonable burden to me – but again, the idea of “reasonable” is up for debate.

A separate hurdle might be a higher age restriction on firearms purchasing (again, not a silver bullet, but a measure that would reduce the incident rates). I have not studied the statistics in detail, but it seems that the majority of school shootings are carried out by students or recently-former students, and primarily in high school and college. In a way, this makes some sense, since the period in question is the period of increased instability experienced in puberty. This period is also the character-forming period, when the definition of self, the world, and the person’s role in that world is built up – i.e. has not yet been defined. We tend to take things much more to heart in this period – every crush is a great love, every failure and rejection a world-shattering event. Romeo and Juliet is a play about the impulsiveness and idiocy of youth, and seems pretty spot-on. If we’re willing to prohibit the mentally ill from purchasing weapons, we should be willing to do the same for the mentally unstable. By raising the age limit for firearms purchase, we would be making it more difficult for the most likely shooters to get their hands on firearms. Again, this is not a silver-bullet solution, but a kind of hurdle that would likely reduce the rate of incidents by making it more difficult – not impossible – to obtain the weapons that are likely to produce the greatest casualty counts.

However, there’s the argument that, in the military, we allow 18-year-olds to operate tanks, so why would we prevent the 18-year-old civilians from owning guns? Well, for one thing, the military has a psych evaluation – or something close enough to it – and a training system that includes the Master Resilience Training (MRT) – a system that seems engineered to prevent and correct the kinds of pathologies that create school shooters. It also has a strict operational standard, supervision, accountability, weeding-out process, etc. Thus, the 18-year-old operating a tank has been vetted several times before we handed him a tank and live ammo. That vetting, by the way, requires that the soldier is capable and willing to integrate into a fairly strict hierarchy with well-defined values – including obedience to orders. In effect, the military hierarchy functions as a social one, and the ability to successfully integrate (adopt the values of the military) is an indication that the individual can be trusted with dangerous equipment. The other side of the issue is that we don’t give the soldiers a tank to take home. The use of the weapons is carefully controlled.

Procedures, like the psych evaluation, test specifically for these kinds of “functional member of society” attitudes and passing them is what would make a person socially trustworthy enough to own a firearm. Additionally, because there is no civilian weapons control, in the same sense that the military uses, and there is no strict supervision, restricting access to firearms during the period when one is most likely to use these firearms to inflict social harm seems fairly reasonable – though again, we don’t have an agreed-upon definition of that term. However, if we’re willing to impose age restrictions as hurdles on other activities – like smoking, drinking, access to bars and clubs, etc. – then the firearms age restriction may be a coherent measure. These kinds of age restrictions are intended to prevent or reduce the risk of harm to individuals and to society as a whole. Given the scope of risk posed by firearms – namely their intentionally deadly nature – they would seem to fall under the category of items and activities that are commonly age-restricted. As with underage drinking, the laws are not intended as a one-stop solution; they’re intended to make the act more difficult and thus reduce the incidence-rate.

A reasonable question may be asked: “if the American society has not traditionally had these hurdles, but has not had the shootings, why focus on the hurdles?” The answer is: traditionally, the social values have acted to restrict such behavior, and the rate at which people transitioned into fully functional adulthood seems to have been faster. Most people had gone out on their own by the time they were 15 (granted, they also tended to die before 50); while today college is the place and time when people start to “find themselves.” In other words, we used to be more mature. But we also used to be more integrated into a shared set of social values, and those values prevented such acts. It is unclear whether we can return to the kind of maturity as we once had, or whether we can reintegrate into functional social norms – the kind of change that would render hurdles like age restrictions unnecessary. Even if we knew how to do so, it would take years for the program to show results, while the violence would likely continue (since it has no reason to reverse course now). Hurdles can be an effective measure in limiting the violence, but not if used on their own. It is only when the hurdles are combined with the long-term solution addressing the underlying pathologies and social failures responsible for such actions, that they become truly effective.

[1] Whether gun ownership is the kind of thing we should think of as a “right” and “freedom” is a separate issue. What matters is the present situation that places very few restrictions on gun ownership as the basis of understanding how the opposing side and the supreme court characterize it.

[2] This is the average police patrolman salary in the US


[4] It should be noted that this job might be something the military reserve could do, but the idea of stationing armed military personnel throughout the civilian areas is too close to martial law.


[6] The use of heavily fortified positions in Afghanistan and Iraq have not protected from terrorist attacks in those areas.