Please watch the Mike Dunn shooting video, Sheriff Gualtieri: the unbalanced risk equation of arming teachers; rapid response community police; and the lethal fecklessness of Tallahassee

Arming teachers and staff to address nihilistic mass school shootings returned to the news recently. (I’ll address that in a moment.) I expect it to become an issue again during the Legislative session to come, especially when the Stoneman Douglas High report is released.

With that in mind, I want you to take a look at a video, which many people in Polk County and Florida have already seen. Let me warn you: this video is graphic and disturbing. It shows a man of official power, status, and community respect shoot another man dead because of misbehavior and refusal to comply within a confined space.

Like a teacher or staff member, the shooter has authority over the confined space. In this case, he owns the space. This underlying scenario of misbehavior, non-compliance, and confrontation happens every day in every school district everywhere in America — and certainly in Florida.

Thus, this video makes a viscerally obvious argument for NOT arming teachers and staff in our schools. If and when we discuss arming teachers again at a future School Board meeting, I will play this video for the crowd.

When protection becomes discipline

If you multiply Florida’s roughly 4,000 schools by 180 schools days by 20 years, you get 14.4 million days of school in which no mass shooter has attacked a Florida school in the last two decades. That is, of course, powerfully and horribly offset by the one day on which it did happen at Stoneman Douglas High last February. Neither math nor rationality provides any balm for human grief.

And let’s be clear: it could happen again tomorrow at a school right here in Polk, even though it probably won’t. Everyone looks through a glass darkly in trying to address with state power the challenge that nihilistic shootings pose. We should be humble about that; but we typically aren’t.

If it does happen, personal blame or my political career won’t matter to me. Both will pale in comparison to mass death if Polk loses the school shooter lottery. So I might as well try to think clearly and systemically about protection ahead of time — and let recrimination do what it does in response.

Clear thinking reveals that the underlying dynamic of the video above — misbehavior defying authority in a confined space — has happened millions and millions of times in Florida classrooms in the last 20 years. Not once did it end like it did here. Why?

In this case, the misbehaving man, a drifter on the fringes of society, shoplifted a small hatchet from the authority figure’s gun shop and tried to leave with it. The armed authority figure used deadly force to prevent that from happening. Why?

Because he could.

That’s the fundamental difference between the deadly clash of authority and defiance on display in that video and what happens every day in schools. It’s the gun, of course. A gun is power. A gun is capability. Its presence in a classroom setting creates the easily accessible possibility of death as a disciplinary action.

The authority figure in that video has argued that he was afraid for his life after the man broke free from his grip. But that legal dispute — justified fear or homicidal anger — is irrelevant for its application to the classroom. Either interpretation in a classroom would make for a hideous tragedy. Either interpretation, in this case, has destroyed at least two lives.

One life, a man named Cristobal Lopez, bled out into death as the authority figure looked on. The authority figure himself now faces potential life in prison on a second degree murder charge. Every speck of wealth or capital he’s developed for his family over his entire lifetime will now be poured into his legal defense. All for a less-than-$30 shoplift that the police were in route to handle.

Guns don’t kill people; “level-headed” authority figures do

It’s important to understand who this armed authority figure is. His name is Michael Dunn.  He is the long-time owner of a Lakeland gun shop very popular with law enforcement. At the time of the shooting, Dunn was also emerging into a thoughtful and interesting Lakeland city commissioner. He’d finally been elected just a few months before after 20 years of trying.

I’ve know Mike Dunn for a long time. More on that in a second. Dunn has a very, very calm demeanor. Calmer than mine in most settings. I’ve never heard him raise his voice. So, with one big exception, I largely agree with what Polk Sheriff Grady Judd told The Ledger about Dunn in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, prior to any investigation or charges.

Judd said he has known Dunn for many years and described him as “level-headed” and a “good guy.”

Dunn was part of the civic fabric of Lakeland and Polk County, chosen by Lakeland to represent us. He was recently forced to resign from the City Commission because of the charges. I don’t know his education level; but Dunn is bright and insightful. He could easily have been a teacher or coach. And if was a teacher or coach, he would have made a perfect candidate to arm as part of any teacher defense against school shootings.

