You hear the rush of footsteps outside your classroom door, bodies jostling, crying and shouting. The sound you had been trying to dismiss as a car engine misfiring has gotten closer and is now unmistakable as small arms fire. It is at that moment you realise this is no drill, this is an “active shooter” situation.
Fortunately, you attended your teacher firearms training only last week, and have a 9mm handgun in the top drawer of your desk. It is loaded, and all you have to do to protect these kids is step out into the hallway, line up your sights on a teenage boy and pull the trigger.
What happens next … ?
Scenario number 1 You freeze
The reality of the situation hits you like a sledgehammer, and the fear of being shot will not allow you to open that door and become a target. Maybe you lock the door, maybe you tell the kids to be quiet, maybe you try and evacuate through a window. But in this scenario you are no better able to assist this situation than any of the other thousands of teachers who have been in your shoes.
Scenario number 2 – You fire
The adrenaline kicks in, and with a heroic rush of blood you open the door, raise the gun, and unload the full clip at the armed kid striding down the corridor. What the movies don’t tell you is that rifles are quite accurate, handguns are not. That scene in pulp fiction where the man unloads a large pistol at the two gangsters and misses at almost point blank range, is not the exception, it is the norm. Yes a skilled shooter with a well calibrated pistol can hit a human sized target at 100 metres fairly reliably. A new shooter will struggle to hit a life sized target at 10 metres. In real world shootout scenarios where the adrenaline is high, it is not uncommon for shooters to miss life sized targets at a few metres range up to 70% of the time.
In this scenario the most likely outcome is that you miss, and the teen armed with a rifle who has been shooting all morning shoots you in return fire. That is the best case, the worst case, is that those bullets you fired actually add to the casualty count as you wound or kill other kids trying to flee.
Scenario number 3 – You can’t pull the trigger
Military enthusiasts are often surprised at how even professional soldiers are averse to killing. There is a moral prohibition in most of us that holds us back at the critical moment. SLA Marshall’s definitive study on world war II firing rates, shows that up to 75% of riflemen did not fire, even when under fire themselves. Data from other battles shows that even those who do fire, often fire high or fire low. Even trained soldiers find it hard to pull the trigger when a person is in their sights.
In the vietnam war, that non-firing rate had reduced to 5%, as had the rate of ineffective fire. This was achieved by lengthy psychological training, soldiers were not just taught how to fire their weapons, they were taught to shoot at human looking targets, they were taught to dehumanise the enemy and they were taught to react and shoot at the enemy instinctively on command. Vietnam era military training was a breakthrough in the use of behavioural desensitisation to “take the safety off” the human mind when holding a weapon.
Unfortunately, in Vietnam, as a result of this training, the rate of “collateral damage” during this conflict (military euphemism for war crimes) also skyrocketed. Just teaching a kid to use a rifle and shoot to kill without thought is effective at allowing people to kill, but there needs to be differentiation.
Today’s military uses many of the same desensitisation techniques to allow soldiers to shoot, but with one key difference; the use of shoot / no-shoot drills. Target pops up and its looking menacing and carrying a weapon – SHOOT, target pops up and it’s a civilian running toward you carrying a baby – NO-SHOOT, raise targets.
These drills are effective at allowing soldiers to fire on live humans, but also to restrain them from firing on civilians. This training is the current state of the art in allowing people to be able to pull the trigger when needed, but also teaching restraint. These methods of training in many cases were pioneered in the USA, and as such are well understood by their military and law enforcement complex.
The question is: what type of training is being proposed for teachers ? America has a few choices here …
1/ Take the cheap option. Train teachers to use weapons, and desensitise them to using them when they need to. You now have an army of around 3 million teachers who are ready and able to shoot and kill students when provoked. It is also worth noting that we now have more well armed and trained potential school shooters.
2/ Train them properly. Shoot-No Shoot training doesn’t come cheap, those rifle ranges with the pop up switchable targets cost decent money to build and operate. This training is not one off it is continuous. Even well trained soldiers are not sent to battle after a few months off without fire training refreshers. So now we have a well trained army of professional teacher soldiers
3/ Spend the money on something useful. I cant even pretend to be a school shootings expert (despite a PhD in behavioural problems in children), but there are people who are who have data. Like all complex problems there is not a single solution. Poverty will be part of the picture, as will failing education systems, as will mental health systems as will gun regulation.
You can have a society that is well armed
You can have a society where it is safe to walk down the streets without being shot
And you can have a society where there is gross wealth inequality
But you can can only have two of the above. It is time for America to make some choices.
- S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War (New York: William Morrow, 1947).
- D. Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Back Bay Books, 2009)