To make schools safer, arm trained and trusted employees
Editor's Note: The following op-ed was originally published by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Republished with permission of the author.
by Kevin O'Brien
Karl Pierson didn't fit the profile.
He wasn't a certified loser. He wasn't a wallflower. He didn't spend 18 hours a day locked in his room battering his brain with death metal.
He was a Boy Scout. He was a member of the Arapahoe High School debate team. He was an athlete.
But friends say he took a sudden turn away from normal. And on Friday, he showed up at the high school, in Centennial, Colo., with a shotgun, plenty of shells, a machete and a backpack full of firebombs, apparently intending to settle his differences with the debate team coach while doing as much collateral damage as possible.
His terror spree lasted a little more than a minute before his plans changed and he hastily retreated into the afterlife, turning the shotgun on himself in an unimpeachable closing statement.
Karl Pierson's effort to become the latest school shooting celebrity failed utterly.
To achieve celebrity status, a shooter needs five minutes or so, left to his own nefarious devices while his victims cower, plead and die.
Only then can the campaigners for "gun safety" ramp up the emotional argument for more regulations that will feel good, but that will lead only to more cowering, pleading and dying at the hands of people who are quite sure that because they feel angry or misunderstood or disrespected, the regulations don't apply to them.
Karl Pierson didn't get the five minutes of murder and mayhem that lead to a fortnight of headlines, permanent enshrinement on the school shootings wiki page and special remembrances at legislative hearings for years to come.
Karl Pierson, as it turned out, had less than a minute and a half to do evil. And quite frankly, the kid just wasn't up to the challenge.
The challenge came in the person of a Arapahoe County Deputy Sheriff James Englert, who ran toward the smoke from one of Pierson's incendiaries and the noise of the several shotgun blasts he'd fired — one of which critically wounded 17-year-old Claire Davis, who was not his primary target. As Englert neared the library, where Pierson had set fire to shelves of books, he was bellowing that he was a deputy sheriff and ordering the innocents in the area to get down.
The mere voice of undaunted authority was enough to persuade Pierson that he'd done as much damage as he was going to be permitted to do. The last round he fired had his own name on it, which is not atypical in mass-shooter situations. Trials are tedious; prison even more so.
Englert's boss, Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, said afterward, "We know for a fact that the shooter knew that the deputy was in the immediate area and, while the deputy was containing the shooter, the shooter took his own life."
He also said, "The combination of quick response by the resource officer and the implementation of a lockdown protocol caused the children and staff to be safe. Both protocols came together as they were designed to do."
That combination is the most effective active shooter protocol imaginable, made possible only in a school where firearms are instantly available to responsible, trustworthy people — good guys.
Chances are the second half of the protocol, by itself, would not have worked as well to save lives.
We saw that at Sandy Hook Elementary School a year ago, where brave educators armed only with their bodies and their powers of persuasion as defensive weapons died along with the innocent children they tried to protect.
The anniversary of that awful day was marked fairly quietly last week. The wailing about the need to take guns out of the hands of law-abiding people in the forlorn hope of coincidentally depriving lawbreakers was muted, at worst.
Gauges of the public mood didn't offer much hope that a maximum gun-control effort based on a year-old tragedy would gain a lot of traction.
And once the circumstances of Pierson's truncated rampage at Centennial High School began to take clear shape, the gun-control forces wanted nothing to do with a case that underlines the folly of their argument.
Like Pierson himself, the way his attempt at infamy played out didn't fit the profile. In fact, it fit the profile the forces of gun control do their best to ignore every time it happens:
A good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun, and a lot of people who could have been killed or injured are walking around today with nothing worse than survivor's guilt and a traumatic memory.
In this case, the good guy with a gun also happened to have a badge. That's fine, but it needn't be mandatory.
If a teacher, or better yet, four or five, had run down the same hallway Deputy Englert ran down, bellowing, "Stop! I have a gun!" chances are excellent that the result would have been the same.
School shooters aren't interested in a fight. They're interested in soft targets that will leave them in control of the situation long enough to rack up a celebrity-status body count. When resistance comes, they go — usually for eternity.
Karl Pierson found resistance already on hand, trained and ready to stop him.
It denied him the one thing the good guys can deny a school shooter: time. That's the one and only variable the good guys will ever be able to affect.
A locked door or a latched window won't deny access to a shooter, either to a classroom or to a building. And we're never going to get rid of guns. It isn't going to happen.
So it makes sense to prepare for the inevitable everywhere it might happen, and that has to mean more than locking a classroom door, turning the lights out and shushing everyone.
It has to mean armed, trained, courageous people in every school in the land.
If you want to require that they be law officers, well, that's a start toward common sense. It's even a good idea — right up until a determined mass murderer wannabe figures out that if he pops the only armed guy in the building first, he buys himself plenty of time for a headline-generating massacre. Making sure that the only armed guy in the building is wearing a badge and carrying his weapon openly puts the only armed guy — and thus everyone he's protecting — at a distinct disadvantage.
Allowing those teachers, administrators and staff members who are willing to undergo serious training and keep their marksmanship skills honed to carry their weapons remains the best way to make schools appreciably safer than they are today.
Some will consider that an ugly truth, but it's not nearly as ugly as the memory of Sandy Hook — a direct result of the fantasy that a passive law can stop an active shooter.
O'Brien is The Plain Dealer's deputy editorial page editor.