The National Rifle Association's proposal to put armed guards in every single school in America was unimaginably tone-deaf, but it's not unimaginable. After a public outcry for security, we've had a massive nationwide effort to hire thousands of security agents for low wages relatively recently. You might know it as the Transportation Security Administration, which recruited 45,000 security screeners in response to Sept. 11. You know, the people who are supposed to prevent terrorists from boarding planes but are better known for making a lady drink her own breast milk to prove it wasn't explosive.
The NRA is essentially proposing hiring a workforce of security agents even larger than the TSA's screeners — there are roughly 99,000 schools in the country — and tasking them with monitoring every single person who passes through the halls. Except these agents will also have guns. "If it's crazy to call for putting police and armed security in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy," the NRA's Wayne LaPierre said on Meet the Press. Anyone with familiarity with government hiring practices might use that word.
Set aside the question of whether armed school guards would prevent tragedies like the Newtown shooting (Jeffrey Goldberg makes the case that armed civilians would make schools safer in The Atlantic; others point to the presence of an armed sheriff's deputy at Columbine). And set aside the cost (the NRA suggested it would cost only $2 billion to $3 billion a year; The Atlantic's Matt O'Brien estimated it would cost about $4 billion). Let's just focus on human resources. "A part of this solution will be the increased presence of trained, armed and professional security officers in schools," Asa Hutchinson, the former congressman pushing this idea for the NRA, wrote in an op-ed. O'Brien estimates the government would need to find about 65,000 guards (a third of schools already have some kind of security guards) to get an armed security officer in every school. Can you name a time when the government hired 65,000 trained, professional anyone, let alone armed security officers?
The closest comparison we can come up with is the TSA, which was the Bush administration's attempt to create a national security system to screen passengers for box cutters and other weapons terrorists could use to hijack or blow up planes. The TSA has had an unhappy life ever since. It has often had the highest employee turnover rate among all federal agencies, and last year had the greatest worker dissatisfaction with pay. The TSA's greater mission — keeping hijackers from completing a massive terror event — has been compromised by a focus on spotting banned items, as Kip Hawley, former head of the Transportation Security Administration, explained in The Wall Street Journal last year. Agents now have an "Easter egg hunt" mindset, and airport security is "a national embarrassment," Hawley said. The workers are unhappy too — the pat-downs have made them hated. They make a lot of mistakes — often because they're trying so hard. Over the holidays, TSA agents mistook 22-year-old Harry Potter actress Emma Watson for an unaccompanied minor. In 2009 agents confiscated a little boy's Pirates of the Caribbean toy gun and sword from Disney World. In July, agents swabbed a woman's post-surgery gastric tube coming out of her stomach for bomb-making material.
"The work life here is horrible," TSA agent Rick McCoy, who worked at O'Hare International Airport, told CNN in 2010 after agents were required to pat down people who didn't want to go through those creepy naked-simulating screeners. (It appears the same McCoy was fired in 2012.) Its employees weren't allowed to unionize until last fall; perhaps that will increase their happiness, but it will also likely increase the TSA's budget.
And yet TSA agents are actually handsomely paid compared to the people the NRA and some local politicians might hire to carry guns around children. "Nobody’s doing this job for money," an applicant to for a security guard program in a Pennsylvania school district told The Washington Post's Eli Saslow. Alas, we live in a capitalist society. People do jobs for money, and it's a general rule that greater competence and qualifications means a higher salary. But school districts do not have a lot of money to offer. Tennessee is hiring "security specialists" for $11.50 an hour. The Butler County school district in Pennsylvania, which the Post profiled, budgeted $230,000 to hire 22 ex-state troopers with 20 years of experience and who pass a 60-round shooting test. While the agents who screen you make between about $25,000 and $40,000 (according to the TSA's pay bands, the lowest-paid TSA employee makes $17,083), the Butler County guards will be making $10,455 a year, minus any adminstrative costs.
The NRA actually imagines even lower pay for armed school guards. They might not be paid at all. "The second point I want to make is that this will be a program that doesn't depend on massive funding from local authorities or the federal government. Instead, it'll make use of local volunteers serving in their own communities," Hutchison said during a December conference call.
Tens of thousands of armed guards will patrol schools, monitoring every single threat and every teenager in a puffy coat. When a crazy person is able to slip past an armed guard — as several have at airports — security measures will be changed to prevent whatever the last threat was from happening again, just like we all have to take our shoes off because of "shoe bomber" Richard Reed. Adult airplane passengers have learned to deal with this torture that, again, does not actually make us much safer. Do we want to do this to our kids?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.