In Whose Hands The Guns Belong
It’s unfortunate, though not at all infrequent to witness a man—one in whom a grave responsibility is vested and ensured—fail to act in accordance with what’s expected of him. Far too often, when the stakes raise to an adequate pitch, a man of even the soundest constitution will fold. This is the sad and professedly anticlimactic truth as it pertains to man. He simply, meekly, and un-heroically will fold.
He’ll fold under the pressure or he’ll rescind into himself. He’ll duck for cover or turn his back and flee. Cataleptic or inert, slack-jawed or scared, he’ll lose his virtue and freeze. The very crisis for which he was trained to stare down with otherworldly aplomb, the very situation in which he was destined to intervene, will have come and it will have gone. It will have ended before he’d even grasped the thought that it could’ve even begun. Before his eye, in the blink of an eye, it will have changed from crisis, to emergency, to calamity, to fait accompli and he will have done nothing.
Faced with death, or the near certainty of it, the average man responds in this way. We aren’t by nature William Wallaces or Genghis Khans. There are few Alexanders or Joans of Arc among us. We haven’t their divinely-inspired intrepidity or their supernatural valor. We, as normal humans—born not of gods but of flesh and reared not in heavenly furnaces—lack the cool, poised, and readied response in the face of danger that those past pagan and Christian heroes had. Studies of human psychology have proven, often with a dispiriting tone, that this is the sober truth.
In moments of tumult and strife and in chaotic situations, by most objective measures, humans respond poorly. If thrust into a situation of any degree of peril—be it simulated or otherwise—in which there is danger confronting us on every side and the costs of our inaction is severe, our performances fall well short of the heights to which we see ourselves (in more quiescent moments of reflection) soaring. Spanning the continuum, our responses are, at best, inefficient and, at worst, inept. One’s ego, to be sure, bristles at the sheer consideration of this empirical fact. We like very much to think ourselves uniquely capable of handling every situation—the most dangerous of them most of all. It sobers us to admit this, but this self-ascribed heroic quality simply isn’t the human case.
The best data we have for measuring humans and their responses during moments of peril come from law enforcement officials and the standards to which they’re held. Many studies have been conducted to measure, in the midst of imminent danger, just how quickly and how accurately police officers can respond. Mind you, ablest among us, police officers are the intrepid men and women upon whom we rely for our peaceful, civil existence. Their presence is usually subtle, yet their importance should never be understated. They are, in many ways and in many places, the division between civility and anarchy, between civilization and its malcontents. We often expect them to be what are at times incompatible things: first responders, stone-cold killers, immigration officials, best friends, criminologists, school psychologists, aggressors, educators, and negotiators. We forget that although they’ve chosen this demanding and at times insurmountable profession, they’re fundamentally human. Nevertheless, they’re expected to respond to crises with a sense of equanimity and sang-froid with which an ordinary person never could.
It’s unnerving for that reason to learn that no matter how punctiliously and continuously trained they may be, their responses during simulated active-shooter events reflect those of a mere mortal, if not of a completely average joe. It’s been recorded that, during simulations in controlled environments at shooting ranges, police officers have a “hit ratio” (or, a percentage of shots fired to those that reach their intended mark) of 20%. The figure isn’t staggeringly low, but it is disquietingly beneath expectations. It means that, for every five shots released, only one will find its target. And one mustn’t forget, this statistic comes as the result of many trials in which external conditions were controlled. In the field, as if it needs to be said, the situation becomes drastically different. Accuracy has a tendency to plummet as soon as one’s adrenaline begins kicking in. The two have on each other a most inopportune inverse relationship. The more chaotic and unsettled the environment, the further the hit-ratio is expected to drop. He who’s enmeshed in so unenvious a setting is expected to see his accuracy flee. To this unavoidable physiological response, few are immune.
The consequences can be severe. In the case of a developing mass shooting event—one that’s taking place in a highly concentrated area with many people scurrying to and fro—the officer is beset with chaos not only from within but from without. He must collect his dizzying thoughts and coordinate his plan. He must, in an instant, master his emotions and quickly suppress or sublimate his evolutionary urge for self-preservation. Only then can he face the external world and contend with its baleful threats. He can trust in his training, and as no other option avails him, he necessarily must, but it might at this time be worth remembering that “hit ratio” that’s so low. It was 20% under controlled circumstances, and although he’s a trained professional, he can’t very well be expected to perform better than this.
It’s in light of this all-too-real thought experiment, and against this statistical backdrop, that I find the recent and swelling call to arm school teachers ill-founded, potentially dangerous, and unpersuasive. If the best-trained civil servants (namely, those valiant police and school resource officers) fail more times than not to hit their marks, how can we expect teachers to do much better? So far as they are able, police officers clock in and out of work each day laden with the frank recognition that they might have to use deadly force—maybe, but hopefully not, in the way outlined above. There’s nothing romantic about this reality. It can be a ponderous responsibility, a dour cloud under which they walk for ten, twelve, or twenty-four hours each day. Even with this moribund knowledge, and with a properly adjusted mentality and approach to the job’s fearful demands, their ability to fell assailants is, at most, 20%.
To have this burden shared by the teacher, whose first and only focus should be on how better to educate, civilize, and edify an incoming class and a blossoming generation, would be an astounding mistake. The teacher’s plate is quite full as it is; he or she needn’t be weighed down with this immense responsibility of safeguarding or taking life or of confronting or evading a murderous, nameless, terroristic foe. Few in society should be—as said, only those who don on their breast a badge and carry on their hip a gun qualify for so large a task.
Imagine, if you dare to, how an ordinary teacher—one who is less well-trained, less frequently trained, less mentally prepared, and less inclined by dint of profession to kill—would fare if confronted by a mass killer. Imagine the unimaginable—the sanguinary scene of a school corridor in which an endless and shrill fire alarm is desperately shouting, in which vivisected arteries spew blood, in which students and faculty are strewn frantically all around, in which sounds of an AR-15 pop and bellow and you can’t locate their source, in which the thick smoke dissolving from its distant muzzle is visible but not sufficiently distinct for you to volley a return. What teacher could be expected to pull from the grip of death this unsalvageable scene? I think none.
To inculcate and to educate the dearly valuable and apparently vulnerable student is the teacher’s role, and should be his or her only responsibility. To protect those housed within our once inviolable institutions of learning, of burgeoning and efflorescence, is that of the law enforcement officer. It might at times be an unenviable job, but it is essentially his and his alone. It isn’t for our teachers to pull the triggers that belong not in their hands. The job is that of the officer, and all of our lives, and all of those of our students depend on him.