Do metal detectors prevent school shootings?

Tonight I attended a meeting at my son’s school (grades K-8) about the decision to hire a full-time security guard and get a metal detector. I meant to do some research before the meeting on the extent to which schools with metal detectors have experienced shooting rampages, compared to schools without. I ended up not looking into this until after the meeting.

What I’ve learned from this research is not satisfying–it doesn’t fully answer my question–but I’m compiling it anyway because it was hard to find even this much, so I want to put it together for handy reference. This information does not challenge my hunch that metal detectors reduce opportunities to bring a weapon into school and thus prevent shootings, but they don’t prevent all shootings because lazy-routine use of metal detectors may allow guns to slip by or shooters may use strategies like triggering a fire alarm and attacking people as they evacuate the building. Basically, it’s like the way airport security reduces weapons on airplanes, but it didn’t prevent 9/11 and many guns have gotten through the enhanced airport security screenings currently in use.

I hoped to find a handy table listing all the school shootings, with a column indicating presence or absence of metal detectors. No such luck. (If you know where to find this information, please let me know!!) Even the otherwise thorough Mother Jones database of mass shootings does not include this information.

I couldn’t find a single research paper [that was available online] specific to metal detectors’ relationship to school shootings. This meta-analysis includes a lot of other outcomes like “perceived safety.”

Here’s what I did find:

“A 2000 study found in Chicago, metal detectors prevented 294 weapons, 15 of which were guns, from entering schools. A 1993 sample of New York City schools with metal detectors showed a deterrent effect because some students said they were less likely to bring guns to school.”–Politifact

That article also cites a school shooting that occurred despite metal detectors:

“In 2005, a teenager killed an unarmed security guard and passed through a metal detector at a high school in Red Lake, Minnesota and murdered a teacher and five students.”

There have been at least two others:

“A 17-year-old high school senior was killed and another student wounded March 7 in a Birmingham, Alabama, classroom shooting. Metal detectors at the school were not in use that day. . . . Two students were shot and three people suffered other injuries in February when a gun in a backpack accidentally fired inside a Los Angeles Unified School District middle school. The district does random metal-detector wand searches daily in middle schools and high schools.”–Chicago Sun-Times

So, metal detectors can be ignored by killing the guard, metal detectors don’t work if you don’t use them that day, and random searches using metal detectors may not happen to select the kid who’s carrying a gun that day.

Those same 3 shootings are mentioned in a lot of articles on the subject, giving me the impression that the other 190 school shootings in the past two decades were in schools without metal detectors–but I couldn’t find any confirmation of that.

Attending high school musicals in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, I’ve noticed that only the city schools have metal detectors, not the suburban schools. Apparently that’s more or less the way it is nationwide, but it’s really linked more closely to a school’s racial balance than to its location; non-white people are more likely to live in cities.

But that doesn’t make a lot of sense, because guns are actually less prevalent in American cities than in suburban and rural areas!

“According to the Pew Research Center, guns can be found in 41 percent of households in the suburbs and a whopping 58 percent in rural areas. Compared with 29 percent of households in urban areas . . .”–The Herald-Sun

That may be one of the reasons why mass shootings in schools almost always happen in suburban or small-town schools. And by the way, have you noticed? The shooters are usually white.

I worked for 17 years on a longitudinal research study of young men’s criminal activity. The 1990s epidemic of gang violence, disproportionately involving African-American boys and men, was a real thing. It was the reason many inner-city schools became fortresses. But now, paradoxically, America’s less-white, less-affluent students may be safer in school (at least, safer from gun violence) than the white, middle-class kids whose parents bought houses in the suburbs to protect them from scary city kids.

“…how have white communities avoided taking responsibility for keeping guns out of their schools, while black students are allowed to be searched every day and no one questions it?”–Wear Your Voice

Good question.

My son’s school is in the city. The immediate neighborhood is fairly affluent, but the school’s attendance area stretches across a wide variety of neighborhoods. The student body is about 50% white, 30% black, 12% Asian. But of the three dozen parents attending this meeting, all appeared to be white, except for one person I know is half white and half Asian. Because we didn’t hear from the non-white parents, I won’t speculate on what their opinions on this issue might be.

What I heard from a lot of these white parents is that they think the risk of a shooting happening at our school is much less than the risk of their children being traumatized by security checks and lockdown drills. They have a point. I don’t like the climate of suspicion created by routine searches, and I feel awful that my kids are faced with the worry that any ordinary school day could be shattered by a deranged killer.

But how many airplane hijackings did it take for all of us, every time we go into an airport, to submit to a bag scan and metal detector? Let me look that up . . .

Huhhh, okay, now I’ve learned something! Between 1968 and 1972, hijackers took over a commercial airplane every other week, on average. Why didn’t I know that? Because that was shortly before I was born. By the time I was old enough to notice, airport security checkpoints were routine, and I only ever heard about 3 or 4 of the most famous hijackings, so I thought those were the only ones or there were maybe a few more. No. Airplane hijacking was a terrifying epidemic kind of thing, much like the school shootings are now.

But that kind of supports my point: Because hijackings were frequent enough to be a serious concern, all airports started using metal detectors. Now that we’ve reached the point where the number of U.S. students killed in school shootings in 2018 exceeds the number of U.S. military service members killed in combat in 2018, maybe it’s time for more schools to use metal detectors.

I don’t think metal detectors are the best or only solution to this problem. It’s far better to look into what is causing people to think that a school shooting spree is a reasonable course of action and do more to resolve those problems. We also need to work on controlling access to guns; just intercepting them at the school door isn’t enough; kids shouldn’t be carrying guns in the first place! I want us to work toward being a more loving, trusting, peaceful society in which we don’t have to worry about these things. But we are not there yet.

“Oh, do you remember the time before
Every day was the news of a holy war . . .
When a bomb wasn’t going off every day,
When the rain didn’t have to mean a hurricane,
When the government wasn’t listening to your call,
When the border didn’t have to mean a concrete wall?”
–Michael Franti

I don’t remember the time before. The specifics change, but Earth has been a place of conflict and danger throughout my lifetime. My kids also don’t remember the time before, but I hope that they and I will live to see the time after humankind has worked out our worst problems and made this a safer world for all of us.

Until then, if my neighborhood school’s administration feels that a metal detector and security guard are necessary for student safety, I’m going to trust their judgment.

5 thoughts on “Do metal detectors prevent school shootings?

    • WOW!! What a SUCCINCT article.
      Unfortunately the answer to these issue’s is as muddy as the reasons they’re happening. I’m a very Pragmatic person, & want to see receipts for the ways to solve. I’m in absolute complete agreement that cutting off the access to firearms is a good start. I truly believe that until this issue is looked at in its totality, it’s going to get worse until it gets better. Starting with the Village around these kids.
      TY 4 helping my quest to get some education for this tragic experiences.

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