The recent shooting at Santa Fe High School, not far from where I grew up, compels me to revisit an issue I expounded upon in my last book, Letters to a Young Progressive. Because so many are unnecessarily complicating the discussion of what causes school shootings – and what can be done to stop them – I felt the need to take time to weigh in on the issue. The first step in doing so is to remind readers that crime is best viewed as an event that takes place when three conditions are fulfilled:
- There must be a motivated offender to commit the crime.
- The motivated offender must encounter a suitable target for the crime.
- There must be an absence of capable guardians to stop the crime.
This threefold explanation of crime isn’t new. It’s part of a theory first introduced by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson in 1979. It is called Routine Activities Theory for a good reason. To put it succinctly, Cohen and Felson wanted the name of the theory to reflect their contention that crime rates are affected by the routine activities of non-criminals and not just the behavior of the criminal. Felson provides numerous examples in his book Crime and Everyday Life. First, I will apply the theory to gun violence in general before moving to the more specific issue of school shootings and what we should do about them.
The concept of the motivated offender isn’t hard to explain. Crimes simply do not occur without motives. In the case of armed robbery, someone might attack a victim motivated by nothing more than a desire to obtain the victim’s wallet – so he can spend the victim’s cash and use his credit cards.
The concept of the suitable target is not much more complicated. Put simply, the armed robber is unlikely to attack a large man wearing an NRA t-shirt. He will select a victim that is less likely to fight back and easier to overcome. The armed robber will consider the victim’s size and his body language – in order to gauge both his ability and willingness to fend off an attack. Obviously, he will also consider the likelihood that the potential victim is armed.
Finally, the concept of the capable guardian reminds us that other actors beside the victim and perpetrator affect the chances of any crime occurring. It should not surprise anyone that robbers generally seek to pounce upon isolated victims in areas where no eyewitness are to be found. Nor should it surprise anyone that this is more likely to take place in a physical location where potential onlookers are unlikely to be armed. The alley is a good place for a mugging. Better still if near a bar district where alcohol is consumed and guns are generally forbidden.
This provides a rather obvious transition into the more specific issue of school shootings and what is to be done about them. Obviously, liberals and conservatives have very different views about which of the three conditions should be the focal point of any response to school shootings. But first it would be helpful to discuss what they agree about.
Conservatives and liberals may well disagree about the efficacy of arming citizens as a means of making them less suitable targets of crime. But, to state the obvious, they do agree that arming students as a means of reducing school shootings is not the solution. So that leaves us with only two options. The one you pick depends upon your view of human nature, which is inextricably tied to your political ideology.
Because he has a tendency to view human beings as intrinsically good, the liberal sees reducing the prevalence of motivated offenders as the preferred solution. If people are good, then they only become criminals because of “society.” Hence, reforming “society” will help reform the criminal. Add to that a penchant for counseling and a therapeutic model soon emerges. The problem with this approach is that it takes a lot of time and money to cure whole societies and even individual criminals.
Because he has a tendency to view human beings as intrinsically broken, the conservative sees increasing the prevalence of capable guardians as the preferred solution. He wants to place armed security guards in public schools. And while he might not favor training and arming schoolteachers, he sees no reason to keep those who are already trained and licensed carriers from having their permits nullified simply because they are on school grounds.
Ultimately, conservatives and liberals must put their ideological differences aside. If there is to be progress, both groups must agree to allow one another to put their ideas into practice within the public school system. Towards that end, there is both good news and bad news.
The good news is that conservatives are not actively opposing liberal efforts to reduce motivated offenders. For example, there is no conservative movement to eliminate school counselors in response to these tragic shootings. Conservatives simply seek to supplement the therapeutic approach with their own ideas.
The bad news is that liberals will have none of it. They generally oppose armed security guards in high schools and they certainly oppose lifting the ban on concealed carry permits in our public schools. The liberal Los Angeles Times recently even opposed metal detectors – and for precisely the same reason: These are all painful reminders of the conservative view of human nature.
Instead of metal detectors, the Los Angeles Times editors recommended, “Shared parks, clinics and recreational facilities” adding, “These help to make neighborhoods safer as people engage in community activities together; they also create stronger support for schools.”
In short, liberals are more dedicated to preserving naïve visions of human nature than preserving vulnerable children. And that is why we have not seen the last of the shootings.