Police officers like me are trained to consider the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario, and take measures to make the best-case scenario more likely — or at least to avoid the worst-case scenario. In mass shootings, and specifically school shootings, all scenarios are horrible. But at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., the best-case scenario would have been this: “More cops dead in exchange for fewer children dead.”
What an awful best-case scenario we have created for school shootings in America. In Uvalde, we didn’t even get it. We got the worst-case scenario: 19 elementary school children and two teachers shot to death while police officers were outside the classrooms waiting for a better-case scenario that never came.
Because this is America, there have been enough massacres that we have “best practices” for responding police officers at schools with an “active shooter” — someone who is actively shooting people as police are arriving or are already on the scene but not engaged with the shooter. We have had so many mass murders by guns in this country that it seems impossible to remember a time before our age of active shooters, but until 1999, the commonly accepted best practice for police responding to gunfire at a school was to contain the threat (keep the shooter from getting away and keep others from getting onto the scene) and engage in a dialogue to find out what the demands were. The massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 taught us that the demands of the active shooter are to kill as many people as possible. After that — after the murder of 12 high school students and one of their teachers — police training for active shooters shifted from “contain and wait” to “immediately engage,” using whatever officers were on the scene. Even if it was just one officer. Never again would police listen to gunshots inside a school while staging outside.
Because this is America, it did happen again. In 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., police officers waited outside while 14 students and three staff members were shot inside. Now there is Robb Elementary. In light of so many other active-shooter incidents at schools, the reports of police inaction and delay are inexplicable and — with the sound of children calling 911 to ask that the police outside come in to save them, and the sound of gunshots inside that classroom — inexcusable.
Because this is America, there have been dozens more school shootings since Columbine. Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children ages 6 and 7 and six staff members were killed in 2012, stands out both for the community’s unfathomable losses and the nation’s unfathomable response, which amounted to believing that more guns would reduce gun crimes.
As awful as Sandy Hook was, each school shooting is a worst-case scenario for a family, for a school, for a community.
We even have best practices for children and teachers and staff, all intended to achieve the worst best-case scenario our country can come up with: slightly fewer dead children. And we are failing even at that. These best practices are usually variations on “run, hide, fight”: At the first sound of gunshots, the first sound of their classmates or colleagues being murdered, children and adults should run to safety; if unable to run, they should hide until help comes — run and hide, that is, in school buildings traditionally designed to deter running and hiding; if unable to run or hide, students and staff should fight their attacker — and because this is America, that means fighting a person who has a semiautomatic pistol or rifle and a lot of bullets in high-capacity magazines.
A powerful and vocal minority of Americans continues to insist that more “good guys with guns” to fight the bad guys is the solution to school shootings, and that because the traditional “good guys with guns,” the police, didn’t do what they were trained and expected and sworn to do in Uvalde, we should expand the definition of “good guys” and arm teachers, and eventually everyone else.
As a police officer I know that more guns have never led to more safety, but rather the opposite. I’ve worked shootings where everyone involved had high-powered firearms — the ubiquitous semiautomatic rifles collectively referred to as “AR-style,” which individually have many names and many modifications but one purpose: killing as many people as quickly as possible. In none of these cases did having more guns make anything better; insane numbers of rounds were fired onto city streets and those bullets don’t care who was the intended target or the reason they were fired. I see these guns every day, and I see what these guns are doing to us all.
Shootings in crowded, confined spaces such as a school or a mall or a movie theater — or a hospital — are chaotic, and responding police officers may be just as likely to shoot another “good guy with a gun” as the suspect. Officers who are anticipating gunfire have enough difficulty handling these incidents, but expecting a teacher to stop her or his lessons, pull a firearm from God knows where and deal effectively with such a dynamic and dangerous situation? This is madness.
As a police officer, I also know that having more police doesn’t prevent shootings. I’ve worked shootings that happened within sight of dozens of officers. Young adults with anger management and impulse control problems are a parent’s challenge; young adults with anger management and impulse control problems and a Glock 19 pistol with an extended magazine are a nation’s shame. Anger issues among young adults aren’t an exclusively American problem; anger issues among young adults with a semiautomatic rifle and a drum magazine of ammunition are. Dealing with gun violence isn’t a uniquely American problem; dealing with gun violence by adding more and more guns is.
I can’t deny what I see every day as a police officer, and I can’t stay silent with what I learn every day as an American. We must reduce the number of guns on American streets. Debating whether to arm teachers or add more cops in schools will get us nowhere. We should have a national discussion about sensible gun safety measures, including restricting the access to and availability of weapons, ammunition and magazines that make it possible for someone to accurately fire 100 rounds or more in a few minutes. Because right now, before Uvalde and after Uvalde, our national best-case scenario is hoping that cops or perhaps teachers will run into a room and shoot a guy who is shooting children. That has never worked and it never will.