Americans are divided over whether teachers and staff should be armed to defend against school shooters, but shifting values between generations and a sizable minority of undecided citizens could turn the tide against introducing guns into the nation’s schools.
While people across the country generally agree that schools should be protected by armed law enforcement, research published Jan. 15 in Criminology & Public Policy found deep polarization on the question of whether other school personnel should also have weapons on campus — at least for now.
Public opinion could move against arming school staff as the “mass shooting generation” comes of age — but much will depend on whether a sizable minority of people currently on the fence can be persuaded to take a stance and voice their views to policymakers, according to co-authors Cheryl Lero Jonson, Alexander L. Burton, Francis T. Cullen, Justin T. Pickett and Velmer S. Burton, Jr.
That’s in part because public attitudes play an influential role in shaping policy surrounding issues like school security, especially when they’re viewed as pressing. And, "Few issues have been as consistently salient to the public in recent years as mass school shootings,” the researchers said.
The authors decided to investigate public opinion on arming teachers after a wave of high-profile school shootings sparked intense discussions among political leaders and everyday Americans about how best to protect the country’s schools. While a range of remedies have been floated, Jonson told The Academic Times, the potential of having teachers, janitors and other school staff carry guns stood out.
“It’s a pretty extreme measure, different than putting in a camera or having some access control measures” in place, she said.
Her team’s analysis, gleaned from a 2018 national survey of 1,100 American adults, aimed to dig deeper than standard polls gauging how different demographic groups view gun control and school safety policy.
“You [would be] introducing firearms into an educational setting — so we wanted to analyze that and go a step further than … [standard national polls] that look mostly at basic demographics” and their links to attitudes on school security measures, she said. “We know that this is going to be a public policy issue that stays with us for quite a while.”
The researchers found that 70.2% of survey respondents favored arming school resource officers, typically police personnel assigned to school campuses for security purposes. That level of consensus isn’t a big surprise, they noted, pointing out that asking about “arming [school resource officers] is like asking if a police officer should possess a weapon.”
But the agreement breaks down on the issue of arming teachers and other non-law enforcement school staff. Among the individuals they surveyed, approximately 40% favored the proposed measure, while 40% opposed it.
These numbers tell an important story about how Americans view arming resource officers versus putting guns in the hands of other school staff, according to Jonson — including the surprising amount of people who aren’t decided on the two issues.
Given that the survey was conducted in the immediate aftermath of a high-profile shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Jonson said, the researchers were surprised to find that, while 10% of respondents opposed arming resource officers on campus, 20% of them didn’t report having a strong opinion one way or another on the issue.
And as for arming teachers and other staff members, the researchers again found that roughly 20% of respondents remained on the fence.
“Even with this really polarizing issue, there’s still a substantial chunk of people who don’t have an opinion or haven’t thought much” about the two topics, Jonson said.
These large groups of undecided individuals could be key to the evolution of public attitudes about whether and whom to arm to defend against future attacks on schools, according to the researchers — and ultimately to the policies adopted by school boards and local authorities across the country.
“Undecided community members might play a critical role based on which side is more persuasive in the arguments,” they said.
Partisanship could pose an obstacle to overcoming deadlock among those with strong leftward or rightward political leanings. The researchers found that while a belief in the effectiveness of guns as a means of protection was the single strongest predictor of support for arming teachers and staff, rightward political values are also linked to backing the proposal.
And racial resentment among respondents — the belief that anti-Black racism isn’t a problem anymore and that calls for further redress therefore aren’t justified — also was associated with support for arming both teachers and nonteaching staff, the researchers discovered.
Older respondents were also more likely than their younger counterparts to favor arming school resource officers, teachers and other school staff, indicating that a large-scale change in attitudes could be on its way. As a younger, racial justice-oriented generation displaces an older cohort broadly more disposed to racial resentment, they might swing the debate against arming non-law enforcement adults in schools.
“We wonder, as the voting bloc becomes younger, if we’re going to see more pushback on this [arming non-law enforcement school employees],” Jonson said. “Younger people seem to be more opposed to putting more guns in the school [and] tend to be more open to certain types of gun control policies.”
Only time will tell whether changing generational attitudes will ultimately turn public opinion and public policy against putting guns in the hands of teachers and school staff, according to Jonson. But there’s still a chance that with increased public understanding of the costs associated with arming more school personnel, existing partisan divides on the issue could narrow.
That’s because introducing weapons into schoolhouses raises a slew of challenges, from managing liability to ensuring adequate firearms training and making sure the student-teacher relationship isn’t undermined by fears that a gun could go off at any time. When people are aware of how complicated arming teachers and staff can be, Jonson said, they may view proposals to do so more skeptically.
“I think a lot of these policies come after traumatic events [and that] emotion drives a lot of policies to ‘do something,’” she said. “Sometimes that emotion surpasses logic.”
But researchers well-versed in the complexity of school security have a role to play in helping inform a healthier public conversation.
“It’s on us,” she said. “This is where academics can really come into play.”
The article “An apple in one hand, a gun in the other: Public support for arming our nation's schools,” published online on Jan. 15 in Criminology & Public Policy, was co-authored by Cheryl Lero Jonson, Xavier University; Alexander L. Burton, University of Cincinnati; Francis T. Cullen, University of Cincinnati; Justin T. Pickett, SUNY Albany; and Velmer S. Burton, Jr., University of Arkansas at Little Rock.