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Mass killings keep happening despite good guys with guns

A memorial is seen surrounding the sign for Robb Elementary School, where a mass shooting took place on May 24. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
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It’s still not clear what exactly happened at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., earlier this week except for the grim, heartbreaking summary: At least 19 children and two adults were shot to death by a teenager carrying a rifle he’d recently purchased.

In the two days since, there have been evolving reports about how the suspect, Salvador Ramos, was able to enter the building despite the presence of security guards and how he was able to resist being incapacitated by police for more than half an hour. Initial reports that Ramos had exchanged gunfire with law enforcement outside the school may have been wrong.

Update: In fact, they were. Authorities now say Ramos entered the building without being confronted despite firing his weapon repeatedly outside of the school before going in.

On Wednesday, law enforcement authorities said that Ramos had been isolated in the school, but it may instead have been the case that he managed to barricade himself in the classroom where most of the children were killed. Video from the scene shows that the standoff went off so long that parents and neighbors gathered at the scene screamed at police to do more to intervene, even at one point speculating about going in themselves.

Again: a lot of this is uncertain. But it does appear that more than 20 people were killed despite a security officer at the scene when the gunman arrived and despite the police being there soon after the killing began.

In other words, there were lots of “good guys with guns” in Uvalde, as the rhetorical line goes. But 19 kids died anyway.

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The idea that the best way to combat mass shootings is with more armed law enforcement is appealing for two main reasons. The first is that it simply seems logical: We rely on police to keep us safe and having more police in place should mean that we are therefore safer. The other appeal, of course, is that increasing law enforcement as a response to the threat of mass shooting means not having to curtail the availability of the weapons used by shooters, an idea that’s anathema to many on the right.

But as we saw in Uvalde, law enforcement often ends up as a response, not a preventive. If security officers did engage with Ramos before he entered the school, for some reason he entered the school anyway. Once inside, the AP reports, law enforcement had to wait for a school official to unlock the door before the shooter could be engaged.

Even when law enforcement is able to respond quickly and forcefully to a mass shooting, that doesn’t mean that many people won’t die. A shooter in Dayton, Ohio in 2019 was shot to death by police within 30 seconds of the first bullet he fired. But in that half-minute, the shooter was able to kill nine people and injure more than two dozen others. Earlier this month, the shooter at a grocery store in Buffalo was confronted by the store’s security guard. But the guard, Aaron Salter Jr., was in combat with a better-armed and batter-armored opponent. He died at the scene.

The mass killing at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 occurred despite there being an armed guard on campus. The challenge at that point was different: The guard is accused of hiding instead of engaging the shooter.

There are certainly examples of armed guards and even armed bystanders ending incidents before they become mass shootings. Appealing to those incidents as definitive, though, is simply the inverse of arguing that there would likely still be shooting incidents if semiautomatic rifles were banned. Over the short term, neither introducing law enforcement universally nor banning new rifle sales would prevent mass killings.

Still, the conversation in the wake of the massacre in Uvalde has often included discussion of having more guards at schools or “hardening” them; that is, making them harder to breach as one might a small fort. These are both extremely expensive propositions, to say nothing of the psychological effects of further extending the idea that schools are dangerous.

Consider that there are nearly 131,000 schools in the United States. Many high schools already have security on-site. So let’s just consider the 67,408 public elementary-only facilities in the country. (There are another 20,000 private elementary schools but they would presumably need to incur their own costs.) The median salary for an armed security guard is about $35,000 a year. So that’s $2.3 billion in annual costs right there just for one guard at each school. Add in training, armor and weapons and the costs go higher. If we assume that only one security guard would be less likely to stop a shooter, the costs double or triple.

In the aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, the National Rifle Association published a report that would address similar incidents in an NRA-friendly way: rebuilding schools to withstand armed assault. I wrote about the report in 2018:

“It recommended a single point of entry to a school’s grounds with fencing preventing access elsewhere. Shrubs should be kept away from the buildings and trees planted at a distance, to prevent an assailant from climbing to gain entry via upper windows or the roof. Specific entryway schematics were provided to maximize sight lines and minimize the ability of a shooter to get past without confrontation. Ballistic glass was recommended for interior windows and steel plating for entry-point desks.”

The report did not put a dollar figure on this but, again, there are more than 67,000 public elementary schools in the United States.

“Similar to our nation’s approach to terrorism after 9/11,” the report read at one point, “this document focuses on prevention through deterrence, reducing common vulnerabilities, detecting warning signs, and limiting the consequences of an event if it does occur.”

That admission is important. School shootings happen regularly but remain “thankfully uncommon and unlikely,” as the NRA’s report has it. The idea was to make schools less appealing targets … and to reduce the death toll if they become a target anyway. Malevolent shooters armed with semiautomatic rifles would still be roaming around in the world the NRA conceives.

A fifth of the country thinks mass shootings are simply unpreventable, which is an understandable bit of nihilism. A country in which weapons are freely available and blanketing schools (and theaters and grocery stores and all of the other places mass shootings have occurred) with security is a prohibitively expensive and imperfect barrier is a country where mass shootings will continue to occur.

There is simply no viable short-term political answer to stop mass shootings, only long, difficult and unclear paths toward that goal. The events in Uvalde and in Dayton and in Parkland and in Buffalo should remind us, though, that the “good guys with a gun” line is both infeasible and itself flawed.