We understand that some might see this as a political issue and might dislike scientific input on the matter. However, science is non-partisan. It simply presents conclusions drawn from thorough research — whether we like those conclusions or not.
The recent school shooting in Florida left 17 people dead. However, this is hardly an outlier — it’s merely a symptom of a systemic problem which seems to plague the US alone among all other developed countries. Already, there have been 30 mass shootings in 2018, and it’s only February. In the past 1,870 days, there have been 1624 mass shootings (defined as gun-related incidents which kill or injure four or more people).
In the wake of the Florida shooting, US President Trump said that “highly trained” teachers with guns could help prevent tragedies. “A teacher woulda shot the hell out of him before he knew what happened,” Trump told a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. The idea is also supported by a majority of US gun owners, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center. But is this really backed by anything concrete?
Teachers don’t want guns
For starters, study after study found that teachers don’t really want guns on campus. The number of American colleges and universities that permit concealed firearms on campus is small, but the number is growing, wrote Dahl et al. in 2016. Out of the staff they surveyed, just 17.8% said they would even consider carrying a hidden gun, and most didn’t support the idea. Despite Trump’s statement that 10 to 20% of teachers are “very gun-adept,” teachers are notoriously anti-gun. If you talk to them, you’ll likely get stern responses.
“Every teacher I have any contact [with] says that they don’t want to be armed, that kids would be killed by errant bullets, that the halls would be pandemonium and many lives would be lost in crossfire,” said NYU educational policy analyst and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch about the plausibility of Trump’s remarks. On the statistic itself, she added that Trump “made it up.”
There are 3.1 million public school teachers and 400,000 private school teachers in America, according to a 2015 National Center for Education Statistics survey. Some 76 percent of public school teachers are women. We don’t know how many of them own guns, but we do know quite a lot about female gun owners in general. They’re much less likely than men to own guns. Fewer than 25% of female gun owners have earned at least a bachelor degree (a basic prerequisite for teaching).
More guns lead to more killings
It’s not just that teachers don’t want guns on campus. Science fundamentally contradicts the idea that bringing more guns, especially to classrooms, will solve the problem; quite the contrary: several studies have found that more guns lead to more killings. In a 2004 review of scientific studies, Harvard’s Lisa Hepburn and David Hemenway found that no matter where you go, whether you’re in the US or another country, in the classroom or at home, more guns equal more killings. Here’s what they wrote:
“Our review of the academic literature found that a broad array of evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide, both in the United States and across high-income countries. Case-control studies, ecological time-series and cross-sectional studies indicate that in homes, cities, states and regions in the U.S., where there are more guns, both men and women are at a higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.”
At least six different studies have found the same things — no matter how you go about it, bringing more guns into the equation adds more problems than it solves. The corollary was also proven true: having fewer guns, enforced through legislation, reduces the number of victims.
So, what does work?
“The numbers of people killed in Germany by guns has been falling steadily for several years, and a large part of the reason for that is the tougher laws and diminished availability of guns,” said Dagmar Ellerbrock, a history professor and authority on gun crime at Dresden’s Technical University.
In classrooms, instead of arming teachers, Germany instructed them to look for so-called “leaking” behaviors that might indicate whether someone is planning an attack. In the case of the Florida shooting, as with most other tragedies, there were plenty of these behaviors.
It’s not just Germany: a 2016 study also concluded that gun control works, and in the same year, a meta-analysis reviewed the results of 130 high-quality studies. This is probably the most comprehensive systematic review of its kind, and researchers found strong evidence that a strict gun control policy (i.e. banning automatic rifles, making background checks, requiring permits and license for firearms) reduces all types of gun-related violence. Here are the review’s main findings:
- It usually takes major legislation overhaul – not just one new law – to see significant change.
- Restricting access to guns and their purchase is associated with reductions in firearm deaths.
- Individual studies need to be better executed and planned in the future to get more convincing results.
It seems surprising that the US, which has the highest rates of firearm-related fatalities in the developed world, hasn’t carried out more studies into this issue — but there’s a very serious reason for this. In 1996, the U.S. Congress enacted a federal ‘ban’ on gun control and violence research. Even twenty years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a public health agency with an annual budget of seven billion dollars that’s tasked with saving lives, is essentially neutered on the issue. The same carries for other public agencies. While the US Congress vehemently refuses to even consider gun control, they also sealed the door for research on the issue.
So even though eliminating the federal ban we would certainly produce more studies on gun violence, there is still a solid body of research suggesting that adding more guns does nothing to reduce violence, working instead to increase it.
Time and time again after a tragedy, the US population starts to discuss what should be done about guns — and time and time again, nothing substantial is done. The science strongly suggests what kind of action is necessary. Whether or not that course of action will be followed remains to be seen.
Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!