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ARMED GUARDIANS

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While I may not have much to add to the chorus of scorn rightfully being heaped on the National Rifle Association’s shockingly inappropriate “armed security at every school” idea, I do have a couple of observations, one based on experience, the other common sense.

I was raised in gun country; there were .22-caliber rifles in my house, and I passed some time plinking at cans and rats in the local dump. (The rats were largely safe, as I am a poor shot.) I’ve trudged through cold fall nights and misty Thanksgiving mornings with hunting friends and family.

And on one memorable Hallowe’en (I think I was 14 and LBJ was an accidental president), I accompanied an armed patrol on the grounds of a school.

It started two nights before Hallowe’en, when my father and I surprised a neighbor boy piling hay around the rear of a dormitory at the school where my father worked. The boy ran off, but it was clear his intention had been nefarious, probably incendiary; town–gown relations weren’t much in those days. The sheriff was called, and I think there was some conversation with the perp and his parents, although no charges were filed.

However, concern remained, and the school maintenance man was enlisted to walk the campus on Hallowe’en night, when local youths were known to harass (in actuality, probably to entertain) the students at the school—tucked away in study hall until 9:30, and then straight to their dorms—with firecrackers, catcalls, and screeching car tires along the dark country road bisecting the campus.

On this night, with someone’s tacit permission, the maintenance man—Curt, by name—showed up with a shotgun, loaded with one shell in which he had carefully replaced the birdshot with rock salt. The intention was non-lethal pest control in the time-honored way (so I was told) of our rural village.

Because Curt was a friend and my boss in the summers—although I was still too young to be able to work officially—I wheedled his permission to accompany him through the evening. Suffice it to say the time went by slowly enough. Curt drank up a thermos of coffee, and by 11:30 or so we parted company and headed home, Curt no doubt happy to have racked up another five or six hours at time and a half. As adventures go, it was a dud.

So I think about that night. Curt was just a regular guy, a Coast Guard veteran and a man who hunted raccoons and pheasants and who wished he could take time off in the fall to go deer hunting. His armed deterrence was strictly for show; under attack himself, I don’t think he was likely to have faced down a madman with a semi-automatic or willingly taken a bullet on his employer’s behalf. I like to think he would have stood between the students at the school–he liked them and they him–and a crazed shooter, but that would likely have been, as they say, relational rather than because it was in any sense his job.

I’m pretty sure that Curt didn’t approach that night with fantasies of taking a heroic stand to protect the students. He was just a big, sturdy man who figured that at worst he might have to frighten away some teenaged troublemakers.

Without meaning to demean anyone’s good intentions or courage, I am having a hard time imagining the quality control issues involved in the hiring and training of a national school security force. Folks with hero fantasies? Do we want them packing heat in our hallways? People with enough training to face down and shoot determined, suicidal marauders? Just think about how much ongoing training it takes to prepare Secret Service agents to take that bullet for the President, countermanding their brains’ orders, evolved over hundreds of millennia, to run like hell when shots ring out.

Even if there were anything sensible about the NRA plan, just finding, screening, and training the hundred thousand people required seems like an insurmountable task, more daunting even than screening potential gun owners. “Volunteers” with guns tend to be a bad idea, as the Trayvon Martin story demonstrates, and putting such volunteers in schools, where the emotional climate is often aboil with the hormonal and developmental storms of growing up, seems insane. Even teachers—fully aware of their nature of these storms and trained to help kids sort them out—know that life around kids can be frustrating and exhausting and unpredictable, and I haven’t found a teacher yet who thinks adding firearms to this mix is anything but dangerous folly.

In retrospect I’m even happier now than I was at the time that nothing “happened” to Curt and me and the school that long-ago Hallowe’en. We certainly weren’t ready, and I don’t think that we ever would or could have been. I don’t see scaling up this poor plan as the solution to anything at all.

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