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Monday, January 21, 2013
Last month after the elementary school massacre in Connecticut, Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s vice president and CEO, called for armed cops in public schools.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said, a line that sounds like it was stolen from the synopsis of a Clint Eastwood western.
He said Congress should appropriate money for armed security for every public school in America. There are roughly 99,000 of those, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, not counting 33,000 or so private and parochial schools.
This raises some practical questions. To consider them, let’s take a single school — Patrick Henry High in Roanoke. It happens to be Wayne LaPierre’s alma mater. He was in the class of ’67.
How many cops would be required to ensure no massacres at Patrick Henry High? Is that even possible? What would the cost be?
To get some answers I contacted Chris Perkins, Roanoke’s police chief; Richard Rife, the architect who designed the school; and Joseph LaSorsa, an Arlington-based security expert.
The school has changed greatly since LaPierre’s days there. Back then, it was a one-story, much more spread out campus of more than a dozen buildings.
The newer school, finished in 2008, is a single three-story building measuring 334,000 square feet, with more than 70 classrooms, 12 first-floor and two second-floor entrances, 11 or so hallways, two gyms, one library, a large cafeteria and an auditorium. It has 2,000-some students and a 3,000-seat stadium.
It also has two school resource officers, Perkins said. But as Columbine High School tragically demonstrated, an armed cop or two is hardly a guarantee against a mass shooting. So how many would it take?
He was reluctant to address this question. Security plans for schools are confidential, he said
“I will have to decline this one,” Perkins responded. “It would not be prudent to discuss tactical issues related to the security of our schools.”
He said the average salary-and-benefits of a city police officer costs taxpayers about $54,000 a year.
Rife asked me to note that the newer Patrick Henry is much more secure than the older one (the same goes for William Fleming High School, which he also designed, he said). To a large extent that’s because both are single buildings, rather than spread-out campuses. The former are inherently easier to secure.
At both, all the entrances are electronically controlled, and each classroom door is lockable in a way that makes it “much more secure than a normal classroom door,” Rife said. And, he added, “there are other security measures that are built into Patrick Henry [and William Fleming] that make it much more secure than it used to be.” He was reluctant to describe those in detail.
And then I got to LaSorsa, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Secret Service, including a stint on the White House security detail. Since his retirement he’s provided security consulting for private corporations and school systems around the nation.
He hasn’t visited Patrick Henry, so I gave him the best description I could of its building, large campus, number of students and so on.
Essentially, LaSorsa said it’s insane to believe than any number of armed police or security guards would necessarily prevent a massacre there.
That would be the case even if Patrick Henry had six to 10 armed security guards, metal detectors and was locked down (currently the front door is open for visitors).
Even with all those measures, “once [students] have walked out the doors, what’s to stop a madman or lunatic from mowing them down?” LaSorsa asked me.
LaSorsa considers himself a conservative, and he told me he carries a gun with him wherever he goes. He noted that he doesn’t believe restricting guns or high-capacity magazines or so-called “assault weapons” are effective solutions either. That would only disarm law-abiding citizens, he argued.
“What about arming teachers?” I asked.
“Hell no,” LaSorsa replied. “You’re talking about people who are not experts with arms.” Even if you give a teacher a gun for the classroom, “where’s she going to secure it every day? The idea that we have to turn our schools into armed fortresses is mind-boggling. I can’t believe how stupid that is.”
He added that the root problem is that over the past 30 to 40 years this nation has largely deinstitutionalized the mentally ill, including those who may be a danger to others. We used to isolate them from society and that happens no longer. That’s what we need to rethink if we want to prevent future mass shootings in schools, college classrooms, supermarket parking lots, movie theaters, workplaces and elsewhere, LaSorsa said.
Essentially, there are a lot more crazy people walking around than there used to be — and many more options they have to arm themselves with high-powered and high-capacity weapons.
Which brings us back to LaPierre. For the past year or so, he’s been going around the country, saying that the federal government would seize all guns if President Barack Obama was re-elected. That’s crazy talk about an action that’ll never happen.
I reckon we could spend millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars to secure his alma mater. It might take 16-foot-tall walls around the campus, topped by razor wire and towers manned by trained sharpshooters, and metal detectors, and perhaps some attack dogs and cops for every classroom.
Then it would be more like a prison than a school, which wouldn’t be a fitting edifice for the patriot and forefather who uttered the famous line, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”
But, then again, we could always rename it after Wayne LaPierre, the class of ’67 grad whose answer to violence in our society is more guns in more places at all times.
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