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We've had enough candlelight vigils. It's time to burn our gun culture to the ground.
“Can bullets go through doors?”
“Some of them can, yeah. Why?”
“What about, like, a wooden door?”
Depending on the gun and the type of bullet, yes. What’s this about?”
“We have these things called Red Alert drills at school where we’re supposed to turn the lights off, move our desks, and get away from the door. After that we either stay over against the wall and be quiet or we might have to climb out through the window.”
“Mr. [Principal’s Name] said it’s to keep us safe if there’s someone at school who’s not supposed to be, but I know he means it’s in case they have a gun.”
(Deep, parental sigh) “Yeah, that’s what he means.”
“But if someone can just shoot through the door anyway, then we’re not safe, and he’s lying to us.”
“He’s not lying, exactly. He’s making sure everyone understands this is really important without making it too scary. If the little kids panic, they won’t remember what they’re supposed to do. He’s trying to keep you all as safe as he can if an emergency does happen.”
“I get why [Principal’s Name] can’t tell the kindergartners, but we’re older and Ms. [Teacher’s Name] should have at least told us. If there’s a chance we could get killed, it’s only fair to tell us the truth about it.”
This is a recreation of a conversation I had with my youngest child nine days after 17 people were shot to death by an expelled student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. He was 10 years old and in 4th grade at the time. Four years later, 19 students the same age were killed in Uvalde, Texas by another teenage male shooter using the same type of legally purchased weapon.
Welcome to parenting in America, land of the assault rifle and home of the active shooter drill.
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A Red Alert drill is a form of lockdown drill, an emergency preparedness exercise designed to secure a school campus against internal and external threats such as an armed intruder, community violence, or police action in the surrounding area. Public school districts are required by law to hold at least one active shooter drill per year in 40 out of 50 states. Arising from the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, school safety has since become a $2.7 billion industry that does not require trainers to be professionally licensed or follow any formally established quality control standards.
ALICE, a proprietary acronym that stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate, is a for-profit company that offers training to schools, churches, hospitals and healthcare facilities, law enforcement personnel, and government offices on how to prepare, respond to, and survive active shooter events. The “Counter” aspect is what sets ALICE training apart from more passive models. Training participants are taught to “create noise, movement, distance and distraction” by running, yelling, throwing objects to interfere with the shooter’s aim, or even tackle or restrain the shooter in an attempt to disarm them. Countering is considered a “strategy of last resort.”
Active shooter training drills can involve tactics such as surprise attacks by a masked intruder, verbal threats and abusive language, and being shot at close range with plastic pellets. Police departments, school districts, and private training companies have faced lawsuits for both physical injuries and psychological damages that teachers and school staff have suffered from active shooter drills. Plaintiffs included a middle school teacher with a fractured hip and neck, and an elementary school teacher who developed such severe PTSD from an unannounced live simulation drill that she could no longer enter a classroom. Another teacher lost control of her bladder in front of her peers during that same exercise.
Each of those cases was settled out of court for undisclosed amounts with confidentiality agreements attached. To reduce liability, the ALICE Training Institute issued a release document in 2018 that required participants to acknowledge the risk of potential injuries that could range anywhere from bruises and sprains to concussions, loss of sight, heart attacks, paralysis, or death, and to waive their right to file suit.
Some K-12 schools also involve students in their live simulation drills, using rapid-fire NERF guns with foam darts instead of plastic pellets. ALICE Training Institute instructor John Lubawski suggests that school districts host “parent pizza nights” to discuss the training and address any concerns. Parents with lingering objections can opt their students out of the training, but any student who remains in the school building during the drill will still be able to see and hear the exercise.
Lubawski also recommends that students with autism, anxiety, sensory disorders, or physical disabilities not participate in ALICE drills. 14% of students have an identified disability, as do an estimated 4.6% of K-12 through post-secondary teachers, or around 210,000 educators. Schools have a duty to educate, accommodate, and protect them. Active shooter response training that prioritizes or relies on ability fails all three of those obligations for roughly one out of seven students and one out of 23 teachers.
