Over the past week, opposition to Trump’s proposal to arm teachers has played out in news channels, in town halls, on blogs and in social media: arming teachers would increase negligent shootings, aggravate existing racial disparities in harsh school discipline and endanger students of color, and create an undue burden on teachers already strapped for resources and support.
But one surprising voice in favor of arming teachers? Pro-gun public law enforcement. Just today, Chief James Craig of Detroit made local headlines by warming up to the idea of arming teachers:
“What’s a better idea? I’ve not heard one,” Chief James Craig told The Detroit News this week. “You can say put armed police officers into every school, but that’s not practical. I’m not saying arming teachers is the only solution, and I’m certainly not saying we should just hand out guns to all teachers. That’s ridiculous.
“But it makes sense to arm certain teachers who are trained, such as former military or police officers. That’s only one of several components, including taking a strong look at mental health issues, and making sure police take action when they get indications someone may be violent.”
Popular headlines in the New York Times (“As States Expand Gun Rights, the Police Object”), the Washington Post (“Houston police chief on gun control: If not now, when?”), USA Today (“Gabby Giffords’ gun-control group gets new law enforcement allies”) often paint American police as natural allies to advocates for stricter gun control. But survey research suggests a different dynamic: sure, they want more background checks and tighter mental health restrictions, but police support gun rights over gun control by a factor by a factor of 3 to 1 (civilians are split 50-50), and they are twice as likely as civilians to oppose an assault weapons ban.
While the public law enforcement community is known for being a more conservative bunch, the wide embrace of gun rights seems to fly in the face of broad trends that have widened the gulf between public law enforcement and the people they police, such as police militarization. Why would “warriors in blue” want civilians to be armed as well–and with assault weapons at that?
That’s a big question, with a complicated answer (one that I’m unraveling in my book-in-progress, Policing the Second Amendment, which is based on nearly 80 interviews with law enforcement in Arizona, California and Michigan). But part of the answer has to do with mass shootings. On the ten-year anniversary of Columbine, the Associated Press ran a story about the impact of the mass shooting on police training, tactics, and mindset. Headlined as “Shoot First: Columbine High School Massacre Transformed US Police Tactics,” the article outlined the new police sensibilities about the phenomenon of “active shooter”: with a gunman killing a person every 15 seconds in an active shooting event, police now “rush toward gunfire and step over bodies and bleeding victims, if necessary, to stop the gunman—the active shooter—first.” In contrast to the “contain and wait” strategies employed at Columbine, “it’s been a complete turnaround” according to the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
This transformation resonated throughout my research. During my interviews with police chiefs, I was struck by how active shootings, starting with Columbine, had altered how police think about gun violence as a policing problem, how they understand police responses to gun violence, and even how they relate to their own guns. Mass shootings–especially in “normal” (read: white, middle-class suburban) places–caught police off-guard, and compelled them to adopt a distinct kind of mindset, centered on first-response. This mindset was saturated with anxiety about their own inefficacy without their guns (e.g., “Say I’m in a movie theater, and there’s a shooting and I am there but I can’t do anything because I don’t have a gun? I would feel devastated. Ashamed. Guilty, I would feel like all of those lives lost were on me. And it would ruin me forever. So that’s really opened my eyes”) and with their insistence that they’d act decisively if faced with an active shooter (e.g., “I don’t want to be caught in the middle of some movie theater where someone is shooting. There are lots of examples where people are unarmed, and someone is just shooting for the hell of it. I’m not going to be one of those guys who sit there and does nothing.”) And what’s more: I found that this first-responder-oriented mindset also opens up a space for armed civilians to play a role. As one chief told me, “If there’s an off duty cop next to me when I need back up, I’m going to want that back up. And I don’t see what’s the difference between that off-duty cop and the responsible citizen. There is zero difference.”
Right now, US law enforcement are grappling with the “devastating” (in Sheriff Scott Israel’s words) inaction of Broward County Sheriff deputies at the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and they are re-evaluating their own protocols for preventing and responding to an active shooting event. As they do so, many police spokespersons are likely to advocate for stricter gun laws. But if Chief James Craig of Detroit, existing survey data, and my own interviews are any indication, just as many will double down on the “responsibly” armed American as a stop-gap measure for responding to active shootings.