Thanks to Jesse Janetta, senior policy fellow in the Justice Policy Center, for assisting with this post.
On Sunday mornings as a high schooler in Nashville, Tennessee, my mom, my sister, and I would venture across the street to Covenant Church, walking up the verdant promenade toward the chapel’s two towering double doors. Inside, we would find a seat among the dozens of rows of wooden pews below the intricate stained glass windows letting in the morning light.
Two weeks ago, just down the hallway from that beautiful chapel where I spent so much time as a teenager, a heavily armed person entered the Covenant School and fatally shot six people, three 9-year-old children and three adults.
In response, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill intended to increase school safety, and the governor amended his budget proposal to dedicate $205 million of funding to school security, with the majority of it going toward more armed guards and security in schools. The Tennessee house majority leader called these “aggressive and necessary steps that will ensure Tennessee’s schools are the safest, most secure in the nation.” With $140 million of the proposed funding earmarked for armed guards at schools, the measures are certainly aggressive. But research does not support that this funding will lead to Tennessee schools becoming any more secure.
Multiple studies on the effects of armed guards on school grounds have shown that their presence is not related to school shooting severity, with one study finding that the death rate during shooting incidents in schools that had an armed guard present was nearly three times as high as during shooting incidents in schools without an armed guard. Other research has shown compelling reasons not to mandate armed officers. Tennessee has one of the highest state rates of armed guards in schools already, with about 86 percent of high schoolers in the state attending a school with a police officer. Even with those officers present, only seven states have had more instances of gunfire on school grounds in the last decade than Tennessee.
If policymakers want to prevent school shootings, rather than putting millions of dollars toward an intervention that research suggests does not help accomplish that goal, they could adopt the following policies instead:
- Pass extreme risk laws: These laws allow law enforcement, family members, or educators to pursue a legal process that will prevent access to firearms by people who pose a threat to themselves or others. Given that the parents of the Covenant shooter felt the shooter should not own weapons, there is a chance that this kind of law could have prevented the tragedy.
- Enact universal background checks: Reducing gun violence on school campuses goes hand-in-hand with reducing gun violence in all facets of society. Research has shown that universal background checks can reduce firearm homicide rates by nearly 13 percent.
- Fund school infrastructure security improvements: Of the $205 million of dedicated funding in the proposed budget amendments, $27 million is earmarked for security upgrades in public and private schools. To ensure student safety, this money could have the largest effect if it were directed toward access control measures and internal door locks, both of which have surfaced as best practices to keep guns out of schools in the wake of other mass shootings. With the Covenant shooting, teachers’ ability to barricade and lock classroom doors may have prevented worse outcomes.
As a native Nashvillian and former Covenant congregation member, my heart breaks for the families of those killed and for all of the children who will never again know peace at school. I want my home state to take proactive steps to prevent this kind of tragedy from ever happening again.
This week, Governor Bill Lee has signaled willingness to pursue some of these measures, signing an executive order strengthening background checks and urging legislators to pass an extreme risk law. These are steps in the right direction, but to truly ensure the safety and security of Tennessee’s students, the evidence suggests that policymakers should continue to pursue strategies with proven benefits instead of putting more guns in school corridors.