After the Nashville Covenant School shooting on March 27, 2023 — in which three adults and three children were killed along with the shooter — claims about the effectiveness of arming teachers and school staff swirled online. They continued to circulate weeks later, after Louisville's Old National Bank shooting on April 10, 2023, which killed five people and injured eight others.
"If banks, with armed guards, high tech security systems, and cameras everywhere can't stop a mass shooter how can anyone suggest arming teachers or putting police in American schools would be a reasonable solution for kids being gunned down while simply trying to learn??," Rex Chapman tweeted on the same day as the bank shooting.
If banks, with armed guards, high tech security systems, and cameras everywhere can't stop a mass shooter how can anyone suggest arming teachers or putting police in American schools would be a reasonable solution for kids being gunned down while simply trying to learn??
— Rex Chapman???????? (@RexChapman) April 10, 2023
Other posts about arming teachers in schools could be found on social media platforms like Reddit, TikTok, and Facebook. Discussions surrounding the effectiveness of armed teachers have surfaced online before, like after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 that killed 17 people.
Elected officials have discussed the question as well. Following the Nashville school shooting, U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie and Rep. Jamaal Bowman were recorded getting into a heated debate in the U.S. Capitol over allowing more guns in schools. "There's never been a school shooting in the hundreds of schools that allow staff to carry," Massie later claimed in a tweet.
The data needed to fully confirm or disprove the claim were sparse. Complicating matters, the definition of "school staff" can vary to include school resource officers or other types of law enforcement officers who often carry firearms, depending on the source. Also, there is no central database tracking every U.S. school that allows people on campus, no matter their title, to carry guns.
We found at least one instance of a mass shooting in a school where employees of the school district — school police officers — were allowed to carry guns: the 2022 shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that resulted in the deaths of 19 students and two teachers.
Who Can Carry Guns in Schools?
Teachers themselves are allowed to carry guns in some states. According to a research review by the nonprofit think tank RAND Corporation last updated in January 2023, 28 states allowed schools to arm teachers or staff as of January 1, 2021. States like Missouri have passed laws that create frameworks for school employees to be armed.
That said, the number of adults in schools carrying guns increases if you consider all types of staff members, not just teachers. For instance, whether employed by a school or an outside law-enforcement agency, officers who are tasked with patrolling campuses often carry firearms.
Some school districts consider these types of officers, called school resource officers, part of school staff, reporting directly to the superintendent. Other districts have partnerships with local law enforcement agencies to have the officers on campus.
According to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which is a part of the U.S. Department of Justice dedicated to advancing community policing, school resource officers are sworn law-enforcement officers responsible for preventing crime in schools. That is a widely used definition applied by reputable publications like EdWeek and state agencies like the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
Another part of the Department of Justice, the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center, published a research brief in September 2020 that stated school resource officers were police officers who "carry firearms, have arrest powers, and carry a police department badge" and are employed by the school, sheriff's agency, or local police departments.
Other centers like the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, considers school support staff to include school resource officers. The center also included guidance counselors, nurses, social workers, and special education aides in its definition of who was school support staff.
For the purposes of this article, we used the word "staff" to refer to school resource officers and school police departments, as well as teachers, administrators, and all other types of school employees. States and local districts have varying criteria for who can serve as school resource officers. For example, schools in South Carolina have expressed interest in hiring retired police officers as school resource officers.
Gun safety aside, there is ongoing research into whether school resource officers are an effective safety strategy overall — and/or if their presence has potential negative effects. For example, a 2021 study from the RAND Corporation and University of Albany researchers also found that suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests were significantly higher in schools with school resource officers, impacting Black students at a rate over two times than that of white students.
What Does Research Say About Armed Staff in Schools?
Overall, proponents of having armed resource officers in schools argue that they make schools safer. In a 2021 study from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), National Police Foundation President Jim Burch wrote, "...carefully selected, well trained, and properly equipped school resource officers provide an important resource in the prevention and response to school attacks."
When we reached out to Massie's office for evidence to support his claim about school shootings and armed staff, a spokesperson cited an April 2019 study by economist John Lott. Lott has been described by publications like The New Yorker and The Trace as the most influential pro-gun researcher in the country. Many academics have refuted his findings.
