Moms, mayors offer misguided message on guns

James Alan Fox

February 16, 2014

A new report on school shootings was released Wednesday on Capitol Hill by two like-minded advocacy groups striving to move Congress toward action on gun control. Whatever the impact on lawmakers, the statistical study of gun-related deaths and injuries in schools is quite disturbing, but not just in the way intended by its promoters.

According to Moms Demand Gun Sense in America and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, there have been as many as 44 shootings, including 28 deaths, in schools and colleges nationwide since the devastating massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., that had millions of Americans demanding change in gun regulations. To place the recent tally in particularly mind-numbing terms, the moms and mayors report highlighted the rate of more than three incidents per month -- and that would include the summertime when schools are essentially gun-free and student-free.

One need not read very deeply between the lines to get the intended message: Our nation's schools continue to be personal battle zones for gun-toting teens and post-teens, and we need to act fast before more young lives are needlessly and senselessly sacrificed to our country's love affair with guns.

What I find so disturbing about the moms and mayors report is not just the tallies of homicides, suicides and other shootings in schools, but the complete lack of any context for interpreting these figures.

As it happens, the numbers assembled by the moms and mayors are not out-of-line with historical patterns, and, in fact, are lower than two decades ago when gang violence was especially problematic at school settings. And, as added perspective, consider that there are more than 50 million school children in America, making the risk of fatality well below one in two million. By comparison, many times more youngsters are killed annually in bicycle accidents. I would trust the moms, if not the mayors, would support a national helmet law as quickly as a gun restriction.

Without a doubt, each gun-related student or teacher fatality is tragic in and of itself, but children are far more at risk outside of school than at school. For most kids, school is a place of great (if not the greatest) safety, offering a level of structure and supervision that many children do not enjoy elsewhere, possibly not even at home.

Let me be clear in embracing the often-stated position that even one death is too many. And I hardly wish to disregard or minimize the suffering and anguish of victims, their families as well as their entire communities that are devastated and traumatized when gunshots disrupt the school day.

However, the suggestion that school shootings are a problem on the rise and in need of immediate resolution tends to promote quick and easy responses that don't work and may make matters worse, instead of more difficult approaches that will indeed improve the climate at schools of all levels.

Posting armed guards at school doors, running children though lockdown drills, and surrounding classrooms with cameras and metal detectors not only fail to prevent some teenager or adult determined to wreak havoc upon innocent children and their dedicated teachers, but they send the wrong and excessively scary message concerning the risk. Overinvestment in visible security can serve as constant reminder to impressionable youngsters that they indeed have a target on their backs.

In the process of trying to protect children's lives, we can easily destroy their sense of safety and ultimately disrupt the learning environment even more than the occasional incident in one of the thousands of schools nationwide. We should instead look toward programs and policies that promote healthy kids and respectful relationships in schools.

I applaud the work of both the moms and the mayors. I admire their passion and generally concur with their positions. However, I find their latest strategy to be a misinformed and misguided scare tactic.

James Alan Fox is a Northeastern University criminologist and author of Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College. He is also a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

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