NOTE: I wrote the following essay in 2018 as part of a job application that didn’t pan out. As such, the news references are out of date, but I am publishing it here, without any changes, because the information and arguments are still useful to our continued debates about gun control and mass shootings.
Following Nikolas Cruz’s murder of seventeen people at Majority Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018, two diametrically opposed proposals emerged for how to prevent future school shootings. As usual, those on the Left called for stricter gun control laws, such as instituting universal background checks on firearm purchases, tightening regulations on the possession of AR-15s (the model of gun legally purchased by Cruz and used in the attack), and raising the legal age to purchase guns from 18 to 21.
But while President Donald Trump expressed openness to some of these ideas, what’s gotten the most attention is his proposal to arm at least some teachers. “Armed Educators” with annual training would serve as a “big & very inexpensive deterrent,” Trump argued on Twitter, not only because they could “immediately fire back if a savage sicko came to a school with bad intentions,” but because the knowledge that a school had armed responders on-site would discourage potential shooters from attempting in the first place.
Some schools in the United States already do arm certain teachers, and contrary to the mockery Trump has received from political opponents, he was not calling for all teachers to be given guns whether they wanted them or not, but simply for a voluntary armed presence on school grounds by qualified personnel. That being said, it may not be realistic to expect every school to have teachers willing to take on such a dangerous responsibility, and while advertising that schools are no longer gun-free zones would certainly dissuade some would-be shooters, those so far gone they don’t expect to walk out alive would remain a serious threat. So is there a better way?
It’s worth noting that this particular tragedy was not the result of insufficient laws, but of authorities at every level—local police, state children’s services, even the FBI—failing to heed ten years’ worth of warning signs from Cruz. That said, we obviously can’t count on all threats being preemptively identified (or even identifiable), so we need to explore our options for protecting students when our existing systems fail. And on that point, America could learn a great deal from Israel.
Despite living in far greater overall danger than the United States thanks to being surrounded by regimes that loathe her very existence, the Middle East’s sole Jewish democracy enjoys far greater school safety than America does. The Washington Post’s Ruth Eglash writes that school shootings are “virtually unheard of” in Israel, while the Jerusalem Post’s Linda Gradstein reported that as of October 2017, Israel had not seen a non-terrorism-related mass shooting of any kind since 2013. According to CBS News, even terrorists have only carried out six attacks on Israeli schools since 1974.
Yet Israel’s broader gun laws and culture do not fit neatly into either side’s narrative—on the one hand, Eglash notes that gun possession is heavily regulated, with civilians having to be at least 27 years old, demonstrate a need to be armed, and abide by limitations on types of guns and amounts of ammunition. 3.5 percent of Israelis own guns, as opposed to approximately a quarter of Americans. On the other hand, the sight of visibly armed soldiers routinely patrolling every street is such an obvious deterrent that it cannot be assumed those restrictions alone would produce the same results.
Most significantly, most Israeli teachers are not armed. So what’s their secret? According to Ministry of Education spokesman Amos Shavit, it’s simple: “Professionals deal with the security. Not the teachers.” Shavit says teachers who happen to possess gun permits are allowed to have their weapons in class if they choose, but Israel prefers to let them focus on teaching rather than encourage them to take on such an awesome secondary responsibility.
Instead, Israeli schools invest their time and money in comprehensive, rigorous security for school buildings, which starts with legally-mandated armed guards. CBS reports that prospective guards are subjected to rigorous background checks, mental evaluations, and intensive training. Moreover, once a guard is in, job security is by no means a given—he must be retrained every four months, and approximately 40% of guards actually fail these evaluations and have to re-apply all over again. In other words, children’s safety is treated like a full-time job, and receives all the time, attention, and demanding standards needed to do it right.
To minimize panic, students are also taught to take responsibility for their own preparedness in the event of an emergency. According to analysis by SOFREP, schools routinely have children—even as early as kindergarten—participate in practice drills for a wide variety of dangerous scenarios, such as earthquakes, rocket attacks, chemical/biological/ radiological/nuclear attacks, and other threats. This is part of a broader hallmark of Israeli culture necessitated by its geopolitical situation; Rod Ellis writes in Campus Safety Magazine that “determining who and what potentially constitutes a threat is taken very seriously by every Israeli citizen,” thanks to years of learning the hard way that rocket attacks or suicide bombings could come anywhere, anytime, and from anyone.