The study examined the rate of shootings between January 2000 to August 2018 in all K-12 school shootings that purportedly allowed teachers to carry guns. The research did not identify one shooting in which someone was wounded or killed, and said the researchers had contacted each institution that experienced a shooting and where questions remained about what had been the school's firearms policy. The study specifically looked at armed teachers, not armed resource officers or other types of school employees.
Lott's study also concluded that there had never been a report of a student getting ahold of a staff member's gun. That finding didn't specify whether it considered schools that do, or do not, allow armed teachers — or both. (We found evidence of students reportedly gaining access to guns during the time of the study. For example, two Missouri students stole a gun from a substitute teacher in 2018, according to a Patch Media article. The school district had not granted teachers permission to bring guns on campus.)
In other words, one study that looked at all schools between the years of 2000 and 2018 supported Massie's underlying claim that schools with armed staff don't have shootings. However, that research did not consider schools that allow non-teachers to carry guns, nor any school shootings after 2018.
Other research on arming teachers to prevent school shootings had different findings. Colombia University researchers found in 2018, nine months before Lott's research was published, there were a "multitude of questions'' regarding the effectiveness of arming teachers, including how to develop or implement training for using the firearms.
Teachers have wounded themselves in schools where they could carry guns. For example, in 2014, an Utah elementary school teacher who was a concealed-weapons permit holder injured herself in her school's bathroom when her handgun accidentally discharged. In a 2014 article by The Desert News, the school district spokesperson said state law allowed the teacher to have the concealed weapon, and that the district had no authority to prevent people with concealed weapons permits from accessing school campuses. (The example was noted in Lott's 2019 study as the only accidental discharge by a permit holder on K-12 property.)
Not only do studies focusing specifically on armed teachers offer various findings, but research into the effectiveness of firearms being carried by any type of school employee — including armed resource officers — also do not answer the underlying question: Do guns make schools safer?
According to a PolitiFact article from May 2022, there were no credible studies that show the presence of armed officers keeps violent people from targeting schools with guns. The National Institute of Justice, which is the research, development and evaluation agency of the Department of Justice, found in 2022 that research did not support arming school resource officers as an effective safety strategy.
Has There Ever Been a Shooting in a School With Armed Staff Members?
According to our review of recent school shootings, there was at least one instance in which a shooting occurred where employees of a school district were armed.
In May 2022, a shooter killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The Texas Tribune wrote in June 2022 that Texas police officers employed by school districts report to a chief who works directly under the district's superintendent. As such, it was accurate to say the police officers working for the Uvalde CISD police department were employees of the school district, not another jurisdiction.
According to The Texas Tribune's timeline of the shooting, the Uvalde school district police chief at the time, Pete Arredondo, entered the school with another school district officer at 11:35 a.m. The timeline stated Arrendondo did not have his radios because he thought they would slow him down and he wanted to have both hands on his gun. He remained in the building during the shooting, and was later fired by the school district in connection to his response to the shooting.
There was no evidence that any teachers or administrators were armed during the shooting. It was reported that there were no Uvalde CISD police present before the shooting began. We sent the school district a request to respond to what we found — that there were armed employees of the school district on campus at the time of the shooting — and we will update this check if we hear back.
It was possible other school shootings could fall under this category as well. It was first reported by The Tennessean that at least one staff member at the Nashville school where three adults and three children were shot carried guns. A person at the school reportedly told a 911 dispatcher that the school had staff that "would be packing, whose job it is for security." No further reports have come from either The Tennessean or other news publications substantiating that information.
Current Tennessee state law allows handguns to be carried in private schools as long as the school has a written handgun-carry policy that's communicated to students, faculty, other employees, and anyone else on school grounds. There is no evidence that the Covenant School had such a policy.
We found at least one instance of a mass shooting in a school where employees of the school district — school police officers — were allowed to carry guns: the 2022 shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that resulted in the deaths of 19 students and two teachers. It is possible that other school shootings could fall under this category as well, including the 2023 Nashville Covenant School shooting, though we were not able to confirm that the school had a policy allowing staff to carry firearms.