ALICE-type drills take a toll on the non-disabled, too. The Georgia Institute of Technology’s Social Dynamics and Wellbeing Lab partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety to study how active shooter drills affected the mental health and physical wellbeing of students, teachers, and parents. Comparative data taken 90 days before and after the drills indicated that stress and anxiety are highest among high school communities in the 90 days following drills (52%), while middle school students, parents, and teachers experience the greatest increase in depression (55%). Elementary communities reported a 30% increase in depression and a 28% increase in stress and anxiety in students as young as five years old.
Neither Everytown, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), nor the National Education Association (NEA) recommend active shooter drills for students. Instead, they advocate for “developing a supportive and nurturing school environment, being aware of and attentive to warning signs of potential violence, background checks on all gun sales, Extreme Risk (also known as Red Flag) laws, and secure gun storage laws.” There is also a set of guidelines on how to create evidence-based threat assessment and trauma-informed emergency planning programs. For school districts who insist on or are required to conduct active shooter drills, those tools can help make active shooter drills less traumatic.
Are the trauma, risk, and expense of active shooter drills worthwhile?
Forensic psychologist Jillian Peterson, an associate criminal justice professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota and co-founder of The Violence Project, doesn’t think so. She believes that too much emphasis is placed on “hardening” schools and incident response, which encourages the perception that school shootings are inevitable. She agreed with the recommendations from Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA that more focus should be directed toward preventative strategies. She was also concerned that active shooter drills could teach perpetrators how school personnel and law enforcement officers will respond to a gun threat, given that 91% of school shootings are carried out by current or former students.
A common definition of a mass shooting is four or more people, not including the perpetrator, injured or killed by the use of a firearm in a single incident. By that metric, 169 people have been killed and over 140 have been injured in 14 separate school shooting incidents from Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999 to Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 27, 2022. In eight of those 14 incidents, the perpetrators were less than 21 years old. The victims have been as young as six years old.
Since 2018, Education Week journalists have been tracking shootings that occurred on K-12 school property or school buses that resulted in a firearm-related injury or death to anyone other than the perpetrator. Each incident occurred while classes or school-sponsored events were in session an involved shots fired by someone other than police or school resource officers. Here’s what they found:
In the first five months of 2022, 27 people have been killed in school shootings, 24 of whom were children. 56 people have been injured.
Those numbers don’t include the number of mass shooting incidents at churches, synagogues, concerts, restaurants, clubs, shopping malls, grocery stores, post offices, movie theaters, sidewalks, cemeteries, or private property. Those figures have increased more than 250% in the past seven years.
Guns are now the leading cause of death in children: more than automobile crashes, more than drugs, more than cancer, more than heart disease or congenital anomalies. More children die by gunfire in a year than on-duty police officers and active military members. 61% of those gun-related child deaths are assaults, but nearly a third are the result of suicide, especially among 15- to 18-year-olds.
Our schools are not meant to be war zones. Yearbooks are not meant to have obituary sections. Our thoughts, prayers, scapegoating, and deflections are not working.
It’s time to do something about the damn guns.
What can we do? For starters, we can fix a discrepancy in federal law that sets the minimum age to purchase or transfer a gun from a licensed dealer at 21, but allows an 18-year-old to legally possess a firearm or buy one from a private seller. That loophole means that in states like Wisconsin, people who are too young to buy a beer, reserve a hotel room, or rent a car can legally own and buy guns without a background check, and that private sellers can bypass federal recordkeeping requirements.
Speaking of Wisconsin, there is no waiting period, license, or permit required to purchase a gun or carry it openly and loaded in public. Money is the only limit to how many guns or how much ammunition a person can buy at one time. There is no law requiring gun owners to register their firearms or report lost or stolen guns, no recordkeeping of ammunition sales, and very few restrictions on ammunition type. There is also no requirement for gun owners to store their weapons in child-safe containers or locations.