Each school also has its own subsurface shelter, which while intended primarily to guard against terrorist bombings, would also obviously come in handy if a shooter somehow made it onto the school grounds. That being said, getting onto school grounds without permission would be quite a feat. The building is fenced in on all sides, with the average school having just a single entrance gate (although some larger schools have more, and locked emergency gates are sometimes disguised as part of the fencing). Regardless of the number of gates, each is locked at all times, and each has an armed guard stationed at it. It’s also worth noting that parking lots are kept at a distance from school buildings, a precaution against car bombings.
These guards have a variety of powers and responsibilities, as defined by law. They are responsible for ensuring that the grounds are locked and secure at all times; ensuring that only authorized personnel make it inside; searching all entrants for dangerous objects (checking their bags, questioning them as needed, and sometimes employing hand-held metal detectors); verifying the identification and logging the personal details and vehicles of any foreign individual visiting the school; assisting school occupants as needed; and being informed of anything going on in the school’s immediate vicinity that could have security implications, which requires them to patrol the fences every hour and keep track of the surrounding traffic.
The job doesn’t stop at the school property line, either. Former combat soldiers escort students on all field trips, which all have a Plan B in the event of emergencies. These escorts normally include someone armed with an M2 or M16 carbine (and possibly a pistol as well), and even a qualified combat medic. While this particular arrangement probably sounds unimaginable to the average American, it’s a tragic necessity in Israel, where large groups of children on the roads present tantalizing targets to terrorists.
Campus Safety details another striking difference between America and Israel borne out of the same concern: the fact that Israeli schools don’t have school buses at all. Children walk, are driven by their parents, or use public transportation. In the latter case, kids can take some comfort in the fact that at least one armed Israeli Defense Force soldier is likely to be on the bus as well.
Campus Safety’s Ellis also recounts a conversation he had with an Israeli civilian, which put this in harrowing perspective. “When he had children in school during the height of the suicide bombings, he would make the three children ride to school in separate buses,” Ellis writes, because “mathematically at least, he could perhaps avert tragedy with one of his children.”
Shavit notes that because the police cooperate with municipal security units, “If there is an incident at a school they will be there in a minute or less.” On top of that, it’s worth reiterating the abundance of armed IDF soldiers all over Israel (as well as the possibility of armed reservists, whom Ellis notes comprise 80% of the country’s defense forces) who are in a position to assist in the event of a threat, and whose very presence surely acts as a deterrent against would-be shooters who aren’t willing to get themselves killed.
Ultimately, Israel’s solution differs from both conventional law enforcement and from Trump’s proposal in one key respect: it relies on people who can devote 100% of their time, effort, and attention to the sole purpose of protecting a school’s inhabitants. Guards can be counted on to proactively identify and neutralize potential threats because they don’t have other cases to investigate or areas to protect like police do, and because they are not teachers—who already have a full-time responsibility demanding their attention—being retrofitted with new training for an additional, and no less demanding, responsibility.
Obviously, not all of these tactics would be applicable to American schools. School shootings are a serious threat, but they are a far cry from Israel’s situation, where the trained use of military-grade weapons could inflict mass civilian casualties at any time. But while we need not emulate the lengths to which terrorism has forced Israel to go, the United States could stand to learn a great deal from her about emergency preparation, school security, and taking proactive measures to identify potential threats. At the very least, we should be able to agree that dedicated armed guards are long overdue.
Incredibly, while one might expect armed security professionals to be far more palatable than arming teachers, some liberals oppose the idea just as bitterly. Writing in the Guardian, Chicago teacher Ashley Lauren Samsa frets that armed guards would “add to a culture where guns are commonplace” and make schools “feel like prisons” (one wonders if Ms. Samsa thinks of prisons when entering banks, museums, or government office buildings). Unsurprisingly, most Americans disagree—a March 2018 Quinnipiac poll finds that 82% of the public supports putting armed security guards in schools. Full-time security guards would undoubtedly be expensive, but most voters would likely see it as a far better use of their tax dollars than the average referendum they’re asked to approve.
Allowing qualified teachers to be armed would help, but it’s no substitute for bringing in dedicated guards—a common-sense solution that would leave Americans’ Second Amendment rights untouched, create no new risks, impose no new burdens on existing school staff, and give parents and children some long-overdue peace of mind. Now the only question that remains is whether gun control advocates still believe anything that can “save even one life from gun violence” is worth doing if the rights of law-abiding gun owners aren’t abridged in the process.