The term “target hardening” has been around for at least half a century. Experts in war and defense have used it to describe efforts to deter terrorist attacks against sensitive facilities such as nuclear reactors, refineries, and airports. Criminologists and other behavioral scientists have used the expression to capture a litany of things that appear to deter crime—from basic protections like gates, locks, and alarms to more sophisticated fortifications through architectural design. The academic literature on target hardening is extensive indeed—with the emphasis throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, mostly on the goal of preventing burglary and other theft.
But in more recent years, the term has found new meaning. In the aftermath of several school shootings, many citizens and politicians have suggested that we begin hardening schools. The suggestions have ranged from installing metal detectors to hiring armed guards to even arming teachers, as President Trump has suggested. To supporters of this strategy, only a gun in the hands of a good guy can stop one in the hands of a bad guy.
I argued recently in our Brainstorm Health Daily newsletter why arming teachers is a dangerous idea. And yesterday, in a sad reinforcement of that argument, a Georgia high school teacher was arrested for firing a handgun out the window of a classroom where he’d barricaded himself, for unknown reasons, and causing yet another panic among frightened kids—a case that’s hardly as rare as one might think (see here and here).
But the bigger concern isn’t the risk of a few teachers with excessively bad judgment. No, the real issue is that “hardening” schools with gun-toting profs or guards isn’t going to stop gun massacres in this country.
For one thing, there are too many soft targets in America (or anywhere else) to harden. The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was a soft white target with a red front door and three flagpoles standing tall in the yard. In November, a lone gunman interrupted Sunday services with his Ruger AR assault rifle, murdering more than two dozen people—including the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter—and wounding 20 others. Nine were gunned down in similar fashion at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, in 2015. There have been mass shooting at places of worship in Colorado Springs and Oak Creek, Wisconsin; in Baton Rouge, in Fort Worth, and in Daingerfield, Texas: population, 2,560. Soft targets, all.
Five were shot dead at a Macy’s department store in the Cascades Mall in Burlington, Washington. No one had thought to harden the makeup counter where they perished. The IHOP in Carson City, Nevada, was serving fluffy stacks of pancakes—even on September 6, 2011, when a madman killed five and injured seven with his MAK-90 semi-automatic rifle. One victim was a 67-year-old woman, quietly eating her breakfast. Three others were National Guardsmen, taking a morning break.
Since August 1966, as the Washington Post outlines in a gut-stirring data visualization that truly every American should spend an hour with, there have been 150 mass shootings in which at least four people were murdered, nearly always by a lone gunman. Dozens of these rampages happened at stores, restaurants, bars, or nightclubs; they occurred at offices and on turnpikes, in movie theaters and in RV parks.
They happened at so many so-called soft targets that the notion that we can harden all of them, or most of them, simply defies reason. Moreover, the notion that we should harden them—that we should turn the peace and tranquility of everyday life into a showcase of defensive armor—defies the very spirit of American freedom.
We can call out lots of reasons why this nation suffers from a record of gun tragedies that no other country on earth experiences—and we can conjure up other theories until we forget the urgency of Parkland and Las Vegas and Newtown and move on to something else. But in the end, it comes down to this: We have too many damn guns in the wrong damn hands.
This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.