Over the years, Dunn and I have chatted or debated many times in many settings. We had a very long, interesting, and productive discussion during his final, successful campaign for Lakeland City Commission. We’re both political outsiders in our own way; and we actually share quite a bit in common in how we look at the job of governing and political representation. I don’t think I could call us friends; but I might call us friendly acquaintances. I certainly never felt threatened by Mike Dunn. I like him. And I very nearly voted for him in the most recent election.

But I couldn’t bring myself to do it for two reasons: one was his stance on the Munn Park confederate monument. The other, larger reason was his obvious gun fetish.

Indeed, way back in 2000, I wrote an article for The Ledger during Dunn’s first campaign about the first time Dunn shot somebody back in the 1990s. He had been playing quick draw in his house as a young man; and the gun accidentally went off. The hollow point bullet he shot slammed into the elbow of a passer-by. Despite nearly killing a man, despite leaving the man with permanent elbow damage, Dunn was not charged or sanctioned criminally in any way. America — and especially Florida — does very little to regulate or discourage irresponsible behavior by gun owners.

I thought Dunn’s gun fetish, at some point, was bound to have some harmful effect on his public behavior or the community. Sadly, I was proven right much, much faster than I could have ever imagined. As is often the case, I would have much, much rather been wrong.

Mike Dunn was extraordinarily well-trained with guns; and yet…he still couldn’t keep his head

It’s vital to note that Dunn is an expert in every way on firearms. They are literally his livelihood. In 2000, he owned a collection valued at $20,000. Who knows what it was at the time of the shooting. Dunn sold many, many weapons, entirely legally as far as I know, to law enforcement. I know individual officers to whom he sold them. I’m not a gun expert in every way; but I feel certain that no NRA training or law enforcement advice Dunn ever received indicated that this scenario would end well for him, legally.

And yet, it happened nonetheless.

What rained down on him in the aftermath of the shooting was completely predictable. And yet, it was not a practical deterrent.

Extrapolate that to armed teachers and staff. Very few of them will be as well-trained or well-informed or thoroughly familiar with the power of a gun as Mike Dunn. Virtually all of them face the inherent stresses of imposing compliance on large numbers of kids. Some small number of those kids will resist or defy them.

All training will tell teachers and staff they can’t use the weapon in the course of daily discipline or  dispute over petty compliance and the imposition of will. All training will emphasize proper storage and security.

And yet, all Dunn’s training said the same thing. And two people still got shot in 30 years, with catastrophic consequences. One through carelessness, one through confrontation.

Thus, Mike Dunn, by himself, has perpetrated twice as many lethal or near lethal shootings requiring investigation as there have been mass school shooting incidents in Florida during that same 30 years. Can we expect every armed teacher or staff member to be more careful and more “level-headed” than Mike Dunn at all times, over say, 30 years?

Is the power of the state really going to tell a staff member he or she can’t use a gun when in fear for their life or safety from a student? And once you allow that claim in court, well, where does it stop? Haven’t we seen the enormous elasticity of that legal standard?

Compulsory education, in which truancy can lead to criminal charges, demands an act of compliance that many kids inherently resist or defy. It’s human nature to resent authority. Within that reality, Florida has a particularly toxic educational “accountability” and governance model based on fraud and stress. It is designed to create additional conflict between teacher and student, which is why I’m working so hard to change it.

Thank God we have teachers and staff that find a way to transcend that model every day. They are my heroes. But it doesn’t change the setting they have to work in.

In the right situation, even the most “level-headed” people can lose their composure and act in ways completely foreign to their nature — just like Mike Dunn. I certainly could; and I consider myself “level-headed.” But I also try to be self-aware.

I know that involving a gun always carries the risk of creating permanent horror and sorrow from a momentary flash of human anger.

Sheriff Gualtieri’s flawed thinking

I decided to write this piece after seeing that Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is the chairman of the MSD review committee, has come out in favor of the concept of arming teachers. Here’s the story. I’m going to risk a fairly long excerpt of his thinking.

