A Pragmatic Argument In Favor Of Letting Teachers Be Armed
Updated: May 26
This is part two of a five-part article series discussing the gun control debate. You can read article one here. This article was originally written in 2018, but has been updated in 2022.
This article is intended to make a logic driven argument, supported by evidence, that teachers, faculty and administrators should be allowed to take individual accountability for their safety, and the safety of those in their classrooms. The reality is, short of dispatching with evil, there is no good solution to this problem. There are two terms often used when discussing mass shootings, “stop” and “prevent”. Those terms are not synonymous in this context. Prevention of mass shootings is a social science discussion that involves a potentially infinite number of variables. I am not speaking on that topic here. Stopping mass shootings, however, entails a discussion of how to quickly and decisively end a violent attack once it has commenced, a much more reactive analysis. In that regard I am qualified to speak, and that is the only topic discussed in this article.
I am a college professor. I am a parent of small children who I drop off at school daily. I have hundreds of other people’s children in my college classes each semester. I care a great deal about my students. I understand this issue, much more than most. I am also a firearm instructor and armed security guard instructor, who has spent the last fifteen years running one of the largest civilian firearm training companies in America. I have personally designed firearm training curricula that has been used to instruct over 400,000 people in nearly 40 states. I have published several books on firearm law and policy that have sold over 50,000 copies, and serve as an expert witness in firearm related litigation.
I understand many others, roughly half of our country, feel differently than I do about this issue. Cognitive bias and confirmation bias are real. We all want to hear viewpoints that agree with us, and that includes me. Einstein, while pondering why people think the way they do, noted that people find difficulty understanding new concepts “when an experience comes into conflict with a world of concepts already sufficiently fixed within us.” My hope in this article is to address this issue, which affects us all, in a way that invokes a pensive discussion and sparks a desire to look outside the status quo world of concepts.
Synopsis: Training a relatively small percentage of teachers to obtain a variety of skills, including first aid, tactical firearm skills, and threat assessment, in the same manner armed security, law enforcement and airline pilots are currently trained, would be a cost effective and practical step to curb mass shootings in american schools.
The right to self-preservation, that is the right to defend oneself from violent attack, is the most fundamental right any human being has. In comparison to the right to self-preservation, all other rights must logically be placed in subordination. After all, if your life may be taken from you then what good is a right to vote, or a right to speak, or a right to marry? As with all fundamental rights, the right to self-preservation is also an individual right. The individual right status means, just as I cannot be compelled to forfeit my right to vote to the government to vote in my stead, or my right to speak to the government to speak in my stead, I should not be compelled to outsource my individual right to personal protection to the government. I can, of course, voluntarily choose to forfeit any of my rights, but I should not be compelled to do so. Like all rights, however, my right to self-preservation is not limitless. There are reasonable, limited, restraints placed on all constitutional rights. The oft cited yelling fire in a theater, for example, is not protected by the First Amendment. My wife and I have the right to procreate without the government interfering, but I can’t do it on a public sidewalk. Knowing this, educators (like myself) should be entitled to one of two things. Either:
Our schools should be secured in a manner reasonably calculated to ensure no one with a firearm/weapon may enter (like our airports); or
A system should be established to enable faculty, staff and administrators who possess the proper certifications and training to carry firearms at their place of employment.
Anything less than the above is a violation of the fundamental rights of those who work in education. You cannot strip millions of Americans of their right to defend themselves, and provide no alternative to ensure their safety. Such a course is illogical. Such a course violates the most basic of civil rights. Such a course is destined to see a continuation of the destruction we are currently seeing.
The Cost & Practicality of Security Screening:
Security screenings, like those in post 9-11 airports are staggeringly expensive. Costing roughly 8 billion dollars annually, and failing to detect threats roughly 95% of the time, one can question the viability or efficacy of rolling out a similar program for our schools. With nearly twenty times more public schools in America than airports, and with education spending a constant political issue, we can assume an expenditure of $160 billion to install airport style security in our schools is not something we will see. Simple magnetometers and lock down protocols, such as those commonly used by courthouses and sports arenas are a much more cost-effective alternative. However, given the nature of most school campuses (including colleges) where students are routinely leaving buildings and reentering buildings in a rush to get to their next class, the practicality of a metal detector search across all schools is dubious. It could certainly be installed in many schools, likely with great deterrent effect, but it is not a practical solution across the board (including at the institution where I teach).
