Where Were the Police?

It appears that Uvalde’s law enforcement was unprepared for a mass shooting.

People running
Students run from Columbine High School in 1999 (MARK LEFFINGWELL / AFP / Getty)

My advice, if you are in an active-shooter situation, is the same no matter your age. Listen for the source of the shooting. Give yourself at most two seconds for this task. Those are not firecrackers. Then run as fast as you can in the other direction, and do not stop running until the only thing you hear is the sound of birds chirping, wind in the trees or grass, and the beating of your own heart. My advice differs only if you are responsible for others on the scene—in which case you need to get those other people to run away with you—or if you are an armed guard or cop, in which case you should run, too, but not away.

Videos emerging from Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, appear to show parents urging police to storm the school and free their children, who were inside the school with the killer. Their requests were, at the moment of the video, denied—even though these cops are well armed and not apparently engaged in any activity more strenuous than waiting in the parking lot. According to The Wall Street Journal, the police pepper-sprayed a dad outside the school and handcuffed a distraught mom when she tried to enter. She had driven 40 miles to get to the school. When they uncuffed her, she “jumped the school fence, and ran inside to grab her two children. She sprinted out of the school with them.”

These police are human beings, and they surely did not intend to loiter while a murderer finished his rounds. Perhaps they were following their training, or under orders. I doubt I could cast any aspersion on these cops more bitter than the ones they are subjecting themselves to, now that they know precisely what happened inside the school. In many situations like these, normal people are limited by their moral imaginations: Surely the events unfolding nearby can’t be that wicked! Maybe rushing toward the gunman will only make things worse. If the worst case you can imagine is the tragedy of one or two dead teachers, then you might not act with the urgency appropriate to a situation where the body count is higher by 20, and the bodies are all tiny.

What can we do about this? After the September 11 attacks, some of the wisest anti-terrorism counsel came from Bruce Schneier, profiled by Charles C. Mann in the September 2002 issue of The Atlantic. Schneier, a cryptographer and security engineer, stressed that the best countermeasures fail well. If your plan to stop skyjackings is to stop guns from getting through TSA checkpoints, then your plan sucks, because guns will eventually get through, and then what? If your plan is to get passengers used to the idea of fighting for their lives, that’s a good plan, because no matter what else happens, there will always be people on planes willing to tear hijackers apart like a pack of hyenas.

Senator Ted Cruz caught an enfilade of ridicule yesterday for suggesting that schools revisit their security by having only one door. The single point of entry could be monitored by an ace security squad, ready for all manner of threat. This demented proposal would fail very badly indeed, as soon as the guards nodded off, or were ambushed, or let a weapon slip by. Then the killer is in the school with his victims. Attempts to stop school shootings by confiscating the approximately 400 million guns in America fail the same macabre laugh test. Yes, it would be good to make guns harder to get, but it would be better, considering that we live in reality, to plan for the day (at the current rate, probably sometime next week) when a very bad person will get a gun and go berserk with it.

What would work better? It appears that Uvalde’s law enforcement was unprepared. (The September 11 comparison applies. In Uvalde, they seem to have expected a standoff, just as U.S. authorities had planned for all hijackings to end in negotiation or a one-way ticket to Cuba.) Police forces should probably train for a lightning response by the first officers on the scene, and announce in advance that the automatic reaction to events like this is not to wait a goddamn second before going in and trying to kill the shooter. No one hijacks planes anymore, because they know the instant response is the wrath of the passengers, who understand they will die if they don’t kill the hijacker first. Shooters should know they will have no time for hostage-taking, negotiation, or leisurely meandering through the hallways in search of victims.

Making guns harder to get would require politicians, in particular Republicans, to disobey the National Rifle Association and many of their own voters, who cherish their guns and in most cases use them responsibly. That disobedience might never happen. But no legislation is required to impose social costs on those specific gun sellers who are ultimately responsible for delivering the weapons into the killers’ hands. I would like the name of the killer in Uvalde to be forgotten, and the name of the gun dealer who sold him his guns to be known to everyone in America.

Resist the temptation to make bad choices about infrastructure. After events like this, schools and worried parents call for more locks and for fewer doors. In Uvalde, the locks seem to have kept the rescuers out and the killer in. Instead: fewer locks, and doors everywhere. Everyone should have a way out, as fast as possible. (Making schools less like prisons might have other benefits too.) And finally, you can’t count on anyone to be a hero, or to make the right call in a situation so horrifying that no imagination or training could have realistically simulated it. That is why you must teach your kids to run.