Gualtieri said Friday he changed his mind after watching surveillance video and studying the timelines of Parkland and other school shootings as chairman of the commission established to review what went wrong and recommend ways to make schools safer.

The man accused in the shooting at the Broward County school, Nikolas Cruz, paused to reload his gun five times — moments that could’ve been taken advantage of by trained volunteer teachers and school staff had they been armed, Gualtieri said. A school resource deputy stayed outside while Cruz sprayed bullets from an AR-15 rifle inside, investigators said. The final fatal rounds had already been fired by the time law enforcement officers arrived.

“The schools across Florida need a change in their culture,” Gualtieri said. “Yes, those teachers are great people doing great work and they need to be able to teach, but you can’t teach dead kids. Safety has to come first.”

In Tampa Bay and across the state, school boards came to realize that the financial and human capital it would require to place a sworn officer in every school was impossible with the funding and time restraints handed down by the Legislature.

Gualtieri estimated the figure statewide at $400 million.

——–

He pointed to the enrollment and footprint of Stoneman Douglas High: 3,300 students and 200 staff across a 45-acre campus with 16 buildings.

The additional fire power from teachers trained to carry weapons would provide more coverage and create a deterrent that would make potential attackers think twice, Gualteri said.

And then, of course, The Ledger editorial bot Bill Thompson picked it up. Thompson, to my knowledge has never visited a school or attended a School Board meeting. He has certainly never asked me, an elected school board member in his community, about the merits of arming teachers — or any other issue. He is the single laziest writer and thinker I have ever had the misfortune to read. And he’s a drain on the dwindling resources available to actual Ledger journalists, whom he has been known to blame for his own lack of knowledge in education issues. The next actual thought he has about safety and security will be his first.  I suspect he just wants to jam as many guns as possible into as many schools as possible because he thinks guns are cool.

Gualtieri, by contrast, is doing a tough job.

He’s studying horror, frame-by-frame and trying to come up with recommendations for stopping it. I don’t doubt his sincerity or commitment. I just think evidence and common sense and logic say he’s wrong. I urge Sheriff Gualtieri to watch the Dunn video. I think a frame-by-frame study of Mike Dunn’s second shooting, and his overall career of regretful shootings, show how wrong Gualtieri is about the remedy to what he sees in the Parkland videos.

And I have a better idea.

Personal context

First, this is the point at which I remind you of my macro politics and big-picture view of guns. I want you to have no illusions about who I am and what I think.

Although I am generally a No Party Affiliate, I am temporarily a Democrat. I switched my registration so I could vote for Bob Doyel in his state Senate primary. I just haven’t gotten around to switching back yet.

When pushed to describe my ideology, I call myself an anti-prohibition, pro-14th Amendment, moral conservative — with conservatism defined by honest human observation rather than religion. But most people call me “liberal.” I don’t care what you call me. Call me whatever you want.

I might also add that my own son is a 10th grader at a Polk County high school. I have skin in this game. That, among other reasons, is why I care only about providing the broadest, smartest, most humane protection from as many and varied risks as possible.

I believe we should treat guns like cars — with licensing, testing, training, and sales records built into legal ownership. I’m much more focused on the “well-regulated militia” part of the second amendment than the “right to bear arms part,” which isn’t in much dispute. I have written an entire, award-winning book about the dignity and virtue of armed self-defense. It’s part of my heritage. My hero from history is a violent sheriff from Putnam County, Florida.

My dad’s a combat-wounded Vietnam vet. I grew up in a house with seven rifles hung on my living room wall. I was taught to revere and respect their awesome power. I have fired guns at targets many times; but they are not really part of my life today. I don’t own a gun and won’t have one in my house because I know the stats. I know that adding a gun to my household increases the likelihood through accident or impulse that someone in my household will die violently. The risk far outweighs the self-defense equation for me. I don’t own a gun for exactly the same reason I wear my seat belt in a car and require my kids to. Other people make different decisions under different circumstances, which is their right. I respect it.

