The mainstream narrative on the shooting at the Florida school shooting has been reduced to absurdity. It comes down to the claim that people have too much access to weapons in the United States, and this is due to the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association, which pays off politicians with money donated by gun manufacturers. Believing that this message is starting to stick, and fearing a consumer backlash, many large companies (United, Delta, Enterprise, and TrueCar) have pulled out of deals they had with the NRA. A casual observer would come to believe that NRA is directly responsible for the murder of the school kids.
It’s hard to know where to begin showing where this narrative goes wrong. It might as well be structured to evade all the real issues. Contrary to what many commentaries are implying, it is not enough merely to be outraged to cause one’s brain to generate correct solutions to the problem of school violence. You have actually to look at facts.
Failure of Public Authority
As it turns out, the shooting is the perfect illustration of the failure of public authority and law enforcement. What’s more, this scenario is an ever-more predictable feature of these kinds of calamities. Last year in the Las Vegas shooting, as details gradually unfolded, what we discovered were police and public security authorities extremely cautious about their own safety at the expense of the lives of those they are expected to protect. The situation in Florida is proving to be eerily similar.
As it turns out, more than a week after the shooting, we are now getting reports of what really happened. Fully four sheriff deputies waited outside the school while the shooting was going on, refusing even to go inside. They had been tasked with protecting the school, counter any violence that might appear within this “gun-free zone.” What happened instead is deeply disturbing. Instead of protecting the kids, they protected themselves. Their level of caution for their own safety created astonishing confusion.
Many emergency medical workers had no idea where the suspect was for at least 30 minutes after the gunfire erupted, and the authorities struggled to identify him for another 15 minutes…. For as long as 45 minutes after the shooting stopped, some students were still cowering behind locked doors, unsure if the person banging on their door was a police officer or the gunman, according to students.
Donald Trump has been a champion of “first responders” and the police generally. But this was just too much for him. Referring to one deputy who refused to act, and has since resigned his job, Trump said: “He trained his whole life. When it came time to get in there and do something, he didn’t have the courage or something happened, but he certainly did a poor job.”
The Problem of Training
What’s especially troubling about this behavior is that it doesn’t appear to be too much of an anomaly. Many security professionals in public institutions are trained to protect their own interests in such cases, and most anyone with experience with violent situations such as this can tell you. That’s not to say that there are not heroic and brave cops, men and women who risk their lives to keep us safe. The problem is that the tendency to hide and pass the buck is very common, and baked into the training they all receive from the first day to the last. As one excellent account of this problem summarizes: “An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift.”
Saw Something, Said Something
And that’s only the beginning of the problems. Local and federal authorities had been contacted many times about the shooter. He was a known problem. He had been threatening others, accumulated weapons that he posted on his own Instagram account, behaving in scary ways. Citizens saw something and said something, as the airport posters tell us to do. “I know he’s going to explode,” a woman told the FBI tip line. He might resort to slipping “into a school and just shooting the place up.” Another caller to 911 said, “He could be a school shooter in the making.” Even the shooter called the authorities to give what amounted to a warning about himself.
You look through this sequence of events, and it seems impossible to imagine conditions that would have been more perfect to allow law enforcement to do a great job in protecting the students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It was the perfect setup to illustrate why government should not be given monopoly control over weaponry and security services. The actual result is an astonishing failure at every level. This goes far beyond incompetence. It reveals pervasive and systematic loss of even basic functioning of the core functions of government.
And yet, even after all this news has poured in, what do we hear hour by hour on the mainstream news? We hear that the NRA – the main job of which is precisely to train people in gun use and safety so that we can live in a less violent society in which people like this school shooter cannot destroy lives – is the real problem. This messaging suggests a crazy mixed-up worldview that denies the incredibly obvious and puts blame for the problem on the actual solution.
Forced to Be There
As we listen to the student survivors from that bloody day, we hear expressions of this mixed-up worldview, which is entirely understandable. Recall two things about their lives as you hear them speak.
First, they are forced to be in school, thanks to compulsory schooling laws that consider a kid to be criminally truant for failing to show up. This compulsory approach has been around for more than a century and is so unquestioned that there isn’t so much as the smallest effort to repeal these laws. Last year, an Arizona lawmaker made the case for repeal and was immediately subjected to a national grilling by the media for daring to question a central tenet of the American civic religion.
Second, the status of gun-free zones, a part of federal law since 1990, works like an advertisement to any violent criminal: no one in this place will challenge you. Just imagine if you had a law mandating gun-free banks or gun-free jewelry stores or gun-free convenience stores. Do you think that you would see an increase or decrease in robberies in these institutions? This should not be so difficult to understand and yet lawmakers seem often incapable of thinking through any second-level effects of their well-intentioned plans.
Now we come to the issue of arming teachers. Is this the right way to secure schools? Many teachers are alarmed at the prospect. Some might want to be armed but this is not their vocation. Why should teachers and students be in settings where the threat of violence is so intense that one must always walk around with a weapon? I wouldn’t want to live in an apartment complex like that; surely we don’t want our kids to be forced to attend schools where the threat of violent death is so pervasive. The pushback from students and teachers is completely understandable.
If not armed teachers, if not gun-free zones, if not gun bans, if not granting to the government an exclusive domain for security and the threat of violence, what is the answer? The least satisfying answer is actually the right one: we do not know precisely how to secure schools. We – “we” as in intellectuals, pundits, or society in general – do not know how to secure banks, jewelry stores, shopping malls, or casinos. How can we find out? By devolving that responsibility to institutions themselves, you allow the emergence of security solutions that are adaptive to the particular conditions of time and place.
In Vegas casinos, for example, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every institution. There are cameras, private police, monitoring stations, careful vetting of patrons, undercover cops, and so on. The remarkable aspect of this is that all of this is present even as the casino tries to maintain an atmosphere of fun, decadence, and carefree abandon. As anyone who has been there can tell you, the whole thing works. It doesn’t feel like a police state. It feels like a party. In this case, the market for security truly works.
The key here is to reject the central-planning model for security provision. We need what Edward Stringham calls “private governance,” which is to say to allow market signaling and individual decision making to reveal the best model to us, and also allow that market to be constantly adaptable to new conditions, threats, risks, and scenarios. Centrally planned security doesn’t work any better than centrally planned housing, groceries, healthcare, or technology. The rule here is freedom. It is always a better solution than top-down rule.