Let’s Not Militarize Elementary Schools December 20, 2012

Let’s Not Militarize Elementary Schools

In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has a proposal: “National Guard troops could be used to support local law enforcement agencies in protecting our children at schools.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer

The senator announced yesterday that she’d be introducing two bills aimed at “protecting children.” The “Save Our Children” act, Boxer explained, “would expand a successful National Guard program in place since 1989 that allows governors to use the guard to assist with law enforcement efforts related to drug interdiction and counter-drug activities. So we take a successful program, and we say we’re gonna add a new purpose, and that’s what we do in our legislation.”

This seems like an awful idea, but let’s assume it’s sound policy and was on the books last Friday. Would Adam Lanza have been any less able to carry out the shooting? The answer is almost certainly “no.” There would have been no good reason for the Connecticut governor to deploy National Guard troops to Sandy Hook Elementary School that morning. The merits and demerits of Boxer’s proposal might be worth deliberating, but these deliberations would bear no meaningful relation to the Newtown massacre. Therefore, now is probably the worst time to debate the new policy, because current discourse related to school violence is so driven by the aftereffects of Newtown. Any debate held now will inevitably be informed more by emotions and hysterics than statistics and reasoning.

The odds that any given person will ever experience a spree killing remain vanishingly low. And the odds that any given elementary school student will ever experience a spree killing are even lower. (The last elementary school massacre on the order of Newtown occurred in 1927.) Much as politicians might want to be perceived as “doing something” to make future elementary school massacres less likely, crafting policy aimed explicitly at curbing these events is simply irrational.

There does seem to have been an uptick in the incidence of U.S. spree killings as of late, but statistically, the occurrence of a rare event doesn’t necessarily imply that such events have become any less rare. We can debate the possible causes of the recent uptick (as well as the major decrease in overall violent crime) but a statistical uptick in the incidence of rare events also does not itself imply that such events have become anywhere near common enough to warrant a direct legislative response.

As political scientist Patrick Egan wrote after the Aurora movie theater shooting this summer: “First, we are a less violent nation now than we’ve been in over forty years.  In 2010, violent crime rates hit a low not seen since 1972; murder rates sunk to levels last experienced during the Kennedy Administration.” He continued, “Long-term trends suggest that we are in fact currently experiencing a waning culture of guns and violence in the United States.”

This is not to say that the experience of Newtown could never inform a reasonable policy proposal. But that national politicians are seriously advocating the militarization of elementary schools, for instance, is profoundly disturbing. Again, this advocacy is totally disconnected from the event which supposedly spurred our current “conversation.” Another major problem I’ve noticed is that people habitually conflate the phenomena of spree killings with the much broader issue of overall gun violence. These should be decoupled. (Violent gun crime has also been steadily decreasing.)

“Is it not part of the national defense to make sure our children are safe?” Sen. Boxer asked yesterday.

In their adverse impact on rational public discourse, these substance-free emotionalist appeals are probably more damaging than the post-massacre ravings of Christian zealots like Mike Huckabee. After 9/11 — another highly aberrational event — national politicians hastily enacted a massive and still-perpetually-growing National Security State apparatus, which has been a colossal nightmare. Following a similar approach with our elementary schools would almost certainly beget disastrous unintended consequences.

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