An unacknowledged equation of risk and death

With that out of the way, let’s look at some of the key challenges and factors related to arming teachers and staff that Sheriff Gualtieri’s thinking glosses over or ignores.

  1. The text of the “arming teachers” law passed last year prevents the vast majority of teachers from being armed. See this essay for minute detail. I can think of no absurd paradox that better defines the lack of care and thought our Legislature puts into legislating. Indeed, everything about last year’s security bill is an underfunded, unimplementable mess designed to set up blame for local districts rather than address problems. And yes, legislators, that includes the mental health part. More on that to come in future essays.
  2. Elementary schools pose the least threat, statistically. But guarding them poses the most vexing cost and staffing problems because there are so many of them. Once the law factors out teachers, there really is almost no one left to arm at an elementary school. It’s lunch ladies and half a media specialist for your commandos.
  3. There’s not only no guarantee that arming teachers and staff at scale will do anything helpful during a mass shooting, there’s no evidence from experience whatsoever. Arming teachers is blind hope, not a plan based in data. You can see that in Gualtieri’s own words. “The additional fire power from teachers trained to carry weapons would provide more coverage and create a deterrent that would make potential attackers think twice, Gualtieri said.” Based on what evidence?
  4. By contrast, there is much evidence that more guns equals more death — especially when one builds in accidental shooting and suicide, which together kill far more people and students than homicide. There are several real world recent examples of accidental or stress-related shootings by teachers in schools. And sadly, there are far too many suicidal kids in our society and schools. Do you think the presence of guns at scale around them will work on their troubled minds?
  5. In Polk County, at least, teachers and staff themselves appear overwhelmingly opposed to arming teachers. I’ve only talked to two who are open to or clearly supportive of the idea. I’m sure there are more. But the vast majority I’ve talked to oppose it. Trying to impose armed staff from on high will likely create toxic division at the ground level in schools.
  6. Law enforcement typically does not allow weapons into jails or prisons as part of every day operations, almost precisely because of the defiance and risk scenarios I’ve laid out here.
  7. There is no deterrent to nihilism, once it exists. You can only seek to give people reasons to live and love — and protect yourself from it when those efforts have failed.
  8. Thanks to your Legislature, we have a significant teacher shortage in Florida. And rapid turnover of the teachers we do have. The roster of your internal school defense team would be in continual flux, which is likely to inject unhelpful confusion and danger into every incident.
  9. If I were a teacher faced with an AR-15-armed person on a rampage in my classroom, I would want a weapon in my hand. I understand that. However, that weapon wouldn’t magically appear in my hand at that exact moment. It will have to be attached to me, among my kids and peers, at all times leading to that moment, which math dictates will almost certainly never come. That gun, attached to a human being among children in a confined space, poses its own threat at all times. That is the core conundrum of all of this. We have to think about it seriously.

I covered many of the points above in my “test-and-die era” series last year. But they’re worth repeating. As I said repeatedly last year: arming teachers at scale will kill kids at scale over time. And if we don’t arm teachers at scale, as a protective “coverage” layer, what’s the point of arming one or two? By Gualtieri’s own logic?

The greater the supposed defense layer during a mass shooting, the greater the daily risk of accident or confrontation or suicide or carelessness. No one can escape that equation. Let me say that again: no one can escape that equation. Yet, I have yet to hear any senior law enforcement officer advocating for arming teachers even acknowledge the equation exists.

Rapid response community police officers + SWAT weapons > teachers with handguns

Here’s my better idea.

I think the Legislature should fund a cadre of rapid response community policing officers. Start with high schools. These sworn officers would work for police agencies, not school districts. They would perform community policing functions within a set distance of their assigned high school every day — let’s call it a mile radius for now. They would be equipped at all times with the most ferocious SWAT weapon available to them. They would be wearing the standard body armor that officers wear these days.

