In 1974 a teen walked into a New York public school with a smoke bomb, gas mask, and a rifle loaded with hollow-points. He killed three and wounded eleven. How do we address these kinds of crimes? Shall we turn to philosophers who say “Liberty cannot be established without morality,” or to our founders, who tell us “Liberty, once lost, is lost forever”?
When representatives make laws, the rational among us hope those laws do not erode fundamental rights and actually benefit the people. Often the only hammer our political representatives have is legislation. See a nail, swing the hammer. See a shooting, pass a law.
Passing a law seems to be New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s current attempt to ameliorate the pain of his people and create safety in the classroom. The Republican side of the political aisle has suggested arming teachers. Cuomo thinks arming teachers is a dumb idea.
He believes he has “a sensible, positive, helpful alternative” to arming teachers in the Empire State. It’s tough to disagree with things that are sensible, positive, and helpful. But his proposed legislation is certainly not sensible. The New York Daily News reported that Cuomo said: “[t]he President has said the answer is to give teachers guns. To me, that is a bizarre concept.” Okay, but why?
Do we think teachers would be irresponsible while carrying guns? Would teachers shoot kids who are not threats? Would bad kids tackle and kill their teachers? Cuomo has not raised substantive arguments like these against the policy he opposes. Supporting Cuomo’s position, American Federation of Teachers union President Randi Weingarten stated “[a]nyone who understands schools understands the insanity of arming teachers.”
I went to one of these “schools.” Perhaps, you, reader, even went to one of these schools. So you understand the self-evident insanity of this idea without needing to hear an actual argument? I do not. Nevertheless, we have a new idea from the governor that is apparently not dumb or bizarre.
Cuomo proposes to take guns from the homes of troubled students by government fiat. That is, if the student’s teacher senses there is a problem with the student, he or she would contact the authorities to have the family’s weapons removed. Specifically, if there is a “problem student” teachers would be able to petition a court to remove guns from the student’s home.
Cuomo says “many times, teachers are aware when there is an issue.” With knowledge of a problem child, teachers would be able, by the exceedingly swift hand of the New York judicial process, to take guns out of the kid’s home.
As a New York litigator, I am intimately aware of New York court congestion, not to mention the pragmatically slowing effect of due process when attempting to take citizens’ rights. Somehow, this proposed legislation safeguards constitutional due process, although we’re not told how. Seems like double speak.
Last year, I filed a motion on a single case that still lives in the Manhattan County Supreme Court even after seven years of litigation. The judge said it was the longest case she had on her bench. The case is still active this year.
Further, Bronx County averages two to four years before adjudication, with a staggering 5,000 felony trials in process. There have even been lawsuits filed in the Bronx saying the court’s slowness runs roughshod over the constitutional right to a speedy trial.
While the details of Cuomo’s proposed legislation haven’t been released, there is no way guns would be removed quickly under our current constitutional system through New York’s courts. The student showing alleged warning signs would be working on his master’s degree before enforcement ever took place.
Okay, so it’s unlikely guns would be taken from homes quickly, but would this proposed legislation actually help protect New Yorkers? I looked into the history of school shootings in New York state, and tragically there was one mass shooting in 1974 in the small town of Olean, New York. The student was certainly a troubled kid. But I don’t think any teacher would have known it. Anthony Barbaro never had a disciplinary problem. The shooter was ostensibly a good 17-year-old kid from a good home.
Anthony spent his entire life in Olean, not bouncing from town to town, as many a troubled kid does. He worked with his family at a local fast food restaurant, and wasn’t unemployed like your average criminally oriented kid. On top of that, Anthony was an honor student, ranking eighth-highest in his senior class. He was inducted into the National Honor Society. Anthony even won a Regents Scholarship to New York University. Anthony was not, on face value, a troubled kid.
How are teachers to know whose homes government agents should intrude upon? Perhaps, in our time, kids who are unruly in class should be first on the list. Perhaps today is much different than the 1970s.
Let’s find out. In 2004, the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education issued a report analyzing school shootings. Of the litany of findings, some are relevant here. First, the majority of attacks were by students who had never been in trouble or who were rarely in trouble in school. About 25 percent of attackers didn’t have guns in their own homes—they acquired them another way. Third, there was only a single case in which the counselor or teacher was so concerned about a student that that person actually considered contacting a parent.
If the primary axiom in Cuomo’s syllogism is that teachers will know if kids are going to commit an egregious act, we have a broken axiom. If we are defining “troubled” as kids who actually get in trouble, then it’s not true statistically that “troubled kids” commit these crimes. Why would a teacher know more about a child’s emotional state than a parent does? Further, while of course any are horrific, New Yorkers have not faced a school shooting in more than 40 years.
Finally, Cuomo isn’t considering a web of collateral damage. What would the effect be on the kid if the teacher misdiagnosed him? Could that turn a relatively good kid south? What if he was just going through the tumultuous emotional landscape of puberty, had just been dumped by his girl, or had not made the team?
What about parents’ shame for raising a potential mass shooter? What if the parents hide their weapons? Will there be depositions, a criminal investigation, and felony penalties before anyone has done anything wrong? Will the parents be forever banned from purchasing weapons, or just until the kid gets through high school? Hindsight is 20/20, but foresight with the statistics at hand is prognostication.
I want safer schools. I want kids who need help to get it. I’d also like to imagine the best of the governor, but I’m not sure how this legislation can actually protect students in a way that’s sensible, positive, or helpful.
Economist Thomas Sowell says politicians have two main things on their minds at all times. The first is getting re-elected, and the second, whatever it is, lies far behind the first.
Since the New York legislative body is led by Republicans, this legislation will not go anywhere. But why have staffers write up legislation, why declare your proposal in news conferences, why spend tax dollars on drafting unconstitutional policy that is doomed to failure? Other than political posturing, I’m not sure. The idea seems both dumb and bizarre.