I can still remember the anger and distress that consumed me when I turned on the news and saw developing reports of a school shooting in a small town in Connecticut. As journalists tried to put the pieces together, it was difficult to comprehend how innocent elementary-school children were the target of such horrific acts of violence. When the madness was over and the nation had time to react, a fierce national debate on the ways to address these incidents erupted.
Gun-control proponents quickly jumped on the need to enforce stricter gun control laws. Second Amendment advocates rebutted the criticism with the rationale that passing legislation to keep law-abiding citizens from purchasing guns would do nothing to stop criminals and murderers who disregard laws anyway.
The problem with both these arguments? They are missing the point. The discussion isn't about guns — it is about whose hands the guns are getting into. While political points are easily gained by letting the conversation descend into vitriolic rhetoric on gun control, we continue to miss opportunities to address the underlying issue of this debate — mental health problems.
In the months following the Newtown tragedy, politicians from across the country started gearing up for the ensuing fight on guns. But while they concerned themselves with temporary fixes to appease the public until the next election cycle, a chance to talk about the real cause of the shootings was lost.
The common denominator that our elected officials don't seem to be putting together is that following these horrific tragedies, stories and remembrances of the perpetrators have focused on the mental state they exhibited before committing these senseless acts of violence. Former colleagues, students, and family members often say that they noticed actions that "just didn't seem right" at the time, but never understood the appropriate ways to follow up on these concerns.
Some have suggested that we halt school violence by training and arming our teachers. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., I want my child to know that their school is a safe haven for learning, growth, and development. So it seems only logical to allow willing teachers to be trained to handle a firearm. This extra assurance would make me feel more at ease during the work day, and according to a new Huffington Post survey, a slight majority feel the same. But this is a reactionary measure, not a proactive approach. If we want to get back to the root of the issue, we need to invest in training programs that help teachers, administrators, medical staff, company heads, and directors understand and recognize signs of mental illness.
Instead of arming teachers, other towns have chosen to place armed security guards into educational institutions. But these initiatives come with a hefty price tag. In my hometown of Marlboro, New Jersey, a 90-day pilot program of armed guards will cost the district $100,000 in overtime pay to our local law enforcement. With a stagnant economy and such widespread ambiguity within the job market, many citizens are still struggling to pay college tuition bills, put food on the table, and balance their checkbooks. On the basis of economic sustainability, this isn't a feasible long-term option. Additionally, there are a multitude of negative psychological impacts that go along with an armed presence in schools, which in turn can decrease educational outcomes and do more harm than good.
Take for example, an inspiring story of a failing public school located in an extremely poverty- and violence-stricken neighborhood in Philadelphia that was taken over by a charter organization. For years, the school's environment mimicked that of a federal prison, with security guards, metal detectors, and barred windows. However, even after the local law enforcement chief had told charter leadership that the removal of these precautionary safeguards would lead to disaster, crime rates surrounding the school significantly dropped. This was attributed to the emphasis the school placed on the betterment of the students' community and the use of counseling to work through problems.
When we look at the totality of circumstances — economic costs and investments, psychological factors, and the what-if hypothetical situations — we can easily see that a band-aid relief like arming teachers or installing security guards does nothing to provide the substantive change we need. If we as a country truly want to reduce gun violence, we need to start by assessing the state of mental health patients and ushering them into institutions that can provide them with the help or isolation that is needed to keep our communities safe. We have to step away from the demonization of responsible gun owners.
By employing preventative measures rather than reactionary ones, we can tackle this issue head-on and drastically diminish the possibility of another severe act of violence. So is putting guns in our school the answer? It can be one option while Congress gets its act together, but if we want to fix these problems long-term, it is time to take a stand and address the issue of mental health moving forward.