Once again, a horrible school shooting brings our attention to the dangers facing today’s young adults at the hands of their own peers. Once again, the NRA and politicians from both sides of the aisle pontificate about the sanctity of the Second Amendment and manipulate selective facts to justify their inevitable inaction. Once again, simplistic solutions are being presented by both sides that do little to deter the increasing impact of guns on an American society.

I am in a unique position in that I was the principal during two school shootings; first at Thurston High School in 1998 in Oregon and then nine years later at Springwater Trail High School in 2007, also in Oregon. Twenty years ago this spring Kip Kinkel killed his parents at home and the next morning came to Thurston High School to unleash a barrage of bullets in a cafeteria teeming with nearly 800 students. Two students died and 26 were wounded. Nine years later Chad Escobedo stole his stepfather’s rifle and shot at Springwater Trail High School from across the street, shattering two windows and resulting in ten students with minor injuries, most from the shattering of glass.

Commonalities between the two cases included mental health issues; all weapons involved had been legally purchased by the parents; neither conducted the shooting because of school issues but rather because of personal issues involving the family. What might account for the difference in the outcome? Perhaps the choice of weapon?

Kinkel used a semi-automatic rifle, spraying the crowded cafeteria until the 50 round clip ran out of bullets. Chad Escobedo lay in a field across the street and used a .270 Winchester rifle to shoot twice at the high school before throwing it to the ground and leaving. There is no question that the use of the semi-automatic rifle contributed to the scale of the horror at Thurston High, just as the use of the .270 Winchester minimized the scale of the attack at Springwater Trail.

Banning semi-automatic weapons will not end mass shootings but it might reduce the scale of the impact of a shooter and give more time for a defensive response. Does the benefit to society of being able to own a semi-automatic weapon outweigh the potential saving of life in the next school shooting?

I know there are more than 300 million guns in America and banning the production and sale of new semi-automatic weapons does nothing to reduce the backlog. But how can it hurt to reduce the flood of new semi-automatic weapons hitting our streets? Criminals will always be able to get a gun, but historically school shooters are not career criminals. A significant difference in terms of ease of access to weapons.

The political approach is to preach the need to “harden the environment” to protect students. Some suggest the installation of metal detectors. How will this work? If someone has decided to go shoot up a school, won’t he just start with the convenient target of the line of students waiting to go through the metal detector?

Another current favorite: Let’s arm teachers. Who are we kidding? Think back to the teachers in your life, would you want some of them packing a gun?

As a principal, I know for sure that some of the first volunteers would be those least appropriate. And once the gun was on the school campus how would it be secured in such a way that it was safe, yet quickly and easily available? How would that have worked in the Thurston High School cafeteria, a shootout in the middle of 800 panic-stricken students?

The presence of armed defenders on campus is assumed to be a deterrent. It wouldn’t have been for Kip Kinkel or any number of other school shooters who were looking for a suicide opportunity. It wasn’t for Nikolas Cruz at the latest shooting in Parkland, Florida. There had been armed security guards on that high school campus for years, he had dealt with them as a student and surely knew they were present.

I caution those who have jumped to the conclusion that the school resource officer on campus was a coward and didn’t rush to intervene. I know from personal experience that there’s a great deal of misinformation spread in the wake of a school shooting. Politicians should be talking with administrators and teachers who have survived school shootings to learn of their experiences in addition to the viewpoints of the students.

This is a very complex problem with no simple solution. But common sense dictates that a few steps can be taken that will reduce the opportunity for a shooting as well as reduce the number of potential victims:

  • Increase mental health support for young adults and link the mental health support system with local law enforcement to provide the opportunity for early intervention.
  • Raise the legal age to purchase a semi-automatic weapon to 21. This would make the purchaser three years removed from the high school setting and three years distance from the emotional angst of the high school experience.
  • Ban large clips of ammunition. Victims have a much greater chance for survival when they are not being sprayed with bullets from a large clip. The Thurston shooting only stopped when the clip in Kip Kinkel’s semi-automatic rifle emptied.
  • Increase and enforce background checks for the purchase of a gun. 
  • Repeal the Dickey Amendment, a 1996 law that prevents the Center for Disease Control from conducting research into the impact of gun violence. How can we address the problem if the NRA-backed law prevents research into the cause and impact of gun violence?

None of these suggestions will eliminate school shootings, but they can begin to reduce the ease of opportunity for a school shooter and, perhaps, reduce the potential number of victims. I am not advocating for total and complete gun control. I am not asking individuals to give up all of their guns. I am asking that we all examine our consciences and stop rationalizing the possession of semi-automatic weapons. No one has a need to own a semi-automatic weapon for recreational purposes; hunting should be a sport, not cold-blooded slaughter.

Billings native Larry Bentz has retired to his hometown after a career in education.