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Betsy DeVos’s reported guns-in-schools plan would make schools less safe

The plan would let states use federal funds to arm teachers. It’s a terrible idea.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies in the Senate.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies in the Senate.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is considering a new plan, according to the New York Times and Washington Post: Allow federal education funds to go toward putting more guns in schools.

The guns-in-schools plan would tap federal grants that are traditionally intended for academic enrichment and student services, but instead allow states to use the money to purchase firearms for teachers. The plan would take advantage of a loophole that, unlike other school safety measures, does not explicitly prohibit the use of the money for guns.

As my colleague Ella Nilsen noted, this answers a call by some Republican lawmakers and the National Rifle Association (NRA). They believe that arming more teachers will allow educators to keep students safe by defending them from a mass shooter. As the NRA often says, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

Will the proposal ever become reality? We don’t know yet. Asked about the plan, a Department of Education spokesperson told the Times, “The department is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety. The secretary nor the department issues opinions on hypothetical scenarios.”

The evidence suggests, however, that the guns-in-schools plan would make schools more dangerous, not safer.

While there is no good research specifically on arming teachers (which by itself should raise red flags, given that policy should be evidence-based), there is plenty of evidence on what happens where there are more guns around. It’s pretty clear: Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths.

The logic is simple: The presence of a gun allows otherwise normal circumstances to escalate into deadly violence. If a teacher has a gun around, she or one of her students is more likely to fire it — accidentally or deliberately — than if a gun wasn’t around.

That’s not to say that no one has ever successfully defended themselves or others from an attack with a firearm. The question is whether these incidents of successful defense would outweigh the new incidents of gun violence that would crop up due to the addition of more firearms in schools.

And based on the research, the presence of more guns typically translates to much more general gun violence, while justified uses of a gun for self-defense are few and far between.

So DeVos’s potential guns-in-schools plan would likely make school violence worse.

1) The research is clear: more guns, more gun deaths

The US is unique in two key and related ways when it comes to guns: It has way more gun deaths than other developed nations, and it has far more guns than any other country in the world.

The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times that of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to United Nations data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)

A chart shows America’s disproportionate levels of gun violence. Javier Zarracina/Vox

Mass shootings actually make up a small fraction of America’s gun deaths, constituting less than 2 percent of such deaths in 2013. But America does see a lot of these horrific events: According to CNN, “The US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters.”

The US also has by far the highest number of privately owned guns in the world. Estimated for 2017, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 120.5 guns per 100 residents, meaning there were more firearms than people. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 52.8 guns per 100 residents, according to an analysis from the Small Arms Survey.

A chart showing civilian gun ownership rates by country. Small Arms Survey

Another way of looking at that: Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet they own roughly 45 percent of all the world’s privately held firearms.

These two facts — on gun deaths and firearm ownership — are related. The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is pretty clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths.

“Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide,” David Hemenway, the Injury Control Research Center’s director, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.

For example, a 2013 study led by a Boston University School of Public Health researcher found that, after controlling for multiple variables, each percentage point increase in gun ownership correlated with a roughly 0.9 percent rise in the firearm homicide rate.

The correlation applies globally. This chart, based on data from, shows the correlation between the number of guns and gun deaths among wealthier nations:

A chart shows the correlation between gun deaths and gun ownership, by country. Javier Zarracina/Vox

Guns are not the only contributor to violence. (Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, and alcohol consumption.) But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s high level of gun ownership is a major reason the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.

As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:

A chart showing crime rates among wealthy nations. Javier Zarracina/Vox

Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.

”A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”

A chart showing homicides among wealthy nations. Javier Zarracina/Vox

This is in many ways intuitive. People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone will get angry during an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.

Consider how this could apply to a school scenario. Some kids or teachers get into an argument. There’s a gun in the classroom. Someone reaches for that gun — and what may have otherwise been a feisty argument escalates into a fatal encounter.

This might seem ridiculous, but consider that there have been shootings over disputes about cheeseburgers and tacos. In the heat of the moment, people can do very bad things.