The Cost & Practicality of Allowing Armed Educators:
The Washington Post analyzed the cost of training and arming educators, estimating the cost of doing so with 20% of our educators (or 718,000 individuals) at between $718 million to $1 billion. That number assumes that there would not be a centralized training system for all educators, at a central location, like we have for our airline pilots (discussed more below). It also assumes that all of these educators would need to be trained from a starting point of zero, something that is unlikely and also discussed below. However, assuming the cost estimates are true, as outlined below, training and arming educators is still a significantly cheaper and more practical option to stop (not necessarily prevent) school shootings than airport style security screening.
In 2018 there are 3,160,000 public school teachers in primary and secondary schools, and 1.5 million college professors, resulting in an estimated 4.7 million educators at public institutions. This number does not include any support staff, administration and other employees of these institutions, which would likely triple or quadruple that number. One can logically assume that educator pool of 4.7 million is comprised of a very diverse group of individuals, with a wide array of backgrounds and skills. One thing all of them have in common, however, is a disproportionally clean criminal background. It is impossible to accurately estimate how many of these individuals would be of the nature qualified, and willing, to carry a firearm safely and efficiently. We can assume many of those with past military and law enforcement experience would have sufficiently demonstrated that capability. The number of former military and law enforcement working in education is not tracked, but it is safe to assume a not-insignificant number of them work in education (some studies show a fourfold increase in vets working in education in recent years). In addition to military and law enforcement, of course, you also have a large demographic of educators who possess significant skills and training in firearms, but have never been in the military or law enforcement. I, for example, have been a firearm instructor for over a decade, and an armed security guard instructor, and have either taught or been a student in well over 3,000 hours of formal firearm training courses. To put that into perspective, it takes roughly 700 hours of training to become a police officer. I have had hundreds of current and former police officers come to my courses to further their training (which is admirable and humbling). I do not classify myself as a tactical expert, and certainly not a “gun fighter”, but my training and sound skill set with a firearm is not something that can be easily disregarded. None of the other college professors in my department know of my background, and my situation can be logically extended to a large number of other individuals working in education. Given that, it is difficult to estimate the total number of educators who might possess the skills and training necessary to act as sentries at our schools. To assume there are not a significant number of them, however, is irrational.
The Airline Pilot Analogy:
NBC News recently published a piece on President Trump’s proposal to arm teachers. The report was entirely devoid of contrasting opinions, and featured the following commentary by Dr. David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard School of Public Health:
“It’s a crazy proposal.” Chuckling, he added, “So what should we do about reducing airline hijacking? Give all the passengers guns as they walk on?” (source)
What the apparently blissfully amused Dr. Hemenway fails to identify, however, is that we did almost that exact thing after 9-11, and we haven’t had a hijacking since. No, we didn’t “[g]ive all the passengers guns”, instead we instituted a volunteer training program for our pilots and created a pathway for them to carry firearms on planes so long as they demonstrated sufficient skill and safety, as well as passed the amplified background checks.
Throughout most of American history Airline pilots have always been allowed to carry firearms on planes, except for a brief period between 1988-2002, during which time security of airports became more centralized and firearm regulations on planes more rigorous and, related or not to this policy, the 9-11 attack occurred. In 2002, in response to 9-11, Congress reauthorized (formally this time) pilots to carry firearms and allocated up to 900 million to train up to 85,000 volunteer airline pilots at a facility in Artesia, New Mexico (roughly $10,500 per pilot). To date, roughly 13,800 pilots are estimated to have completed the six-day training and are currently carrying firearms. That is roughly 10% of the overall pilot population. It is notable that airline pilots are required to travel to the training at their own cost, and take the time off work without pay (foregoing upwards of $2,000 in pay). This willingness to make this sacrifice represents an unanticipated desire by pilots to provide for their own safety, as well as that of the passengers.
