The prompt for the latest skirmish in the never-ending war of words in one of the country’s most intractable debates came just hours after a shooter had killed 10 people at a Texas high school.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, an evangelical Christian and Republican former radio talk-show host who has been a strong proponent of expanding gun liberties in the state, spoke with a cadre of officials on Friday, pointing out that though Santa Fe High School had been given a safety award from the state and enjoyed the regular protection of two police officers, it still fell victim to horrific violence at the hands of an armed teenager.
So after recommending that parents lock their guns away, he identified a solution for what he framed as a central problem.
“We may have to look at the design of our schools moving forward and retrofitting schools that are already built. And what I mean by that is there are too many entrances and too many exits to our more than 8,000 campuses in Texas,” he said, citing security at office buildings and courthouses. “Had there been one single entrance possibly for every student, maybe he would have been stopped.”
The remark, which echoed some of the National Rifle Association’s past positions on school security, quickly became a talking point for supporters of gun control on the Internet, a punchline about how Republicans would rather restrict doors than guns.
“Guns don’t kill people, doors do,” went the sarcastic recap of the implicit assumptions embedded in Patrick’s comments, an absurdist retort that reverberated with anger and ironic detachment.
Former government ethics director Walter Shaub pulled up the construction standards for the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs, which includes a section on doors, and wrote on Twitter that “Texas has stricter regulations for doors than it does for guns.”
“Blame the doors?” wrote Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). “Anything but the weapon. Got it. Enough Is Enough.”
But put politics and the emotional debate about gun control to the side, if you can, just for a split second. Three security experts discussed with The Washington Post whether Patrick’s proposal had any merit to it, under the current status quo.
Scott Zimmerman, founder and chief executive of K17 Security in Rockville, Md.
Zimmerman said redesigning buildings to be more secure was just one component of a broad security approach, and one that also could end up being the most expensive — a potential hurdle for budget-stretched public schools in aging buildings.
“A lot of these doors are not built for security,” he said. “Weak locks and weak doors. If you’re going to compensate for that, that adds up very quickly.”
Even with limited points of entry at a school, there would probably be areas outside where students would congregate that would remain vulnerable, he said.
“People can still find ways,” he said. “Could minimizing the number of entrances be one piece of the puzzle? Potentially. But saying this could be a complete fix, I think this is an overreaction.”
Equally important was an emphasis on reporting and tracking individuals with concerning behavior and finding ways to “get them assistance and get them off the pathway to violence,” in addition to improving staff training for emergency communication and response procedures, he said.
And he said he believed the NRA’s proposals for increasing school security through its physical design — “hardening” in security parlance — fell short in significant ways.
“We’ve already failed at that point, if we have a gunman at the school,” he said. “The other measures are for how to reduce this from happening.”
Ed Hinman, a director at Gavin de Becker & Associates, a security consulting firm based in Los Angeles
Hinman was more supportive of the idea to limit building entrances, saying that being able to channel and watch who was coming in was a good way to increase safety. But regulating exits was more complicated. He also spotlighted training and preventive measures as important parts of the picture, stressing, like Zimmerman, the need for better mechanisms to identify and track warning signs of problematic students.
“I think the biggest thing missing in active shooting training or physical security is it’s too reactive,” he said. “There’s not a lot of focus on the early identification of someone. If it’s in a workplace, someone who’s disgruntled, talking about firearms, making threats. And so much of the evidence shows that with these school shooters, there’s a lot of warning signs.”
“So many of these students are isolated,” he said. “They’re suffering, and they’re going to act out on it.”
He said he did not believe that limiting the number of entrances to most buildings would be prohibitively expensive, even with a system of badges.
“It’s done almost everywhere, and it certainly needs to be done in schools,” he said. But, he said, “first and foremost is the prevention piece.”
Arnette F. Heintze, co-founder and chief executive of Hillard Heinze, a security firm in Chicago
Heintze said that one exit and entrance for a school the size of Santa Fe High School was not likely to work.
“You can’t have one exit and entrance for 1,400 people,” he said. “Then you create a killing field for someone.”
He pointed out that state fire codes and other regulations dictate how many doors and exits must be available in a building but said the idea of staggered start times for students was a good one. However, he said, the focus on building design shouldn’t overshadow what he agreed is a central issue: identifying students who show warning signs.
“What I’d hate for America to do is get distracted by feeling there is a failure in school security design,” he said. “It’s our society and how we don’t pay attention to signs and behaviors of individuals who are on the path to violence. … You can’t put armed guards at every school entrance in America; it’s not going to happen. It’s educating our society about those behaviors.”