Safety in schools, embassies, and prisons: What do we know about what works?

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Safety is on our minds as we receive two reports this week. The first is the NRA long-awaited press conference on how to promote school safety in light of the Newtown shooting, while the other is the final report regarding the attack at Benghazi. But what actually works in terms of promoting safety? We have some good information that addresses question.

School Safety and the NRA

Not surprise the NRA found that the problem regarding school safety was anything but guns. It was video games, mental illness, and perhaps who knows, gun-chewing. But it certainly was not that there were guns in school that caused the problem. Their proposal was for at least one armed guard to be located in every school in the United States. First, let’s think about the cost issue.

According to the Financial Times, there are approximately 140,000 schools and colleges in the United States. The average salary for a police officer in the U.S. is $51,000. Assume one armed guard per school at a cost of approximately $51,000 per guard. Now no school is going to hire only one guard. One has to factor in vacations, sick time, before and after school events. Additionally, most schools may need more than one guard since many have more than one building or you need more than one guard for a very large building. Plus also assume logistics or support services for the guard.

Let us assume a minimum of about three guards per school. Thus, $150,000 per year per school is an approximate. Now multiply this by 140,000 and the total bill for the NRA idea is $21 billion dollars per year. I am sure with Fiscal Cliffs and tight budgets, coming up with an additional $21 billion per year will be a snap for the federal, state, and local governments.

Hiring an additional 280,000 to 420,000 guards is more than the 100,000 Clinton cops hired in the 1990s. Keep in mind that there are currently 800,000 individuals already working in law enforcement. We are talking about nearly increasing by 50% the number of gun carrying law enforcement officials in the country. Yes gun carrying, and that is the beauty of the NRA proposal–more guns. Think of how many more guns that will need to be sold to supply all these armed guards. This is an amazing boom to the gun industry.

Of course, it will not just be handguns sold to these guards. No armed guard with a side piece will be able to take on someone with semi-automatic guns. They too will need these kind of toys. Additionally, image the shootout in schools between guards and killers. It will look like the O.K. Corral. Even more, assume someone enters a school to kill, the guards still may not be able to respond in an instant. There is no guarantee that they will be able to intervene immediately. On top of which, school shooters may target them first in schools, thus escalating the violence. Finally, believe it or not, schools are actually safer now than 30 years ago. Schools are not safer now because of more guns. Other factors such as screening out weapons, less violence in society in general, and other factors are making schools more safe. Spending all this money on more guards and guns makes little sense when perhaps lost costly alternatives exist.

What amazes me is the transparency of the NRA position. It is not about a principled position for the Second Amendment or advocacy for the rights of individuals. It is shilling for the gun industry. The NRA has to be the only special interest group that I know that is captured by a special interest.

But beyond the fact that the NRA proposal is pricy, it is simply a dumb idea. What made me think about how dumb it was, was to contrast security in schools, prisons, and embassies. I have been in all three institutions. I have toured prisons for research and taught undergraduate criminal justice for nearly a decade. I have been in several US embassies around the world on assignment for the State Department. I have taught in or attended many schools.

Embassy and Prison Safety

First, do we really want to turn schools and embassies into prisons? Prisons are expense to maintain, costing more per capita to incarcerate an inmate than we presently spend to educate students, at least at t he K-12 level. Second, few people realize that guards in prisons do not carry guns. The absolutely last thing you want a guard to do is carry a gun. There is no way armed guards could ever subdue a mob of prisoners. You would literally need such a high ratio of guards to prisoners that the current prison costs would fly through the roof. Prisons maintain security by keeping guns out, not bring them in. Perhaps we should learn from that.

Second, in a post-9/11 world the State Department has moved to redesign embassies to be more secure. They are more prison-like, but their size and populations compared to schools is very small. They are easier to defend but even then, there is no way we can protect them against a massive mob or attack unless we have a massive military presence at them. Again, an impossibility. Security for our embassies is provided by good diplomatic relations, cooperation with a host country, and ultimately, we close facilities if we do not believe them to be safe. Moreover, Congress, in its infinite wisdom last year. Dramatically cut back on the State Department budget for security. If Congress was unwilling to spend a few hundred million for embassy security, what makes the NRA think that Congress will come up with $21 billion for schools.

What is my point? We have a lot of research on how to promote safety and security and the answer is not more guns. Even on the streets we know that it is impossible to place an armed police officer on every street and that the reality is that this tactic does not prevent domestic in the home or other crimes that take place off the streets. Additionally, we know that a gun in the house is far more likely to be used against another member of the household than an intruder. We can cite more facts, but the reality is that more guns is hardly the solution to safety in most situations.

The NRA position is thus either a fantasy that the world is safer with the threat of shootouts or it is merely a shield for the gun industry. But it is not a viable plan for security. The NRA solution to everything is more guns. This is just like some arguing that tax cuts are the cure for everything. Tax cuts to help when the economy is doing well, or badly. One idea cannot be the same answer to every problem and the same is true with guns. There are no one size fits all answers.