Negligent Discharges: A Real Risk If We Allow Guns on Campus

Schools must look at the risk management implications associated with concealed carry laws and the unintentional discharge of firearms.

Author clarification, Oct. 7, 2014: In the firearms community the term “accidental discharge” is a reference to the mechanical failure of a firearm, an extremely rare occurrence given modern firearms technology. The term “negligent discharge” used in the article is a reference to human error in firearms handling that results in a gun being fired, the much more common reason for a weapon to fire when not intended. The concern in schools is much more the second than the first.

In Idaho, like many states, the debate over guns on campus in 2013 following the Sandy Hook school shooting became high profile, common and as with any gun issue, emotionally charged. During the 2013 Idaho legislative session, an attempt was made to move legislation to allow concealed carry on K-12 campuses.  As this debate unfolded, two issues fueled the discussion, both in Idaho and nationally.

First; proponents claimed the change would make school campuses safer.  Second; that the right to bear arms afforded in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution should not be limited on a school campus. There were a number of missing components to the discussion.  Chief among them was the increased potential for negligent discharge (ND) incidents in a school setting that allowing guns on campus would foster.

2 ND Incidents in 9 Days Highlight the Vulnerability

In the 2014 legislative session, Idaho allowed for the concealed carry of firearms on its higher education campuses under an enhanced permit requirement. On July 1, the law went in to effect. On Sept. 2, an Idaho State University assistant professor of chemistry suffered a negligent discharge of the small caliber weapon he was legally carrying in his classroom. Luckily, the professor was the only person injured. It could have been much worse.

Utah for several years has allowed the concealed carry of fire arms on both its higher education and K-12 campuses if the person has a permit. On Sept. 11, an elementary school teacher legally carrying under Utah’s concealed firearms law experienced an ND while at school. The teacher was the only person injured. Again, it could have been much worse.

Police departments all across the United States report a significant number of ND incidents annually and this by highly trained officers carrying firearms daily.  The appearance of ND as a topic in law enforcement-specific media and literature indicate the extent of the problem. In fact, most law enforcement use-of-force reports show ND as a separate category.

Civilians with concealed carry permits presumably suffer from a similar if not higher rate of ND incidents. It is impossible to determine the exact rate as the data does not exist. Unless someone is injured, a civilian ND incident is likely to go unreported.  From a completely statistical standpoint, more guns on a school campus means an increased likelihood that one will fire when the person carrying it did not want it to, simple math.

Paul Markel, a fire arms expert and trainer writing for Officer.com quoted one of his early firearms instructors saying; “There are two kinds of shooters, those who’ve had an ND and those who will.”

Are Guns on Campus Worth the Risk?

Putting this in simple risk management terms, the greater the exposure the greater the likelihood of an adverse outcome. This reality begs the question: is the benefit gained by allowing guns on campus worth the increased vulnerability?

In purely constitutional terms the question is easy: is the prohibition of firearms on a school campus reasonable?  Coming to consensus on the answer is much more difficult.  But it is well established that the individual rights guaranteed by our constitution are not absolute and must be balanced with the rights of those around us.

In operational terms, the question is equally easy; does the presence of firearms in the possession of non- law enforcement persons on our school campuses create a level of safety greater than the vulnerability that the increased numbers of firearms represent?  This is a simple cost/benefit type of analysis. Remember here that, while high-profile, school shootings are still relatively rare, mass school shootings are rarer yet.

Deterrence Effect of Armed Civilians Hard to Measure

The increased vulnerability posed by an ND incident has been established. What has not been established is the benefit of armed civilians on school campuses. Proponents indicate they believe that the potential of an armed civilian presence in a school provides both deterrence of and response to an active shooter event on a school campus.

Deterrence is notoriously difficult to measure and given the psychological profile of most school shooters, more guns on campus may not provide any real deterrence at all. The response capability is equally suspect. There is no measureable evidence that armed civilians on a school campus can or will provide a viable response during a school shooting.

My business partner and I do agree that guns have an appropriate place in our schools. The correct answer to a school shooting should be in feet per second as soon as possible after the incident starts. The difficulty comes in how to best apply this answer without significantly increasing the associated vulnerability that increasing firearms on a school campus will certainly pose.

Consider Using Police or Special Deputies Instead

One answer is to increase the presence of law enforcement in our schools, which is admittedly a more costly proposition. Where a full-time officer is not feasible or cost effective, the use of reserve or special deputies chosen from among a school staff can provide a trained, onsite response capability. This “Sheep Dog” approach can offer a number of benefits; closer ties to local police that will foster cooperative planning and training for an active shooter type of event to name one.

As states consider expanding concealed carry of firearms to included public schools, policy makers need to consider balancing the mitigation of one type of vulnerability, the potential of an active shooter, with the introduction of another, the potential of a negligent discharge. The central question is neither pro nor anti gun; it is simply a call to honestly evaluate the risk.

At the end of the day, if a child is wounded or killed in a school by a firearm, does the intent of the person responsible really matter?

Guy Bliesner is the co-founder of Educators Eyes. He was previously an educator and health, safety and security coordinator for a school district in Idaho.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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Guy Bliesner is a School Security Analyst for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security.

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