It is not difficult, even for the most biased mind, to draw an analogy between our teachers and our pilots. Both are put in charge of groups of people (ranging in number from 30-200) for a number of hours each day. Both are subject to pre-hire background checks and must demonstrate a sound psychological mindset. Both are charged with dealing with unruly individuals in their sphere, and both are given broad discretion on how to deal with high stress situations. Pilots are the metaphorical teachers of the sky. No, it is not an exact analogy, but it is not far off. By all accounts the armed airline pilot program has been a success. No, a pilot has not had to use their weapon to stop a hijacker yet, but that is precisely the point. Avoiding and deterring a violent attack is the best way to defeat an attacker. Knowing this, why could the process used to train airline pilots not be adapted, expanded, and rolled out to our educators? It has certainly worked flawlessly in Utah schools.
The Utah Case Study:
Many engaged in this debate would be surprised to learn that we have at least 18 years (and as many as 30 years) of empirical data we can study to find out what would happen if educators were allowed to possess guns in schools. During its 2004 General Session, the Utah Legislature passed Utah Code section 63–98–102, a statute prohibiting state and local entities from enacting or enforcing any ordinance, regulation, rule, or policy that in “any way inhibits or restricts the possession or use of firearms on either public or private property.” This law change explicitly prohibited public schools from preventing anyone with a Utah concealed firearm permit from carrying a firearm, in any manner, onto any public school property (kindergarten through college). Since that time thousands of educators, staff and even legal-age college students have carried their firearms onto Utah schools daily. At least 288,542 Utah residents have concealed firearm permits (or roughly 19% of the adult population). There are 175,000 college students in Utah, and another 60,000 college faculty and staff, resulting in roughly 235,000 adults on Utah public college campuses each day. Carrying those numbers forward, and recognizing this is not an exact calculation, it is logical to assume as many as 44,650 people on Utah college campuses are licensed to carry firearms every day. That is not an insignificant number, and it says nothing for the number of faculty and staff carrying in Utah elementary and secondary schools. Despite that very high number, and knowing this has been the case for at least 14 years, Utah college campuses have seen zero shootings in that time period. Wow! How can this possibly be ignored? In a national debate where this exact topic is being discussed, how can anyone with intellectual integrity disregard 18 years of empirical data on the exact subject they are debating? If cognitive bias were a band of gorillas, ignoring this is King Kong beating his chest on top of the Empire State Building.
The doomsday projections of what would happen if we allowed educators (and even college students) to carry firearms must, if they are to be intellectually honest, acknowledge that they have come to fruition not once in Utah during the past 18 years of real-world experimentation. Like Utah, several other states including Colorado (and more recently Texas) have seen similar non-doomsday results of allowing firearms on school campuses.
That’s not to say Utah has not had a mass shooting, it’s just the shooter selected a small mall, and not a school, for his target. The reason why the shooter made this decision, however, is worth discussing. On February 12, 2007, a lone terrorist entered Trolley Square Mall with a pump action shotgun and a .38 special revolver (two firearms that do not fit the traditional gun-control narrative). After killing five victims the shooter was engaged by an off-duty police officer in plain clothes named Ken Hammond. Ken exchanged gunfire with the shooter, not striking him, but drawing his attention away to give others the chance to retreat. The total duration of the shooting lasted 6 minutes. It is key to this discussion, however, to note that the University of Utah is less than 3 miles from Trolley Square Mall. I was one of the 32,000 students attending the University of Utah that day, it was a Monday. Trolley Square Mall is a very small mall, comparative to other malls in Salt Lake. Why would the shooter not have chosen the University of Utah campus or the much larger Gateway Mall for his target? We will never know his true motive, but it is worth noting that unlike the University of Utah and the larger malls in the area, Trolley Square Mall had a large sign posted at each entrance prohibiting firearms on the property (click here to see the sign). A news broadcast that night featured a witness who stated something to the effect, “I saw the shooter. I looked for something to throw at him, but all I could find was a stool.” It could very well be mere chance that the shooter happened to choose the one high traffic location in Salt Lake City where firearms were overtly prohibited without any security, but it could also be very much correlated.
The Uvalde, Texas School Shooting
At the time I am updating this article, another tragic shooting has taken place in Uvalde, Texas. The shooter, an 18 year old who I am intentionally not naming, appears to have legally purchased the firearm he used from a federally licensed dealer. This means he would have been subjected to, and passed, the FBI background check required for all sales made by licensed dealers (called a NICS check). He appears to have had a clean criminal background prior to the incident. It is difficult to imagine what laws would have served as a deterrent to an individual who was willing to shoot his own grandmother, and take the lives of nearly two dozen innocent children.
