BERLIN — At first, the hour-long meeting between President Trump and students who survived last week’s Florida school shooting appeared to be an open discussion about ways to stop the killing. In Europe, it reminded some stakeholders of how they began to brainstorm ideas after a devastating string of school shootings between 2002 and 2009.
“Does anybody have an idea as to how to stop it?” Trump asked, after survivors and advocates had delivered powerful testimonies at the White House event, which was broadcast live.
But the search for “any idea” that could stop the shootings quickly led to a familiar proposal — and one that is extremely risky, according to those who have spent years successfully trying to prevent similar shootings in Europe on behalf of their governments. Trump did not make any conclusive promises at the end of the meeting, but as the conversation moved on, he appeared to favor arming teachers, at least some of them.
Trump doubled down on that proposal Thursday morning in tweets, in which he also indicated support for making it more difficult for younger Americans to buy assault rifles. “Highly trained, gun adept, teachers/coaches would solve the problem instantly, before police arrive,” Trump wrote, referring to armed teachers. With such measures in place, he said, “ATTACKS WOULD END!”
German criminology professor Vincenz Leuschner described it as “by far the worst proposal one could have made in this regard,” one that responds to something bad with something even worse. “What happens to schools when you arm teachers? Can they still be role models?” Leuschner asked, speaking to The Washington Post on Thursday.
“Whoever hopes that Trump will seriously restrict gun laws will likely be disappointed,” Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine said in a report published online. “In fact, the opposite may happen. Apparently, Trump believes that one can make schools more secure by adding more weapons,” Spiegel’s Washington correspondent said, before citing National Rifle Association donations to Trump.
In his tweets on Thursday, Trump also praised NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre and executive director Chris W. Cox. “What many people don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, is that Wayne, Chris and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots,” Trump wrote.
The normally staid Germany news agency DPA published an article similarly critical of Trump’s proposal under the headline: “Trump and the logic of the lobby,” remarking that the idea sounded “as if the powerful weapons lobbying group NRA had dictated it to him itself.”
Herbert Scheithauer, one of Germany’s primary experts on the issue and a psychology professor at Berlin's Free University, called the U.S. debate “absurd.” He warned that arming teachers could lead to more violence, as some students already at risk of committing a shooting may see the armed resistance as a challenge.
“Based on academic research, we know that the presence of firearms can trigger dangerous reactions among certain people. Instead of deterring them, weapons may actually trigger violent fantasies,” Scheithauer told The Post on Thursday. He said the idea of arming teachers would be “unthinkable” in Germany.
“Given that there are such great concepts to prevent school violence in the first place, I really don’t understand why the idea of arming teachers is discussed so prominently, even though we still don’t even know whether it would have a positive impact or lead to the deaths of even more students,” Scheithauer said. His team, under the umbrella organization Networks Against School Shootings, has tested a preventive approach at more than 100 schools in Germany, starting in 2015.
“There are ways to spot students’ unusual behavior long before they become shooters,” said Scheithauer, who said the German experiment was a success. Similar experiments have been launched in the United States, too, and would only have to be expanded. So, why is the United States debating arming teachers instead of implementing prevention methods that have been refined and documented for years?
Advocates of arming U.S. teachers may argue that Europe has far fewer weapons in circulation than the United States and that America’s rural schools are especially hard to reach in case of an emergency. But in Europe, opponents of providing teachers with arms will quickly point to Switzerland, which also has one of the world’s highest ratios of firearms per person and remote village schools. That country has similarly debated measures to prevent school shootings, but it has favored more comprehensive steps over easy-fix solutions, such as storing weapons in classrooms. So far, no student has gone on a shooting rampage there.
“We would never arm our teachers,” said Beat W. Zemp, the president of Switzerland's teachers' association. “What we have done instead was to encourage schools to not sideline any students. Instead of punishing people, we need to show them solutions and ways out of their personal crises.”
Apart from training teachers to detect possible warning signs among students, some Swiss police departments have introduced software designed to spot unusual behavior online. The software, developed by the University of Darmstadt in Germany, was introduced in the region of Solothurn in 2013, an official there confirmed Thursday. Hundreds of officials in regional agencies are trained at interpreting automatically generated data on unusual posts on social media or other content published online. (The scheme focuses on shootings in a general sense and not exclusively on schools.)
Switzerland and Germany are among the leaders of an approach more centered on mental health that was also discussed during Trump’s White House meeting Wednesday.
One participant, Nicole Hockley, who lost a son in the Sandy Hook shootings, voiced skepticism about arming teachers, saying: “I appreciate the point on arming teachers; it’s not, personally, something that I support.”
“Rather than arm them with a firearm, I would rather arm them with the knowledge of how to prevent these acts from happening in the first place. How do you identify the kids in your class that are most at risk?” Hockley said.
Europe may be able to provide the United States with answers to that question. Germany, for instance, went through devastating attacks between 2002 and 2009. Between 1996 and 2008, major school shootings also occurred in Finland and Scotland, among other places. But there hasn’t been a major high-casualty gun attack on a European campus since then.
In a first step, European nations drafted schemes to identify at-risk individuals. Swiss authorities, for instance, have a list of about 2,000 such individuals. All of them are frequently approached by authorities, along with psychologists.
Other countries, including Germany, have attempted to set up government-led national networks dedicated to spotting potential attackers and stopping them before they can pursue their plans. Funding for in-school psychologists was increased exponentially. Teachers at every school are being trained to act as “trusted personnel,” as a first point of contact for students who want to seek psychological support or for others who want to raise alarm about the behavior of an person. Psychologists are then called in to examine each case further.
In a second step, at-risk individuals are barred from accessing firearms. In Switzerland, they are forced to hand over their weapons immediately or are barred from buying new ones. Psychological tests are standard practice for Germans younger than 25 who want to purchase firearms.
European experts are aware that the United States is unlikely to ever match the firearms restrictions in place here, even though some saw Trump’s announcement this week to direct the attorney general to propose regulations to ban “bump stocks” and other devices that turn semiautomatic firearms into “machine guns” as a promising sign.
But Wednesday’s White House meeting revealed that the Trump's administration's response to gun violence bears little resemblance to the approaches favored on the other side of the Atlantic.
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