Large-capacity magazines are legal here, as are assault-style weapons and “ghost” guns. Bump stocks and most fully automatic firearms are banned, but if a person wants to be the coolest kid at the gun range by showing up with a .50 caliber sniper rifle capable of disabling a light armored vehicle or shooting down a helicopter, they surely can.
People with felony convictions or injunctions against them for child abuse or domestic violence cannot own or possess firearms in Wisconsin. However, a disorderly conduct conviction related to domestic violence (say, for breaking down your ex-wife’s door and threatening to kill her) will not disqualify a person from legally carrying a concealed weapon.
Extreme Risk Protective Orders (ERPO) or “Red Flag” laws allow families and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily restrict access to guns for individuals at an elevated risk of harming themselves or others. Thirteen states currently have ERPO laws. Wisconsin is not one of them. Two legislators introduced a bill in 2021 to create an ERPO statute, but our Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety refused to grant it a public hearing.
Unless they are unloaded and properly encased, firearms are not allowed in Wisconsin fish hatcheries or wildlife refuges. However, unless the property owner has posted the appropriate signage, Wisconsin has no laws prohibiting firearms in hospitals, places of worship, sports arenas, gambling facilities, or polling places. Even where guns are prohibited inside buildings or facilities by the property owner, this generally does not include parking areas. Gun-free zones extend 1,000 feet from school campuses, but the private properties located within that radius are exempt.
Location restrictions on firearms get even trickier under Wisconsin’s 2011 concealed carry law. According to that statute, employees with concealed carry licenses may not be prohibited from carrying or storing ammunition or concealed firearms in their own vehicles, even if that vehicle is used in the course of employment or is being driven or parked on the employer’s property.
Wisconsin’s concealed carry law is the closest thing the state currently has to mandated firearm responsibility. Applicants must be state residents of at least 21 years of age, must undergo initial firearm safety training, and must submit to a federal background check. That background check is repeated every time the five-year permit is renewed, but no additional training is required.
This is going to sound like a rip-off of a toothpaste commercial, but three out of four Republican gubernatorial candidates have promised to overturn Wisconsin’s concealed carry statute and replace it with “constitutional carry.” Constitutional carry means that any eligible person 18 years of age or older would legally be allowed to carry a concealed, loaded firearm without a permit, license, registration, or training. None of the four candidates have expressed support for additional gun safety measures.
Earlier, I mentioned the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. In 2021, that was the legislative wasteland where attempts at statewide gun control reform went to die. Whether the proposal was to reinstate a 48-hour waiting period, require safe gun storage in households with children, ban ghost guns, prohibit accessories that accelerate the rate of semiautomatic weapon fire, require reporting of lost or stolen firearms, or establish background check requirements for private gun sales, all those bills were allowed to expire at the end of the session, many without ever getting a public hearing. If Governor Evers is reelected, his veto pen may help keep Wisconsin’s gun laws from becoming even more lax, but our gerrymander-protected supermajority of legislators is not likely to strengthen them.
Even accounting for partisan political differences, the overall majority of Americans want stricter gun control laws. Pew Research Center polling shows that background checks, red flag laws, high-capacity magazine bans, and even bans on assault-style weapons are all supported by at least 60% of those surveyed.
We’re not going to get that from teaching our kids how to be hunted, or worse, how to do the hunting. We’re not going to get that from piecemeal, patchwork state laws that provide neither freedom nor safety. The only way we’re going to get it is through federal legislation. The only way we’re going to get that legislation is by divorcing ourselves from the NRA and ending our dysfunctional love affair with the myth of the gunslinger.
Several other countries are way ahead of us on that.
It only took Australia one mass school shooting in 1996 to ban the importation, ownership, sale, resale, transfer, possession, manufacture, or use of self-loading rifles and self-loading or pump action shotguns. As part of the National Firearms Agreement adopted the same year, the Australian government set up a 12-month amnesty buyback period during which owners of prohibited firearms would be paid market value for surrendered weapons.
