After the school shooting in my adopted state of Florida, the state legislature acted by proposing an increase in the minimum age for purchasing a rifle, a three-day waiting period on rifles, and a program for arming teachers. Teachers can elect to participate in the program and there has been some talk of providing financial incentives. Since Florida consistently underfunds education, this does have some appeal to poorly-paid teachers.
As would be suspected, pro-gun people and the NRA generally favor arming teachers while those who are anti-gun oppose it. It is also not surprising that many in the middle are not enamored of the idea of arming teachers. In general, teachers do not seem thrilled with the idea.
While people tend to line up on this issue in accord with their ideology, the matter should be given due consideration in as objective a manner as possible. I will endeavor to do just that, with focus on both the practical and moral aspects of the matter.
From a purely practical standpoint, the main question is whether arming teachers would make students safer. Under this broad consideration are various practical concerns. For example, one obvious concern is whether an average teacher who lacks military or police experience would be able to operate in a combat effective manner against likely attackers. On the positive side, school shooters tend to be inexperienced and untrained—as such, a teacher with some training would probably be equal or better in skill than the typical attacker in a school setting. On the negative side, school shooters tend to use assault rifles, and this would give them a firepower advantage (range, accuracy, damage and magazine size) over teachers armed with pistols. But, a pistol is still better than being unarmed.
As such, an armed teacher would be objectively better than an unarmed teacher in terms of engaging a shooter. But, the engagement would not be like a shootout in a Western, with both gunslingers facing each other across an empty space. It is likely the engagement would take place with students all around and this raises the concern that the armed teacher will miss the shooter and hit students. Even trained professionals tend to miss most pistol shots in an active engagement; a teacher with some basic firearm training will presumably miss more often. This leads to the practical and moral question of whether this engagement would make students safer than not arming teachers. The practical matter is an empirical question: would an armed teacher reduce casualties by either taking out the shooter or keeping their attention long enough to allow more people to escape or would they increase the body count by wounding and killing students with missed shots? We will presumably have some data on this soon.
The moral concern is probably best put in utilitarian terms: if there is a reduction in deaths due to armed teacher intervention, would this outweigh unintended injuries and deaths caused by the teacher? On the face of it, a utilitarian calculation would find the action morally good, provided that the teacher’s actions saved more students than not having an armed engagement. However, there is still the non-utilitarian moral concern about the possibility of teachers unintentionally killing or wounding students they are trying to save. But, on the face of it, I would be inclined to say that engaging a shooter would be the right thing to do, even if there are the inevitable unintentional casualties.
If the concerns were limited simply to the engagement, then this matter would seem to be settled. However, there are the concerns about having armed teachers during all the times in which they are not engaging shooters. After all, their guns will not just magically appear in their hands, nor can they have guns safely locked away to be issued during an attack (that would be too late). The teachers would need to be carrying their guns while on school grounds. This leads to a host of rather obvious practical and moral problems.
One obvious problem is the possibility of accidental discharge. While not common, people do accidently fire concealed weapons while digging about in a purse or adjusting their holster. The risk of accidental death and injury needs to be weighed practically and morally against the effectiveness of armed teachers in combating shooters. Since each gun is a risk every minute it is present (I say this a person who has had guns my entire life), it is not unreasonable to think that the risk of having armed teachers outweighs the risk of not having armed teachers to respond to a shooter.
Another obvious concern is someone getting their hands on a teacher’s gun, such as a student grabbing a gun when a teacher is trying to break up a fight. 23% of shootings in hospitals involve guns taken from security officers; the same problem would apply to schools. This must also be factored in when assessing the moral and practical aspects of the matter.
There is also the worry that an armed teacher will be mistaken for a shooter when the police arrive on the scene—in the confusion of an engagement, the police will have the challenge of sorting out the good guys with guns from the bad guys with guns, which could prove problematic. As such, armed teachers run the risk of being shot by the police or even other armed teachers who see the gun but do not recognize their colleague in the heat of the crisis.
One concern that some will regard as very controversial is the worry that arming teachers will put black and Latino students at greater risk. The gist of the worry is that because black and Latino students already tend to be treated worse than white students, they will be at greater risk of being shot by teachers. This concern is often coupled with worries about stand-your-ground laws that allow people to use deadly force when they feel threatened. This concern does extend to white students as well; an armed teacher might feel threatened by a white student and pull their gun. It would be terrible and ironic if armed teachers ended up killing students rather than protecting them. While most teachers, like most people, are not inclined towards murder, the possibility of students being wounded or killed by armed teachers is worth considering.
To close, assessing the morality and practicality of arming teachers requires weighing the risks of arming teachers against the benefits of doing so. Based on the above discussion, the one advantage of arming teachers is that they will have a somewhat better chance of stopping or slowing down a shooter. Weighed against this are the many disadvantages noted above—disadvantages that include the possibility of teachers and students being wounded or killed.
One rational, but cold, way to approach this matter is to weigh the odds of a school shooting against the odds of people being harmed by arming teachers. While exact calculations of odds are problematic, the odds of a shooting incident in any K-12 school in a year in the United States has been estimated as 1 in 53,925. For high schools, it is 1 in 21,000. For elementary schools, 1 in 141,463. While these calculations can be questioned, school shootings are statistically quite rare given the number of schools and numbers of students. This does not, of course, diminish the awfulness of shootings when they occur. But, when weighing the risks of arming teachers, it is a critical concern. This is because arming teachers would be a good idea (practically and morally) if the good outweighed the bad and determining this requires estimating the odds of a shooting, the odds am armed teacher will stop it and the odds of the various harms of arming teachers occurring. If a reasonable calculation shows that arming teachers would create more good than bad, then arming teachers would be a good idea. If not, it would be a bad idea. Perhaps this cold calculation might be countered by an emotional appeal, such as “if only one student is saved by an armed teacher, it would be worth it.” To this, there are two replies. One is that good policy is not determined by emotional appeals but by rational assessment of the facts. The second is an emotional appeal: “would it still be worth it if one student died because of armed teachers? Or two? Or ten?” My view is that arming teachers, given the odds, is a bad idea. However, I am open to evidence and arguments in favor of arming teachers.