It is worth noting, however, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District policy prohibiting school faculty and staff from possessing firearms on school premises, even if they have a permit to do so:
Based on the information that has been released, the shooter in this incident barricaded himself in a single classroom. It is unclear how he gained entry into to the school, as it is being reported the school did have electronic access controls in place at the time. As discussed previously, however, it is often impracticable to control all access points of a school throughout a day. I also do not know if the two teachers who lost their lives in the barricaded classroom would have otherwise carried a firearm without the school district policy prohibiting it. It is, however, difficult to imagine how the situation would have been made worse had an armed staff member been in the room that day.
The Propagandizing of Data:
One of the difficulties in having a productive discussion on this topic, is the proclivity people have to propagandize data in an inauthentic manner. For example, the below statistic has gone viral in the wake of the Uvalde shooting:
On the surface, that statistic certainly seems jarring. It is not, however, accurate by any stretch. The 212 mass shootings number comes from a group called the Gun Violence Archive. According to the New York Times:
The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization, counted at least 213 such shootings, defined as one in which four or more people were killed or injured, through mid-May. Of those shootings, 10 involved four or more fatalities.
Loosely defining the term "mass shooting" to include events where four or more people are injured (not killed), and including hearing loss in the definition of "injured" is not how the average American would define mass shooting. The RAND Corporation has illustrated how the disparity in defining this term has lead to significant public misconception of the true data. Yes, these incidents are tragedies and even one occurrence is too many, but no, there have not been 212 of these incidents in 2022. Far from 212, there have been 10 incidents involving four or more fatalities thus far in 2022.
The root causes of crime are multivariate, and thus diagnosing them requires a multivariate analysis. It is difficult, if not impossible, to draw a straight line between a state's firearm laws and violent crime rates. Amongst the top ten safest states in 2021 (2022 data still hasn't been compiled) 60% of them are constitutional carry states. In these states an individual can carry a firearm in public without a permit, background check, or training. Below are the top 10 safest states, based on violent crime rates. Constitutional carry states are bolded and underlined.
Rand Research has compiled most of the peer reviewed studies on the effect loosened carry laws have on crime and concluded there is no direct link to increases nor decreases. Modern murder rates in the United States peaked in 1991 at 9.8 per 100,000. Today the rate is around 4.5 per 100,000 (a ~55% decrease). During that same period laws regulating the carry of firearms have loosened significantly. Anyone who makes the claim that stricter gun control laws have been proven to decrease violent crime is either misinformed or intentionally misstating the data. I have prepared an infographic of some of the noteworthy data points related to this discussion:
If we are going to discuss this issue in a way reasonably calculated to find solutions, we must accurately assess the data. The issue of data reporting and interpretation will be more fully discussed in a separate article.
Call to Action: The following steps should be implemented immediately to mitigate the risk of further harm:
Perform a professional security assessment of American schools. Determine which schools would be good candidates for magnetometer searches and security screenings.
Establish magnetometers, electronic access control locks, and security screenings at schools where the logistics of the buildings allow doing so.
Immediately establish a robust training and mental health screening process to certify educators and staff to carry firearms on school campuses where security screenings are not an option, in a similar way airline pilots are currently trained.
Study the commonalities of these incidents, including the correlation, if any, of the common social factors these shooters hold. What prescription medications are they on, what their social status is, what are their familial relationships? This data should not be used to restrict the rights of others similarly situated, only to concentrate positive resources (access to counseling, mentors, etc.) on the most at risk demographics.
Implement any and all other reasonably calculated societal changes needed to curb the mental health crises and make our children safer, so long as those changes respect the inalienable fundamental rights of the citizens.
Conclusion: Based on the foregoing, allowing a small demographic of trained and voluntary participants to carry firearms during the regular course of employment is the most cost-effective and practical solution to respond to an active school shooting.
Phillip Nelsen is an attorney, college professor, author, entrepreneur, firearm instructor, father and husband. You can contact Phil through his website www.philnelsen.com
 D.C. v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 582, 128 S. Ct. 2783, 2791–92, 171 L. Ed. 2d 637 (2008)
 Univ. of Utah v. Shurtleff, 2006 UT 51, ¶ 1, 144 P.3d 1109, 1111