David Cay Johnston, long one of the country’s top investigative reporters, has covered crime, the LAPD and written for police magazines and other publications on policing strategy and tactics. He has also been a gun owner (revolvers, rifles and shotguns), and got a near-perfect score in LAPD combat simulation training.
The National Rifle Association has proposed a bold plan to make children safe from mass murderers by creating a “shield” around these schools whose primary defense mechanism would be guns.
We should examine this idea to see what it would cost, what societal changes it would entail and, most importantly, whether it would be effective.
If the NRA is right, then we ought to do it. But is the NRA on target?
Asa Hutchinson, the former congressman and federal prosecutor who chaired the National School Shield Task Force, will not say how much he and the 12 other committee members were paid or how much of that money came from the NRA, which formed the committee three months ago following the murders of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT.
None of the 13 committee members named in the 225-page is an educator. However, all of them have a financial interest in security training.
Five of the 13 committee members describe themselves as employed by Phoenix RBT Solutions. Its website says it “offers reality-based training solutions for law enforcement, military and private sector security at the national and international level. ” One of its products is called “ultimate training munitions.”
The report says each district should make its own decisions, which is smart since the committee has no authority and is simply an arm of the National Rifle Association.
But to examine its proposal we should look at the cost of placing a “school resources officer,” as the NRA euphemistically calls these “sworn law-enforcement officers” at every school. Why? Because that is what a shield implies and protecting only some schools would simply make the unguarded schools more inviting targets for mass murder, an idea marketed by the NRA.
America had almost 99,000 public schools, another 33,000 private schools and close to 7,000 colleges in 2010.
That’s almost 139,000 locations to guard without counting daycare centers and other places where children gather, like YMCAs/YWCAs and Little League fields. For simplicity, we will stick to the schools.
The committee report cites a cost of $10,000 per school for a security consultant. That’s $1.4 billion, though the report suggests this cost could be lower, so we’ll count it at just a billion.
Many kindergarten through 12th grade schools are open from 7 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night because of pre-school and after-school programs, night high-school and evening college classes, not to mention weekend programs, sports contests, student newspapers and broadcast stations, band practice and other ancillary activities.
And while schools generally let out for long summer vacations, many continue to operate, offering summer schools, sports, childcare and so sports, debate and other teams can practice, as well as other activities. Since the NRA does not propose to end these activities and they take place at schools, we can reasonably include them within the proposed NRA shield.
So while many campuses are busy up to 15 hours a day during the week and for 10 hours on weekends, let’s not count all 85 or so hours of operation each week, but be conservative at just 50 hours a week of armed guarding.
One armed guard on duty at all times would not be enough.
Columbine High School had an armed guard, but he was outside helping some of the 21 wounded, not shooting it out with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as they murdered 12 of their classmates and one teacher.
When police arrived, they did not enter the school to shoot it out with the murderous pair, either. Instead they secured the perimeter, showing that the presence of armed officers does not mean someone on a murderous rampage will be stopped with police bullets. Harris and Klebold shot themselves.
To cover meal and bathroom breaks, meetings and the like means each school would need at least two guards to make sure at least one is on duty at all times.
At many schools two guards would not be sufficient because of the size of the campus and its openness. My California high school is as open today as it was when it opened in 1963, so you would need perimeter patrols or fencing. Ditto each of the schools my eight children attended over the years in Northern and Southern California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and western New York.
Fencing would allow funneling everyone entering a campus through one or more points, but that would mean both delays (time is money) and more guards to check those coming and going. We will ignore the labor costs of teachers and others waiting in line.
Basic, classic school chain-link fencing would not keep schools safe. A determined killer could just cut the fence and enter in a minute or so.
That suggests a need for security cameras and either live monitors or sophisticated software that can distinguish between a bunny and an armed intruder at the perimeter. Some, perhaps many, locations would require tennis-court high fencing or razor wire atop the fences to prevent scaling them.
Ignored here is the whole idea of our turning schools — where we want the human mind and spirit to flourish — into something akin to a junior-grade prison.
So what will armed guards cost?
Police officers and detectives at the median – half make more, half less – made $55,010 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Average pay was higher. Adjust for inflation and the median pay this year would be $58,600.
Of course security guards can be hired for much less. Median pay for security guards was less than half that of cops at just under $24,000. So adjusted to 2013, that would be about $25,500.
But security guards typically are not armed and are not, as the NRA report calls for, “sworn law enforcement personnel.”