Whenever a mass shooting like the one in Connecticut occurs, there’s always a group of Americans who argue that the tragedy could have been prevented if someone besides the shooter had been armed.
It’s a flawed argument. Even if an employee at the elementary school had had a gun – a teacher, for example – Adam Lanza had more and better weapons, was protected by body armor and was ready to die rather than surrender.
It’s certainly possible an armed teacher, in the right place at the right time, could have stopped Lanza. But that sort of Hollywood ending isn’t likely. Shootouts are almost always messy, even when professionals, such as police officers, are involved.
And what would the teacher have done if the shooter had taken hostages? It’s one thing to know how to fire a gun. But dealing with hostages is a different situation. That’s why police have negotiators specially trained to manage these crises.
We need to find a way to stop these shootings, because the figures are alarming. In 2009 alone, 31,347 people were killed by firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s about 86 deaths a day. During the entire 11-year Vietnam War, 58,220 U.S. soldiers were killed.
But the statistics on gun violence have been alarming for decades, and that hasn’t led to stricter gun-control legislation. Instead, U.S. leaders continue to focus on the threats beyond its borders.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, I, like many other Americans, believed extremist groups from the Middle East would launch further attacks against our country. We were led to believe that every town, no matter how small, could be targeted. So while security checks at airports in Washington and New York were beefed up, so were the barriers and fences surrounding major dams in rural Tennessee and power plants in western Kentucky.
Our small towns are vulnerable, but as the shooting in Connecticut shows, the killer is likelier to come from next door, from a family we all know respect and see at church on Sundays or at the local grocery store.
That was the case in December 1997, when 14-year-old Michael Carneal brought a .22-caliber pistol to Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, and opened fire on a group of students praying in the lobby. Three students were killed and five were injured.
Carneal surrendered after the shootings, and he was sentenced to life in prison. In 2007, on the 10th anniversary of the shooting, I traveled to Paducah to talk with some of the people who knew Carneal.
“I don’t necessarily want to know why he did what he did because I don’t know if he himself knows why he did what he did,” said Nathaniel Hantle, who lived near Carneal and went to school with him at Heath. “I think that’s one question that might never be answered.”
After the shooting, the school added video surveillance cameras, built a chain-link fence around the campus and checked students’ backpacks before they entered – measures to improve security but also make “society feel better,” a teacher at the school said.
Arming teachers with guns was never discussed.