America does not have a monopoly on these kinds of disputes. What it does have, again, is easy access to guns, making escalation much more likely.

Increasing the presence of guns in schools, then, could actually exacerbate gun violence.

2) For every criminal killed in self-defense, there are dozens more murders

There’s another set of statistics that throws cold water on the “good guy with a gun” theory: It’s way more likely in America that someone will shoot and kill another person in the course of committing a crime than in self-defense.

Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post ran through the statistics. He looked at how many gun homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings there were in comparison to “justifiable” homicides (“the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen”), based on the FBI’s 2012 data.

He found that for every justifiable gun homicide, there were 34 criminal gun homicides, 78 gun suicides, and two accidental gun deaths.

Data on mass shootings tells a similar story: According to the FBI’s report on active shooter events between 2000 and 2013, only about 3 percent were stopped by a civilian with a gun. Unarmed civilians actually stopped more incidents — about 13 percent. Most of the incidents — more than 56 percent — ended on the shooter’s initiative, when the shooter either killed himself or herself, simply stopped shooting, or fled the scene.

Would more of these shootings be prevented if more people had guns? It’s hard to say — since, again, there’s no good research on that question.

But America already has a lot of guns. And as the other data shows, that’s likely making its overall gun violence problem worse, not better.

3) Stopping a mass shooting is hard, even with firearms training

In President Donald Trump’s past comments about arming teachers, he’s suggested that this would be an easy way to end mass shootings quickly. He previously tweeted, “History shows that a school shooting lasts, on average, 3 minutes. It takes police & first responders approximately 5 to 8 minutes to get to site of crime. Highly trained, gun adept, teachers/coaches would solve the problem instantly, before police arrive. GREAT DETERRENT!”

Reality, however, is more complicated: Even when people are armed, that doesn’t mean they can properly respond to a mass shooting.

Multiple simulations have demonstrated that most people, if placed in an active shooter situation while armed, will not be able to stop the situation, and may in fact do little more than get themselves killed in the process.

This video from ABC News shows one such simulation, in which people repeatedly fail to shoot an active shooter before they’re shot:

As Chris Benton, a police investigator in Pennsylvania, told ABC News, “Video games and movies, they glorify gunfights. [People] get that warped sense that this is true — this video game is exactly what I can do in real life. That’s not reality.”

The Daily Show also put this theory to the test in another more comedic simulation segment. Jordan Klepper, who was a correspondent with the show at the time, trained on the basics of using a firearm and got a concealed carry permit that was valid in 30 states. Then he participated in mass shooting simulations to see how he would hold up in such a scenario.

He failed — miserably. In his final test, which simulated a school shooting, he shot an unarmed civilian, and he was shot multiple times by the active shooters and even law enforcement, who mistook him for the bad guy. He never took down the active shooters.

The fundamental problem is that mass shootings are traumatizing, terrifying events. Without potentially dozens or even hundreds of hours in training, most people are not going to be able to quickly and properly respond.

“There’s never enough training,” Coby Briehn, a senior instructor at Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, told Klepper. “You can never get enough.”

The FBI’s analysis of active shooters between 2000 and 2013 has another relevant data point: “Law enforcement suffered casualties in 21 (46.7%) of the 45 incidents where they engaged the shooter to end the threat.” These are people trained to do this kind of thing full-time, and nearly half of incidents resulted in at least one officer wounded or killed. Teachers with limited training would very likely fare much worse.

None of that is to say that a “good guy with a gun” would never be able to stop a shooter. We have seen some high-profile cases in which that happened. But the bulk of the findings, from news investigations to the FBI’s report to The Daily Show, suggest that this idea is often going to play out very differently than supporters like Trump and DeVos envision — and sometimes it could lead to more innocent people getting caught in the crossfire.

If America wants to confront its gun-violence problem, then the research suggests it should look to reducing the number of guns in circulation — not putting more armed people into schools, and certainly not paying for more armed people in schools.

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