In the unlikely event of an active shooter at their assigned high school, they would be the first response. Sort of like a firefighter. They could get there much, much faster than a full SWAT team. And this model carries none of the risk of arming teachers at scale with handguns as part of they daily teaching routine. It carries the benefit of a problem-solving community policing officer who can co-ordinate with school resource officers or officials to address neighborhood problems that arise. Every police agency I know is begging for more community police/problem-solving officers.

Purely in terms of stopping an active shooter and minimizing harm, what is better? A clearly uniformed, partially body-armored rapid responder with SWAT firepower who school officials can guide to the exact location of the shooter by using remote cameras and a dedicated communication line? Or some number of teachers armed with handguns; who are likely outgunned; who won’t have body armor; who aren’t clearly identified; who won’t be co-ordinated; who will likely have difficulty finding the shooter from inside the campus; who will be emotionally torn between protecting students in their care and leaving them to find and confront the shooter.

I think the answer is pretty clear. But you can debate it.

Yet, if it’s even a debate, rapid response community policing officer clearly wins, because it largely eliminates the Mike Dunn confrontation risk part of the equation. And it enhances overall community safety around the school.

A morally bankrupt legislative culture

Take a look at this passage from the story about Gualtieri again. Note the part in bold.

“The schools across Florida need a change in their culture,” Gualtieri said. “Yes, those teachers are great people doing great work and they need to be able to teach, but you can’t teach dead kids. Safety has to come first.”

In Tampa Bay and across the state, school boards came to realize that the financial and human capital it would require to place a sworn officer in every school was impossible with the funding and time restraints handed down by the Legislature.

Everything that is morally hideous about Florida state government, especially our education and legislative leadership, is on display in those two paragraphs.

Without any constructive collaboration, the Legislature handed down an impossible task — on an issue as morally fundamental as child and teacher safety — and then washed its hands of it. And it’s the “schools” that need a culture change?

Florida hates its teachers. It does not consider them “great people.” Our legislators evaluate them with malignant nonsense. Pay them nothing. Listen to them never. Trust them to do nothing except die for their kids. And then the same morally bankrupt legislators want to make teachers the lynchpin of their own defense. They take for granted that willingness to die for their kids, because they’re too damn cheap and feckless to take any responsibility for anything. Anything.

Richard Corcoran, the new Commissioner of Education, is fond of calling people “evil.” He should look in the mirror. I will do whatever I can to help him do that until ya’ll kick me out of office.

A better path: Guardians + rapid response community officers + real community collaboration

I am very proud of how Polk County dealt with the steaming mess that our legislators left us, without any consultation, in the aftermath of Parkland and the Legislative session.

I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Superintendent Jackie Byrd, who showed great courage and moral clarity in opposing measures to arm staff. I happen to think it is her finest moment as superintendent. Sheriff Judd had a somewhat different point-of-view. But, crucially, we all aired these points-of-view openly and publicly and in good faith. We engaged and debated in a truly outstanding public meeting. The public itself engaged powerfully. And together, as a community, we built our own compromise solution. This is how politics and public policy development should work.

Rather than arm teachers and staff, we created uniformed “guardians,” trained by Sheriff Judd’s office in advanced firearms tactics, to patrol elementary school grounds. Crucially, the guardians don’t have disciplinary or instructional roles. They are about protection. Period.

Sheriff Judd’s logistical and communication genius — and the hard work of our HR staff — had this program up and running in time for the new school year. I’ve heard great feedback from the elementary schools about them. The kids and staff seem to enjoy having them around. And we already have school resource officer coverage at middle and high schools.

Today, I think Polk is considered the state leader in how we addressed it. Again, I think Sheriff Judd’s administrative skills and unique ability to command public attention deserves much of the credit for that perception. I thank him for it.

I hope he’ll consider applying that same talent for persuasion to the community policing rapid response concept. I bet he could convince the Legislature. I hope Sheriff Judd and Sheriff Gualtieri will watch the video of Mike Dunn closely and help us all think hard about both sides of the school safety equation.

 

One comment

  1. Once again, sir, you’ve made proud to have cast a vote for you. Thanks for your reason and your passion!