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Another Voice: It's time for lawmakers to do their duty on guns

By David O’Rourke

On March 14, students walked out of classrooms across Western New York and our nation. These students remembered the 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and demonstrated in solidarity to send a message to federal lawmakers: Schools need reform of our nation’s gun laws.

Also on March 14, our House of Representatives passed legislation to spend $50 million-$75 million per year from 2019-2028 on school security. The 131,000 U.S. public and private schools would receive, on average, $381 a year. Enhanced background checks and laws governing access to assault weapons were left untouched.

School shootings are a superintendent’s worst imaginable nightmare. One school superintendent said to me, “The thing keeping me up at night is wondering if I have done everything possible to prevent this from happening in my schools.”

Some argue this is not about guns. A 2015 study by Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama compared nations, proving that as gun ownership increased, odds of a mass shooting increased. This held true even if U.S. data is excluded, isolating other purported causes of U.S. mass shootings.

Arming teachers won’t help. A 2008 RAND Corp. study found highly trained police fire with only an 18 percent accuracy in a firefight. And in the past two weeks in the U.S., three firearms accidentally discharged in schools engaged in arming teachers. More guns in schools will make schools less safe.

I’ve seen videos of extreme shooter simulations with blank ammunition rounds discharged in school corridors. Students hide in corners of classrooms out of eyesight. Something is so fundamentally wrong with this. I worry about the impact of these “hardening” measures on students’ experiences. Are students more likely to learn when faced with an omnipresent threat of school shootings? A 2010 Harvard study found persistent anxiety and fear affects the brain’s architecture – making it more difficult for students to learn.

These urgent but reactive “hardening” measures also draw resources away from other school programs, including mental health. We need investments in shaping young people who are not only less dangerous, but who are more resilient, empathetic and emotionally intelligent.

Many superintendents are asking: What are federal lawmakers doing to regulate firearms and reduce access to assault weapons? Since 1999, schools have spent millions on safety enhancements to try to keep students safer. It’s time for lawmakers to step up.

With yet another school shooting in Maryland this week, how long must we wait for legislative action? Gun policy discussion in the U.S. is bogged down in ruts of polarized and partisan political thinking. The status quo has led to more shootings and more young people killed. This is unacceptable. Our children are learning how to fear. On March 14, students walked out of classrooms to stand up for the safe schools they deserve. Political leaders, educators and parents need to take action to ensure safer approaches to guns in the United States.

David O’Rourke, Ph.D, is the district superintendent of the Second Supervisory District of New York State and CEO of Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES.

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