Friday’s massacre in Connecticut will inevitably re-ignite the debate over guns and school safety. Of course, some believe the debate is already over; for years, the education establishment has argued that schools should be designated as “gun free” zones, with swift punishment for anyone who violates that policy. There have been numerous cases where elementary school students have been suspended for bringing a toy gun to school. In recent months, youngsters in Colorado, North Carolina and Michigan received suspensions for having a toy gun at school, or on a school bus.
As the residents of Newtown, Connecticut grapple with the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it may be worth considering the efficacy of existing policies. Connecticut has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, but they did little to protect the victims of today’s rampage. Media reports indicate the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, used handguns registered to his mother, who was a teacher at the school. Lanza killed his mother at their home before going to Sandy Hook and launching the shooting spree that ultimately claimed 27 lives.
A tragedy of this type inevitably resurrects memories of similar events in the past; Virginia Tech, Colombine, Jonesboro and others. But oddly enough, there is little mention of a school shooting that ended not with the gunman taking his own life, but with the suspect being forced to stop his rampage at the barrel of a gun, aimed by a school official who had the training and courage to fight back. We refer to the shooting that occurred in Pearl, Mississippi in October 1997.
There are some similarities between events in Pearl 15 years ago, and what happened yesterday in Connecticut. The shooter in Mississippi, Luke Woodham, began his crime spree by murdering his mother at their home before heading to Pearl High School, where he was a student. Arriving on campus a few minutes later, Woodham used a high-powered rifle to target his fellow students and school staff members. Two students died and seven others were wounded in a hail of bullets. The school principal desperately called 911 for assistance.
But Assistant Principal Joel Myrick took another approach. Long concerned about the possibility of shooting incident, Myrick kept a .45 pistol in his car. When shots rang out on that October morning, Myrick dashed to his car and retrieved the weapon, then returned to the school in search of the gunman. When the assistant principal confronted Woodham, the gunman surrendered. When police arrived, they found Myrick holding Woodham at gunpoint, his foot across the assailant’s neck.
We may never know the number of lives saved by Joel Myrick. When he caught up with Woodham, the shooter had returned to his mother’s car and was preparing to drive to nearby Pearl Junior High School, where he planned to resume his shooting spree. Instead, Woodham was taken into custody, tried, convicted and sentenced to three life terms in prison. Woodham will be eligible for parole when he turns 65.
While the loss of life in Pearl was tragic, it could have been much, much worse. At a decisive moment, it was the presence of an armed citizen that prevented a much greater slaughter. And the Mississippi incident isn’t the only example. In May 1974, Palestinian terrorists targeted an Israeli school in the village of Ma’alot, taking a number of students hostage. When Israeli commandos tried to free the students, the terrorists opened fire on their captives, killing 22 of them.
Fearing another attack, Israeli educators asked the military for assistance. But the IDF told them it was impractical to station troops at all schools and college campuses. So, the Israelis began training teachers, counselors, administrators and parent volunteers to carry weapons, and provide protection for their schools. While virtually no teachers carry guns in the classroom, every school soon had an armed sccurity detail, professional or volunteer. Realizing that Israeli schools were no longer a “soft” target, the terrorists began looking elsewhere. It would be more than 25 years before the jihadists would again target an Israeli school.
In March 2008, two off-duty IDF officers stopped an attack on a religious school in Jerusalem. The Israeli officers, both former students at the institution, arrived before police, and eliminated the Palestinian gunman, who had already slaughtered eight students. But as in the Pearl shooting, the timely intervention of the IDF officers likely prevented a far worse tragedy. The terrorist managed to smuggle an automatic weapon and hundreds of rounds of ammunition into the school and might have killed many more students, had the Israeli officers not arrived on the scene.
To be fair, the presence of armed educators and security personnel isn’t a panacea. During the Colombine massacre, a school security officer retreated into the main office and remained there throughout the rampage; a sheriff’s deputy, assigned as the school’s resource officer, was called to the perimeter of the campus shortly before the shooting began and was unable to re-enter the building.
Still, the presence of armed–and trained–individuals can make a difference. A shooter at the Appalachian School of Law surrendered after being confronted by fellow students–who retrieved weapons from their vehicles. By some accounts, the suspect still had rounds in his gun at the time of his capture, and could have killed others without the intervention of the armed students, both of whom were local law enforcement officers.
School security has steadily improved since the days of Pearl and Colombine. Yet, events like the one in Newtown still occur, though the overall number of shootings has declined. Just hours after the bodies of dead children were removed from Sandy Hook school, liberal politicians were already plotting strategies to leverage the tragedy in a new attempt to restrict gun rights. But for those who are genuinely sincere about preventing such disasters in the future, it’s time for an honest examination of what does–and doesn’t–work. Creating an armed security presence inside our schools may seem radical, but given the record of “gun free zones” and “zero tolerance,” it may be time for a different approach.