What One Impassioned Military Veteran Says About Guns

by Neil H. Buchanan

It is time for another go-round regarding gun violence in the United States.  A few short months ago, the world was shocked by the carnage in Las Vegas and then Sutherland Springs, Texas.  We briefly became fascinated by "bump stocks," but then the Republicans in Congress made clear that even a cheap and easy add-on that turns a semiautomatic weapon functionally into an automatic weapon was not something they were willing to ban.

And now, with shooting after shooting barely registering on the news meter in the meantime, we are wondering whether seventeen deaths in a high school in Florida will finally lead to action.  The early signs are promising, but on the other hand, so were the early signs after the Sandy Hook massacre more than five years ago.  At least some states passed meaningful gun control back then, even though Congress could not even rouse itself to agree with ninety percent of the American people that potential purchasers of guns should have their backgrounds checked.

During the Las Vegas-Sutherland Springs time frame, I wrote four columns about the gun debate in this country (here, here, here, and here).  I spent much of my time in those columns exploring the so-called Insurrectionist View of the Second Amendment, which is the claim that (as I put it in one of those columns) the American people must own guns in order to prevent the government from taking away their guns.

As Michael Dorf put it five years ago, the Insurrectionist View is "Ted Cruz Crazy," far beyond even what Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia ever endorsed.  My analysis described how absurd the Insurrectionist View is, and I ended up spending quite a bit of time talking about the claim from some gun extremists that the U.S. military is essentially a hive of insurrectionist sleeper cells that would spring into action if real gun control were ever to become law.

Happily, even though there are well documented (but fortunately not widespread) problems with white supremacists and other fellow travelers in the military and law enforcement agencies, the fact is that the vast majority of Americans in the military are deeply committed to living up their oaths to defend the Constitution and the nation.  This makes the idea of their joining an insurrection impossible to imagine -- for them, even more than for the rest of us.  This is comforting, to say the least.

But what do those people who signed up possibly to be shot at and die in the line of duty think about gun control, as a matter of morality and policy?  As it happens, I have been lucky enough to befriend a man who served over twenty years in the military, fifteen of which were in the military police.  He left the service with a chest full of decorations and continues as a private citizen to do work that enhances our national security.

Because his current position does not allow him to speak publicly about these sensitive political issues, I am distilling and expanding upon his ideas, which he shared with me via email after the news from Parkland had filled the news feeds.  His sensible views cut against the popular suggestion that the way to fight violence is always by escalating the threat of violence and especially by putting soldiers in charge.

The particular issue that motivated my correspondent, whom I will call Mr. Z, was a meme that he saw on Facebook shortly after the Parkland shooting, which by Saturday had been shared more than 200,000 times.  The idea was that schools should rely on an all-volunteer former military force to protect students in schools from mass slaughter.

We can leave aside the question of whether such a plan would rely on volunteers or paid personnel, because even though the Facebook meme suggested a volunteer force, that is in fact the least objectionable part of an extremely troubling idea.

Even though I agree with Mr. Z that it would be unwise to place ex-military personnel as guards in the schools, one can see how that suggestion could strike some people as reasonable.  Military veterans are trained in the use of firearms, and they often have direct experience in life-or-death situations that have forced them to adapt quickly to sudden dangers.  Would they not be ideal candidates to handle a school shooting?

As it turns out, however, this is not a good idea at all.  Mr. Z first described the idea as "harebrained" and then "shitty."  To be clear, I am not claiming that Mr. Z is representative of all veterans.  In fact, he told me that he and some of his buddies had a heated debate about this idea online.  I am reporting his thoughts not as proof of "what all military people think" but as an indication of what one highly qualified veteran was willing to offer as substantive arguments against this idea.

He first noted that there is very good reason to worry that some of these men or women could shoot and kill a child by accident.  Why?  Even the best trained military folks carry scars of war back home with them.  Every day, twenty veterans in this country commit suicide, a much higher rate of suicide than in the general population.  In addition, between ten and thirty percent of military members suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

More generally, a large number of veterans require mental health services that they are not getting -- even while, I would add, we are cutting taxes for the country's richest people and largest corporations, and even as we lavish money on the Pentagon to keep useless weapons systems in production.

Mr. Z put it this way: "Introduce those former military members into a fluid environment of teachers and kids, arm them, and ask them to protect those kids....what could go wrong?"  There is, to say the least, the potential for a violent encounter.  After all, Mr. Z pointed out, not all military folks are trained to handle non-lethal encounters. These volunteers would have no experience in dealing with a fight in the hallway, or handling fire drills, or just a truant who leaves school after a shouting match with another student. They are not counselors but soldiers.

Surely, however, one could respond by saying that we could screen the applicants for these new school guard positions.  One might even say that we could do what is necessary to make them a well regulated militia.  But there are two problems with that response.

First, this flips the idea from "Let's hire military guys because they're already trained" back to the fundamental question of how to find the most appropriate people to take on such a role and then train them.  We are no longer talking about tapping into an obvious source of talent and instead would be drawing from a pool of people that will include especially good candidates and especially bad candidates.  To say the least, we cannot count on them to be self-selecting.

Second, this exposes the reality that there is no way to approach this problem on the cheap.  This is a specific form of a more general argument that I made in late 2015, which is that there are ways to make gun ownership reasonably safe, but all of them are expensive in both money and time.  If private citizens want to own guns, we could (and should) insist that they receive real training and especially that they would be trained when not to use their guns.

One of Mr. Z's medals is for being an expert marksman with both pistol and rifle, while another is in expert markmanship that was awarded by the German Army. But the one decoration that he rarely talks about (and only when prompted after a few beers) was for disarming an armed drunken subject after a scuffle in an on-base housing unit.

Think about that.  Being able to disarm an armed subject is so impressive that it leads to a military decoration.  We are now talking about putting much less accomplished people in the schools to try to deal with the stew of adolescent hormones, defiance, macho posturing, and everything else that goes on in high schools.  (We will need to do this in middle and elementary schools, too, because they are not immune from this violence.  Different guards would need different training, depending on the type of school to which they would be assigned.)

All of which suggests that we might need to seriously reconsider whether to put armed guards (even adequately trained ones) in the schools in the first place.  Mr. Z points out that the introduction of guns into schools would tend to normalize seeing guns in everyday life.  As he put it: "Talk about free marketing for the gun industry!"

Beyond that, however, there are plenty of other reasons not to turn schools into military encampments.  There have been school shootings in schools where there were armed guards, but the guards were unable to stop the killing.  Even the best shooters can be helpless.

After all, the subject of the movie "American Sniper" was killed while at a shooting range by a veteran with PTSD whom he was trying to help.  (That is, he knew that the guy was unstable, but he was still unable to respond in time.)  The idea that a school guard could reliably stop a shooter makes us feel better, but the reality is that the success rate will be much lower than we might expect.

But is any positive rate of success not better than nothing?  What can be lost by creating even an imperfect system?  The answer, beyond the possibilities for disaster that Mr. Z described, is that turning schools into security zones ends up turning what are standard behavioral issues into police encounters, juvenile records, and expulsions.  Predictably, these effects are visited with disproportionate frequency and harshness on minority students.

To be clear, the evidence regarding school-based guards is mixed, but that is ultimately the point.  We are now so accustomed to ruling out Plan A -- effective gun control -- that we cast about for tenth-best solutions, such as turning schools into quasi-jails.  Even if we decide to do that, Mr. Z's arguments reinforce the idea that this will be an expensive proposition.  But if we are going to do it, we cannot afford to do it on a tight budget.  When it comes to children's safety, as in so much else, we will get what we pay for.