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My inbox has been slammed with notes concerning the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Given the accessibility of information, and the pace at which it travels, people have treated this event as not just a case of a ghastly local crime, but much more than that, a signal and a wake-up call to the culture at large.
There is no harm in such reflections. The 500-year-old trend toward ever less violent societies — a trend that continues to go in the right direction in our time — should be pushed further in the right direction through education and cultural change.
Still, it might be beneficial to ask more focused questions about the problem of security at schools in particular.
In the days that followed the killing, my browser kept taking me back to a Wikipedia link about the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The law, still intact after many challenges and rewrites, reads: “It shall be unlawful for any individual knowingly to possess a firearm that has moved in or that otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone.”
Guns of all sorts are banned anywhere near schools. If the government’s laws had worked, this killer would have realized that his plan was unachievable. After all, the world’s most powerful government had banned the whole idea of guns at school.
But the law did not work, at least not as intended. On the contrary. The killer could be pretty sure going into this that he would be the only one at the school with a gun.
Think of this: Schools in particular have been singled out as a place without the ability to defend against violence. The law has been challenged and revised and debated ever since, but the bottom line stands. Have school shootings declined? Most major shootings now occur in gun-free zones, and nearly twice as many since the act passed than in the 20 years prior. (See the full list.)
People have wrongly tended to reduce the debate to more gun ownership or more gun control. It’s clear where the Obama administration wants to take this: toward more centralized control and fewer gun rights. The right responds by pointing to the example of Israel where teachers are heavily armed. That’s the choice the mainstream gives us.
Actually, the framing of the whole debate is wrong. It is not about whether teachers should be armed or whether guns should be banned for everyone but state-employed cops. The real issue is whether any institution in society is going to be in charge of its own security, and not be forced to obey the government’s plan.
Schools face a problem not different in kind from any other issue of security affecting banks, convenience stores, jewelry stores, theaters, homes, or churches. All these institutions are constantly threatened with violence from random sources. They must all make judgments about the risk of violence and how best to deal with it. There is no one aggregate solution that applies in every case. Each institution needs to determine security for itself.
Just days after Sandy Hook, a shooter attempted to gun down people at the Mayan Palace Theatre in San Antonio, Texas. An off-duty deputy whipped out her own gun and blasted him before the killer could reenact the rampage at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. This is probably the first you have heard about this precisely because the tragedy was averted. The institution will learn from the event and respond in a way that is rational and not injurious of human rights and liberties.
Because school killings engender special social outrage, legislators made them an exception, and this was before airports and airlines received similarly treatment 11 years later with the creation of the Transportation Security Administration. Guns of any sort, unless carried by a cop, were not permitted to be part of anyone’s security solution. The federal government knew best, even to the point at which the federal law trumped state laws on guns.
Does this figure into the calculation that would-be killers make as they plot their malicious acts? Certainly. Advertising a place as gun-free by law is an invitation to killers. The law says to them that if they can get in, they will have a monopoly on violence. No efforts at defense will be available on the premises to protect the teachers and the kids. I don’t see how it could be controversial to suggest that this law is a very bad idea.
To be sure, these killings might have happened anyway. Dealing with violence was the last thing on anyone’s mind in this quiet and prosperous community school. All the events might have transpired as they did regardless. The point is that the law removes viable options for the school in dealing with security concerns. It says: We, the government, know what is best, and our way is the only way.
This is a terrible way to deal with any issue of security.
I am not saying that the school in question should have armed the teachers, the principal, or the students. What matters is who is in charge of security. What kind of incentives does the surety of the absence of effective security grant would-be murders?
Think of this in the case of your home. Let’s say your community passed a Gun-Free Home Act. Is such a law going to be something taken note of by would-be intruders? Is a criminal going to be more or less likely to enter a home knowing with certainty that all law-abiding citizens will not have the means to protect themselves?
Some people might respond that they don’t want to live in a society in which school administrators have to carry weapons. I completely agree. But wishing does nothing to deal with the problem of anti-social behavior on the part of a tiny minority. A tiny group is capable of ruining the social order for the rest of us, which is why we need mechanisms in place to deal with them.
It’s true in every aspect of life, whether our homes or online forums or banks or schools. Ownership is what allows the security calculation to be rational. Without private property, the destructive element rules.
In the online world, these people are known as trolls. In the online world, they can’t be violent, but they can wreck a good thing. A forum that cannot control them or kick them off is not long for this world. If the federal government had passed the No-Troll Act as a way of securing online communities against them, the forums would be all destroyed by now.
It is right and proper to wish for a society of perfect peace. But it is also very smart to have institutions in place that deal with those who do not want peace. Traditionally, people have relied on government to provide this service. This is a grave mistake. Security is inseparable from private property and the institutions of the market economy.
The reason violent crime has fallen by 65% since 1993 has not been government. It has been the private sector’s creation of advanced technology in the hands of private enterprise: surveillance cameras, private security, alarm systems, increasingly sophisticated systems of screening, and so on. Guns in the hands of private owners have been part of that solution.
The best path forward for schools in particular is to get out from under the protection of government and be put on the same status as regular commercial establishments. Private establishments that own and control their own space provide better security.
Whenever any institution is singled out for special protection by government and called too important to manage itself, that institution needs to worry about its future. That’s why the ultimate solution to public school violence is the full privatization of security and of the schools themselves.
At the very least, we need a repeal of the laws that make it impossible for schools to find their own solutions to the threat of violence. In the name of human rights, security needs to be privatized, whether government likes it or not.