California Forum

School isn’t the only place where kids deserve to be safe from gun violence

Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., during a moment of silence that lasted 6 minutes at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., March 24, 2018. (Johnny Milano/The New York Times)
Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., during a moment of silence that lasted 6 minutes at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., March 24, 2018. (Johnny Milano/The New York Times) NYT

The nation is understandably shocked by recent mass shootings at schools and wants something done – if anyone could figure out what that is.

What’s harder for the public to realize is that the number of students shot at school represents less than 5 percent of the more than 17,000 who are killed or injured every year in gun violence in the United States, whether that means being shot by others or committing suicide.

The number of students shot at school represents less than 5 percent of the more than 17,000 who are killed or injured every year in gun violence in the United States, whether that means being shot by others or committing suicide.

Our minds react to the horror of school shootings in much the same way that they do to horrifying airline crashes. Suddenly air travel feels very dangerous to us, even though we’ve been told a hundred times – and accurately – that our lives are in more danger on the drive to the airport.

Intellectually, we know that’s true. Just try telling it to our emotional guts; they are unconvinced.

This emotional reaction is of course at a peak when kids are involved. And, let’s face it: The intensity of the reaction has something to do with the proportion of middle-class, white kids who are victimized by school shootings. It’s higher than for other kinds of shootings. We might not realize it, but a sense of privilege is a part of our sense of shock in school-shooting cases.

“Of all things, children should be able to feel safe from violence at school,” the response goes. That’s absolutely true. The state has compulsory education; parents have to send their kids to school. The least they should be able to expect is for the government to keep their children safe during that time.

But children also should be able to feel safe from gun violence while playing in their front yards or sleeping in their beds. White children generally can feel that level of safety. Many African-American children, much less so.

“African American children have the highest rates of firearm mortality overall (4.1 per 100,000), and this disparity is largely a function of differences between racial and ethnic groups in firearm homicide,” says a 2017 study in the journal Pediatrics. The rate of gun-involved homicide for black children is 10 times higher than that of white children. For Latino children, the rate is much lower that for African Americans – but still twice that of white children.

According to a report by Child Trends, black children are the most likely to live in neighborhoods that their parents feel are “never or sometimes safe.” Those neighborhoods are the community environments for about a fourth of black children – more than three times the rate for white children. In fact, most white children live in neighborhoods that their parents describe as “always safe.” Always. That’s great; it’s what we need for every child.

A decade ago, I spent several days at Locke High School in South Los Angeles. Several students there talked to me about their big fear of each day: Going home after school through often unsafe streets.

So let’s add one more item to the list of places where children should be able to feel safe from gun violence: Walking home after the last bell rings.

But the everyday violence of streets can’t match the terror in our hearts when students are ducking, hiding, texting parents while a crazed gunman is loose in their schools.

Both are terrible, but the first causes a lot more deaths than the second.

“From this perspective” a 2015 study in the journal Psychology of Violence concluded, “schools are one of the safest places in the United States, and should not be regarded as high-risk for homicidal attacks. These findings raise questions about the massive allocation of public funding and human resources to school security.”

Speaking of massive allocations of public funding for school safety, California’s Assembly Education Committee unanimously approved a bill that would place an armed security officer at every public school in the state, including charters, paid for by the state. Beyond that, Assembly Bill 2067 would actually mandate those armed personnel, at a cost of $1 billion a year.

Perhaps the committee members felt that this bill was, at least, better than the Florida law, passed in response to the killing of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, that allows teachers to be armed. That’s probably so, but insurance companies are making it highly unlikely that gun-toting teachers will become a thing in Florida or any of the other states moving in that direction.

More sensible than the conservative politicians who pass such laws, insurance companies know this is potentially dangerous stuff, and they don’t want to pick up the tab for the tragic misadventures that could result.

Some California schools already have armed security, particularly high schools, more to quell possible fights among students than to do battle with crazed gunmen. But a billion dollars is a lot of money a year for security that might or might not make any difference in the safety of thousands of generally safe schools across California.

Considering how many shootings occur off-campus compared with those at school, lawmakers should be thinking about the death, injury and trauma from gun violence they could prevent with a billion extra dollars every single year. What if we took the assertion that children should be able to feel safe at home and in their neighborhoods as seriously as we do the statement that they should be able to feel safe at school?

The bill is languishing in Appropriations Committee, and its author, Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, hopes to keep it alive by taking the mandate out of it. All schools could have an armed officer, paid for by the state, but it would be up to them.

That’s not nearly enough of an improvement. It would still be a huge amount of money spent on something that isn’t the biggest danger confronting kids.

If the Legislature is really interested in keeping more kids safe from gun violence, why isn’t it reacting to the biggest sources of that violence, instead of to the latest headlines?

Karin Klein is a veteran California journalist and commentator. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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