The Second Amendment is a remarkable piece of the Constitution. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” it reads.
Set aside for the moment questions about its practical interpretations today and its usefulness as a legal tenet—the provision presents a starkly revolutionary moral and political theory. Written by the powerful men in charge of the nation, the amendment expressly preserves the right of individuals to protect themselves against the future tyranny of the powerful men in charge of the nation. In fact, it enshrines this as a moral obligation, mixing into the very core of American civics the expectation that uncivil disobedience might be a necessary patriotic duty should the government cease to serve the people.
That amendment is again front and center today, as the country continues to grapple with serious questions about gun violence in the wake of the massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This particular incident seems to have shaken the public consciousness more than some previous shootings, and people on all sides of the political spectrum appear primed to at least consider solutions. Unfortunately for students, the solutions that appear to be gaining traction so far include further arming school police, arming students, and even giving schools drones. Not only is the efficacy of these measures dubious, they run counter to the ideals of the Second Amendment that are often invoked to justify them—extending the power of a militarized state at the expense of individual liberty.
President Trump has led the push for arming teachers for some time now. He has repeatedly attacked gun-free zones in schools, arguing at an October 2015 presidential debate that such spaces provide “target practice for the sickos and for the mentally ill.” He’s kept up that critique as president in the wake of the Parkland shooting. While attempting to clarify or correct news reports suggesting that he wanted to arm teachers, he tweeted about his desire to arm teachers, endorsing giving “concealed guns to gun adept teachers with military or special training experience - only the best.” He also tweeted that “a ‘gun free’ school is a magnet for bad people.”
But Trump is merely the vanguard in a deepening movement to arm educators in order to stop school shootings. Bills across the country have been proposed to allow concealed handguns in schools, some provisions already exist for postsecondary campuses, and there are initiatives to train teachers in the use of weapons. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in an interview last week that states “clearly have the opportunity and the option” to arm teachers. On Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre echoed that sentiment, saying, “we must immediately harden our schools.”
For many others, such “hardening” goes well beyond just arming teachers. In the Florida county where the Parkland massacre took place, the sheriff announced yesterday that police officers will be allowed to carry rifles on school grounds.
Many other districts are already well beyond “hardened.” Los Angeles school police procured grenade launchers, rifles, and an armored personnel carrier through a federal surplus program. Police in Compton, California, are allowed to wear AR-15 rifles, and a Colorado district began distributing them in 2016. There are now plenty school districts across America with armed school police officers, complete with metal detectors, body armor, and K-9 units. Even the patently outlandish suggestion of Newsmax host Wayne Root to provide schools with armed drones isn’t so far from reality. Schools already have drones, though not (yet) armed.
As Vox’s Jane Coaston argued, these suggestions mostly amount to security theater, and there is little data suggesting that armed school officials have a meaningful impact on student safety. Even metal detectors haven’t really helped reduce violence, and that’s against both the steady stream of more mundane events of gun violence that plague some schools and the annual massacres.
Logically, even as Trump seemed to acknowledge in his backtracking, the idea of arming teachers is suspect. The “good guy with a gun” theory underpinning the movement has never had any real credibility beyond a few choice anecdotes, and the training required to make armed teachers anything more than a liability would be onerous. Teachers already work long hours for relatively little pay, and many school districts have dismissed the idea as simply impractical.
But the movement for hardening isn’t just impractical or lacking in evidentiary support; it’s also a dystopian stroke of authoritarianism that runs deeply counter to the ideas embodied in the Constitution. Increasingly militarized school resource officers don’t just passively wait for mass shootings; they have daily encounters with students that appear to be increasing in frequency. Brutality is endemic. Mother Jones chronicled 28 serious student injuries and one death from 2010 to 2015 in such encounters. The brunt of those brutal incidents and arrests falls on black students, and high-profile incidents of officers kicking students, choking them, handcuffing third-graders, and slamming students to the ground are all too common.
While most teachers are fiercely dedicated to their students, steady reports of abuse from some teachers, as well as reports of racial slurs and racial bias, should be strong reasons to be skeptical of arming teachers. Especially in the often-fraught environments of under-resourced classrooms, it’s probably not a good idea to have anybody with a gun present.
More broadly, hardening proposals posit that the only way to keep kids safe is to raise them in police states, kept under guard by killer drones, assault rifles, and armed teachers. As Coaston writes, these setups will almost certainly tend towards gross violations of students’ First Amendment rights to speech and Fourth Amendment rights to privacy, and will do so along already-established lines of race and class. As a person who attended a school where violence by resource officers was a fact of life for low-income black students, I can offer at least anecdotal support for this argument.
But hardening proposals also exhibit a circular logic that runs deeply counter to the spirit of the Second Amendment. Again, that provision implies a duty to resist tyranny, in all the forms of military, surveillance, and governmental overreach that helped spark the revolution. Suggestions to create a police state in American schools, however, mirror other pro-authoritarian tendencies that run counter to this instinct. In the creation of the carceral state, in the expansion of drug laws, and in the extreme militarization of police in recent years, people have argued that placing more guns in the hands of authorities is the only way to keep people safe. But why would pro-Second Amendment enthusiasts be in favor of providing more firepower to the government?
One legal theory used to oppose the preferences of many defenders of the Second Amendment is based on the fact that the militarized American police state has advanced far beyond the ability of any possible well-regulated militia to stop it. But lost in that observation is the fact that Americans—many of them staunch gun-rights advocates—have pushed repeatedly to bolster the military and the creep of militarism into other civic arenas. They’ve then trapped the country in an arms race between government and civilians, one in which civilians face severe losses from both state and private violence. And now students, protected in schools by the most basic tenets of the social contract, find themselves in the line of fire.