The reality of guns, school security, and mental health

In the tragic aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, many Americans are questioning how we operate as a nation and whether our constitutional right to carry firearms needs more restraint, regulation, and thought. It is a long-overdue national conversation, and it will not be an easy one. But what this conversation needs most right now is perspective, and a clear view of the bigger picture.

Much of the debate in the most recent US news cycle is about the idea of putting armed guards in schools across the country. I find this unfolding debate very interesting, because to some degree I actually support this idea. But that is because I have a different viewpoint on the issue since I have lived a life most of you have not. I grew up in one of the most dangerous cities in the Western Hemisphere, and I know that armed security in our schools is a reality and has already been happening for years.

I have firsthand experience with growing up in a school system enveloped in tight security. I was born and raised in Detroit, where multilevel school security was the norm. During my high school years in the late 90s, the main student entrances had metal detectors. Side doors were chained shut (a violation of fire code, but deemed a necessity). The school had several unarmed security officers, and it was quite common to see a Detroit Police patrol car stationed in front of the building for most of the day. And this was in one of the nicer neighborhoods of the city.

Over the past decade, the security measures in Detroit have grown dramatically. Detroit now has a specialized police department solely for the city’s schools. You can see the Detroit Public Schools Police Department site here. But let me give you a quick taste of how serious things are over there:

The district’s Police Department, a deputized police force, includes 51 police officers patrolling schools 24-7. The district also has 47 Campus Police Officers at all high schools, and at other sites. And under a contract with Securitas, the district now provides security personnel in all K-8 schools, as well as additional security officers in all high schools.

The Detroit Public Schools also have a network of security cameras, a K-9 unit, and ID systems designed to match students to their schools and instantly match adult visitors against criminal databases including sex offender registries. It’s all part of a $41.7 million district-wide security initiative that strives to make all schools in the city safer. This is not the future, folks. This is now.

Is this the way things should be? No. Hell no. In an ideal world, our children would never have to worry about such things, and parents could send their kids to school with no concerns other than the quality of their child’s education. But Detroit had to take this direction. It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t comfortable, and it damn sure wasn’t cheap. But, given the crime situation in the city, it was a necessary response to a sad reality.

Realism must often take precedence over idealism, but not always, and not forever. We can, and should, strive to change the status quo and build the kind of peaceful world we all want to live in. But there are certain realities that must be acknowledged and addressed right now while we work on that more ideal world of the future. That’s why I give some support to armed police (not private security) in schools. However, I also realize that this does not address the core problem.

But neither does a new gun law.

Both approaches are, at best, merely damage control. I support both, but have no illusions about either approach solving our ultimate problem.

The question that dominates the current conversation is, “How do we make things safe?” That’s a tough one, because the cruelest reality of all is this: We can never be 100% safe. The next line of questioning follows, “How do we make things safer?” And that’s an interesting one too because, despite how it feels, the facts show that violent crime in America is already plunging near record lows. Whatever we’re doing to make our nation safer is apparently already working. Incidents like Sandy Hook don’t necessarily show that our world is less safe, it just shows that the world is different. Like all things, crime changes; it adapts, it shifts. We must do the same.

Consider this: The National Instant Criminal Background Check System is used to check if someone can buy a gun from a federal registered dealer before they walk out of the shop with a shiny new firearm. As of the end of November 2012, there have been 16,808,538 applications. If they were all approved, that would be enough weapons to stock every member of NATO’s armed forces nearly five times over (and only 976,255 of those applications were denied). The system has received 156,577,260 applications since 1998. And this is just covering legal guns. Any proposed plan for reducing gun violence in the US will have to account for a stark reality: we are already inundated with millions of guns. Making them illegal won’t make them go away in a puff of smoke.

But even if we could somehow create a dramatic decrease in guns, there’s no proof it would prevent terrible acts like Sandy Hook. Look at what’s happening in China, for instance. The Chinese government imposes strict gun control rules, and citizens are not allowed to own personal firearms. Yet, since 2010 the country has seen a rash of school attacks with knives. Dozens of children have been killed or injured, and not a single shot was ever fired. Just hours before the Sandy Hook shooting, a man in the Henan province of China stabbed and slashed 23 children. There were no fatalities this time, but some of the children lost ears or fingers. Kids in previous attacks lost their lives.

If there had been an armed policeman at that Chinese school, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. But maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe China’s strict gun laws kept the incident from being even worse, but then the argument becomes a simple matter of degree in a topic where even one young life lost is too much. China will struggle with a solution to the problem just as America will. But there are some realities that are painfully clear here: this isn’t only an American problem, and it’s not limited to guns.

The events in America and China do share a common thread. There is a core, fundamental issue here that does not have an easy fix. The issue is mental health.

In China, there are no new gun laws to enact because guns clearly aren’t the problem. Instead, the recent school attacks have prompted calls for the government to address the long-standing national mental health issues that have become exacerbated by rapid social change. In America the conversation takes a slightly different direction. The argument is that we just shouldn’t let the mentally ill access guns, but there is little talk about giving them better treatment, or identifying them earlier, or analyzing the factors that made them mentally ill in the first place.

The connections are clear. The shooter in the Aurora Theater tragedy visited three separate psychologists before he dropped out of school. The shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre had a long history of documented mental health issues. And those who knew the Sandy Hook shooter said that they, sadly, were not surprised because he had “mental problems” for some time.

But the issue goes beyond public shooters. Estimates on the rate of mental illness in the homeless population of America range from 20% to 40%. The proportion of people with personality disorders is highest in the prison population, where many prisoners have been found to be suffering from some sort of personality disorder and at least 16 percent of the prison population can be classified as severely mentally ill. A lot of those people get released back on the streets after their sentences. Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested for disturbing sexually related crimes three times before we found out he was a serial killer.

Our inability to identify and help the mentally ill is a tragic failure of our social contract to keep everyone safe. These people are not evil, they’re not demons, and they don’t deserve to be ignored. They’re sick, they are mentally ill, and they need our compassion, and our help. And by helping them, we help ourselves. In the days to come, I do hope that we can see past the politics and focus on this issue that we have let fester for far too long. But I also know that the answers will not come easy, and they will not come fast, so I hope that we can devise reasonable and realistic measures to protect our most vulnerable citizens in the meantime.

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