The Carnival Hucksters Take Center Stage

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Phil GoldsmithPHILADELPHIA — When a National Rifle Association-sponsored task force recently unveiled a proposal to train select school personnel to carry firearms, it copied the “now you see it, now you don’t” shell game trick that carnies love to play.

You know, it’s the game where the carnie has three or four shells and puts a peanut or some other object under one of the them and mixes them up so quickly that the contestants get so confused they can’t identify which shell contains the object.

It is the same trick NRA leader Wayne LaPierre used after the carnage in Newtown, Conn., when 20 first graders and six school administrators were slaughtered by a barrage of bullets from an assault weapon. During his rant at his post-Sandy Hook massacre press conference, LaPierre’s solution was to put armed personnel in every school in the nation.

While the NRA task force and LaPierre’s recommendations differ somewhat, the objective was the same: Take the public’s and lawmakers’ attention away from the real issues and focus instead on the wrong shell. The NRA proposal may be foolish, but the tactics are shrewd just like the carnie’s ploy to divert the contestants’ attention.

Think about it, though. How would arming select school personnel have done anything to protect the 70 people shot, including 12 who died, as they watched a film at the multiplex theater at an Aurora, Colo. Shopping mall?

Or how would the task force’s recommendation spared the life of a federal judge and five other people including a nine-year-old year gunned down in a barrage of gunfire outside a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz., where Congresswoman Gabby Gifford was also struck in the head and critically wounded as she met with constituents?

Or how would the recommendation to arm school personnel saved the life of Colorado’s prison chief Tom Clements, who reportedly was always armed but was shot to death nonetheless when he went to the front door to see who had rung his doorbell?

Or how would arming the schools, have saved the lives of 72 armed law enforcement officials who were killed in the line of duty last year?

Or for that matter how would securing our schools save the lives of some 32,000 Americans who die each year from guns, including many from suicide?

The answer, of course, is that the NRA’s “let’s arm the school proposal” would have done nothing in any of these cases. In fact, it probably would have done nothing in the Sandy Hook or Columbine tragedies except add to the casualty list by the deaths of the security guards who would have been outgunned by the rapid-fire assault weapons.

And just where would you place the newly armed security personnel in a multi-level, multi-entrance school building? And how would the nation’s cash-drained school districts pay for these guards? In many urban districts, such as Philadelphia which has metal detectors in its 56 high schools, at a cost of $24,000 per machine — which does not include the cost of four employees to man each machine — the cost of security is already very high, a drain of precious dollars from the real mission of prviding quality education.

In fact, as tragic and shocking as the Sandy Hook massacre was, there are very few shootings that occur in our schools. In Philadelphia, for example, a city where the per capita homicide rate rivals Chicago’s, there have been no shootings inside its more than 250 schools in decades.

In fact, in our urban areas where many neighborhoods are ravaged by poverty, joblessness and gun violence the school house is a bastion of safety.

However, there have been shootings of children outside the schools in the nearby neighborhoods. Or in one case, when I was chief executive officer of the school district, a student was shot in the ankle while playing in the playground during recess. The bullet came from about four blocks away misdirected in supposedly some drug shooting.

But when one of our administrators arrived at the scene, she was immediately pounced on by the news media wanting to know whether kids should be allowed outside for recess.

Of course, then as now, it was the wrong question.

The right question is how do we stem the flow of blood from the onslaught of gun violence that pervades our nation unlike any other in the industrial world.

There is no easy solution, but clearly we need to do a better job of making sure guns don’t get in the wrong hands by closing the loopholes in our current background check system (something that NRA chief LaPierre actually favored in 1999 when he said “No loopholes anywhere for anyone.”)

A limit on magazine capacity and assault weapons would stem the collateral damage that occurs when hundreds of bullets can be sprayed around indiscriminately at a blink of an eye. Tougher prison sentences for those who trade in illegal guns is a necessity; improving the nation’s mental health system and reducing the entertainment’s industry glorification of guns that shape our cultural values are essential.

We need a holistic approach, not the sliver of a solution the NRA offers up it in its shell game trick.

The shell game, unfortunately, is likely to work this time. But there is one thing that we know: There will be another massacre sometime in the near future. And we will be at it once again.

Let’s hope by that time the public is on to the carnival hucksters.

Phil Goldsmith served as chief executive officer of the School District of Philadelphia from 2000-2001 and is past president of CeaseFirePa, a statewide organization in Pennsylvania, commited to reducing gun violence.)