America has been plagued for many years by mass shootings in public places. The loss of life has been dreadful: 663 deaths since 2003 according to an article in the print edition of Time magazine of August 4, 2019.
Mass shootings are almost invariably perpetrated with rapid-fire rifles. Consequently, public discussion has focused on actions that could be taken to make it against the law for civilians to own such weapons. However, despite the enactment of laws in some states of the United States intended to restrict access to such weapons, according to an editorial in the New York Times, “there are currently around 15 million military-style rifles in civilian hands in the United States.” 1
Consequently, the focus of this essay is the means available for protection of people in the absence of political actions that would eliminate the ability of malevolent people to obtain lethal weapons such as rapid-fire rifles.
Police action cannot prevent mass shootings. All that the police can do is to respond to reports of the shooting. That is always too late to stop fatalities.
In any one year the mass shooters are few, a handful in number out of a population of more than 300 million at present. With the likelihood low of a shooting at any one of the hundreds of thousands or millions of public places in the U.S., understandably many if not most of such places lack the security that would prevent the occurrence of a mass shooting.
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University stated that multiple-victim shootings are on the rise but not in schools. There is an average of about one a year in schools—in a country with more than 100,000 schools.
There is a useful model for mitigation of the problem of security in public places. That model is in the nation of Israel, which has faced this problem throughout its history and has addressed it effectively. The Israelis provide continual security at vulnerable places. Whether it is the national airline of Israel, airports wherever in the world that airline receives passengers, schools, or places where the public gathers. Security is in place to prevent an attack before it happens, rather than responding after people have been killed.
In America, effective security exists at a significant number of locations by controlling access to buildings and grounds, mobile security patrols, closed circuit television (CCTV) security monitoring and surveillance, and continual presence of well-trained security guards. Security services of that kind are provided by companies and property owners themselves or by contract with private security companies.
Some people may doubt that private security can be more effective than the police in protecting the public. After all, the police are accountable to the public and private security is not. Private security is accountable only to the people who hire them for protection.
There are thousands of private security companies in America precisely because their mission is to prevent harm to persons and property. The mission of police on the other hand is law enforcement after a crime has been committed.
It is noteworthy that often it is police officers who establish a private security business in order to meet a demand for security that conventional policing does not satisfy.
Effective security for schools is feasible, but achieving it would require facilities, equipment, and personnel to control and restrict access by would be intruders. The resources are available.
According to data published by the U.S. Department of Education, in the second decade of the 21st century Americans were spending for public high schools at the rate of more than $12,000 per student per year.
For a high school with 625 students, the U.S. national average, annual spending is nearly $8 million dollars per year for all expenses — salaries, employee benefits, purchased services, and supplies. A reasonable estimate of the cost of effective security would be perhaps $200,000 per year for such a school, including amortizing the cost of equipment plus the cost of two full-time security officers forty hours per week for a typical 40-week school year. The total costs would amount to a little over $300 per student per year. That is about 2½% of annual cost of a typical American high school.
The cost may seem high for schools operating already within budgetary constraints, but the trade-off is clear. Take the very low risk that there will be a mass shooting at school or spend the money, as a form of insurance against that risk occurring.