George Jonas

Don't blame the NRA. Blame Clinton

Putting armed guards in school isn't a new idea

by George Jonas
National Post

Whether putting armed guards into elementary schools is a stupid idea (as the National Post's editorial board believes) or not, the leaders of the National Rifle Association didn't come up with it. That distinction belongs to leaders of reflex-liberalism in the administration of William Jefferson Clinton.

As reported on April 16, 2000, by the Associated Press, the U.S. president, as Clinton then was, spoke to his nation on the first anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The president used the opportunity to unveil "the $60 million fifth round of funding for 'COPS in School,' a Justice Department program that helps pay the costs of placing police officers in schools to help make them safer for students and teachers," the wire service story reported. "The money will be used to provide 452 officers in schools in more than 220 communities."

The news agency went on to quote the president saying that the program had already "placed 2,200 officers in more than 1,000 communities across our nation, where they are heightening school safety as well as coaching sports and acting as mentors and mediators for kids in need."

"The NRA and Clinton -- sleeping together?" asked wryly my correspondent, an academic from Alberta, who sent me the 12-(soon to be 13)-year-old news article by Lawrence L. Knutson of the Los Angeles Times. By 2000 the Justice Department's "COPS in School" program had been in its fifth season, demonstrating that the idea of posting good guys with guns to deter bad guys with guns from harming school children, and presumably shooting those they can't scare away, has been known to occur to gun-shy liberals as readily it does to gun-toting conservatives.

Posting guards is an atavistic reaction to danger. Whether we're rednecks or bleeding-hearts, we forage and nest in troops to incubate, raise, and protect our young. The instinct for patrolling peripheries goes back far enough for liberals to have in common with ground apes, never mind conservatives. It's a different story that it's not very effective. "School COPS" as a program are unlikely to work more reliably for the NRA than they ever did for the Justice Department of Bill Clinton. They certainly didn't prevent Columbine and the other massacres that followed it. True, we may never know how many atrocities they did prevent, but we can't build social policy on what we don't know.

We often do, of course, build on what we don't know legitimately enough, for empirical knowledge is "designed," so to speak, to expand by trial and error. When it does, knowledge may only confirm one's worst fears. I'm no more enamoured of the idea of making armed guards part of the school experience than the National Post's editorial board, but not because it's a stupid idea -- it may or may not be -- but because it's the wrong idea. My distaste for COPS in Schools is based on social aesthetics rather than utility. Even if it were proven that locked gates and roaming riot squads in hallways prevent or limit massacres, I'd consider a civilization doomed whose little red schoolhouses or ivy-covered colleges need to resemble Alcatraz to ensure security.

I consider the armed presence of the state in schools and other institutions of everyday cultural, commercial, or business activity undesirable, even uncivilized. My ideal, from this point of view, is England as it once was, when citizens often carried guns but the police didn't. In stable, orderly societies people could look after their own affairs without the intimidating presence of the state's minions, behaving often more like the citizenry's masters than their servants. If North American schools, faculty as well as parents, organized themselves into volunteer groups, arming only their members of military background (most likely better trained and more highly motivated than the average armed guard) they could provide better protection, at no cost to taxpayers, than state programs that cost millions.

For this, however, we need a state that views itself as the servant of its citizens, not their master. We need authorities that don't believe they're entitled to tell a householder whom they can't protect how to protect himself, his property, and his loved ones. In short, we need to revert to some aspects of the state we used to have in free countries in the mid-19th to early-20th centuries. What aspects? Forget guns. We need a state that doesn't feel entitled to tell private citizens they cannot buy themselves body armour.