The minimum legal age to own a firearm in Australia is 18. All purchases must be made through licensed dealers after a 28-day waiting period. Firearm licenses are category-specific, and each gun purchase requires a separate permit and registration. Firearm license applicants must provide proof of completion for a multi-day firearm safety course, a declaration of compliance with safe storage requirements, and a “genuine reason” for wanting a gun. Multiple categories of prior criminal convictions will disqualify a gun license applicant, including violent crimes, sexual or drug-related offenses, prior firearm offenses, robbery, theft, and fraud. Ammunition may only be sold for the specific guns the purchaser is licensed to own, and in limited quantities.
New Zealand had gone more than twenty years without a mass shooting incident before 51 people were killed and 40 people were wounded at two mosques on March 15, 2019. Within a month, New Zealand’s government banned full- and semi-automatic weapons and their components and instituted a buy-back period. Further reforms were passed in July and September 2019, creating licensing, registry, and permitting laws largely similar to Australia’s. Both countries also prohibit gun purchases by non-residents.
After 16 people were killed by semi-automatic pistol and rifle fire in Hungerford, England, the United Kingdom Parliament passed a 1988 amendment to its Firearms Act to ban all semi-automatic, pump action, and self-loading rifles and shotguns above .22 calibre, as well as short-barreled or modified shotguns. Shotgun permitting, certification, and secure storage requirements were also strengthened, as well as restrictions placed on types and quantities of shotgun and rifle ammunition.
In March 1996, a man armed with four handguns and 743 rounds of ammunition killed 16 elementary school students and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland. Dunblane residents created the Snowdrop Campaign, which collected over 750,000 signatures on a petition seeking changes to UK handgun laws. In response, Parliament amended the Firearms Act twice in 1997, first in February to ban private ownership of handguns above .22 calibre, and again in December to extend the ban to all handguns (exceptions exist in Northern Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement) and tighten security requirements for gun clubs. As Jaclyn Schildkraut, a mass shootings expert at the State University of New York at Oswego said, “They did more than offer thoughts and prayers.”
Any gun zealot you ask (and many who don’t wait to be asked) will tell you that the Second Amendment says “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The U.S. Supreme Court also ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that private individuals have the right to possess and use functional firearms for lawful purposes, including self-defense within the home.
That does not mean that certain types and amounts of firearms and ammunition cannot be restricted or banned. That does not have to include publicly carrying loaded guns, either concealed or openly. That does not mean that design safety standards or responsible gun storage cannot be required. That does not mean that licensing, permitting, registration, and even insurance requirements for firearm purchase, possession, or use would be outright unconstitutional. All of those things can be part of ensuring our State remains free and secure and our militia is well-regulated.
As we have seen throughout our legal history in cases like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Mapp v. Ohio, Gideon v. Wainwright, Miranda v. Arizona, Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges, even landmark judicial precedents can be overturned or nullified by future decisions when circumstances warrant and the amount of political will is sufficient.
What circumstances are more dire than a decades-long, escalating epidemic of mass murder carried out through gunfire? Columbine should have been enough. Sandy Hook and Las Vegas and Parkland and Pulse Nightclub and Brooklyn and Uvalde are lightyears beyond enough.
Perhaps we’ve been looking at gun control reforms from the wrong perspective. The argument so far has been that meaningful gun law reform won’t happen without a significant cultural shift. I agree, also think the egg comes before the chicken. Instead of waiting for a societal change to happen first, I say we create one through significantly reforming our federal gun laws.
The precedent exists. The social will is building, if the 43% drop in annual NRA membership revenues since 2018 is any indication. We don’t need good guys with guns to stop mass shootings. We don’t need to turn our schools into “hard targets.” We need elected leaders with political character and the courage to use it.
Yes, I know those are rarer that needles in haystacks. I also know that the quickest way to finding said haystack needle isn’t sifting through it with a magnet. It’s setting the haystack on fire.
We’ve had enough death at the hands of the selfish, craven, and feckless. We’ve had enough candlelight vigils. It's time to burn our gun culture to the ground.