RATIONAL AND IRRATIONAL THOUGHTS


I’m a local substitute math teacher considering making an irrational decision not to teach any more.  A substitute teacher was one of those killed at Sandy Hook, and 14 of his students with him.  This was in a school that was locked at 9:30, had good security, intercom warnings, and somebody running down the hall warning teachers.

I teach in a school with only an intercom warning system.  The campus is spread out, and it is unlocked.  There are numerous entrances to the campus and to most buildings.  In the morning, there is a congregation of well over 100 students I jostle through, getting to where I teach.  I imagine what one shooter with an assault rifle–or two (rifles or shooters or perhaps each shooter with two assault rifles)–would do to this crowd.  It would be as Nate Silver calls it, an 8th or 9th magnitude earthquake in the analogy of school shootings, with over a thousand rounds fired.  What if there were 3 shooters?  We haven’t had that yet, but it does not mean it couldn’t happen.  After all, people wouldn’t fly a plane into a building–until they did.  It would be an order of magnitude worse than anything we’ve seen, and we’ve seen horrific scenes.

Yet statistically, I am far more likely to die in a car accident than in a school shooting.  But all of us use cars daily; far fewer use firearms daily, so my decision isn’t perhaps quite as irrational.

School shootings are American terrorism, and if Islamic fundamentalists did this, we would probably ban all Muslims from school, a very irrational–but would be popular–approach.  Terrorism deeply affects us.  Other drivers aren’t trying to kill me. But I worry about being the substitute who happens to be behind the door a shooter opens. Excessive worrying about unlikely events happens when we are terrorized.  After 9/11, we hid the mayor, and somebody who found powder in a men’s room called 911.  It was baby powder, not anthrax.  We were scared and a little irrational.

What if there are 20 shooters?  Twenty, you ask?  Yes, because now there are calls to arm teachers.  Some even want to arm students.  Here are 3 thoughts I have, first as a mathematician, then as a person in a school yard, and finally as a substitute in a room.

I carry a gun, which I don’t like, and which introduces an element of danger already.  Every teacher has one, and accidents can happen.  Oh sure, you say, they are unlikely, so let’s assume 1 in 10,000 has a gun go off accidentally on a given day, and let’s say one in a 100 of those produces injury and one in 100 of those produces a fatality.  That’s pretty conservative, don’t you think?  A teacher leaves a gun in a drawer, and a student takes it.  Of course, it could happen.  A teacher shows a curious student the gun, and drops it.  Or, and this is really scary, a teacher walks by a student’s desk, and a student takes the gun quickly from the holster.  All of these are possibilities, plus a few others I have not thought of.  Teachers are not well-trained in gun safety, and I doubt we will find the money to teach them, many of whom would be like me–scared–to handle a gun.  We have about 6 million teachers and 180 days of school a year.  That is 1.08 X 10^9 teacher-days a year.  With the above probabilities, because we can assume independence, we would have a 1 in 10 million probability of a fatality every day (wow, that is really low), but multiplied by the number of teacher-days, that would be 100 deaths per year.   That is the mathematical approach.  Low probability events, when occurring many, many times, produce winners.  The probability of winning the lottery is 1 in 110 million.  But if there are 330 million people buying tickets, the expected value of number of winners is 3.  That’s lottery winners, not dead people.

Here’s the second scenario, in the schoolyard:  Can you imagine an totally chaotic scene with students falling, others running into the line of fire, screaming, panicking, and crying?  Do you think you are going to know whom to shoot at in this situation?  Worse, if you start shooting, how will anybody know that you are one of the good guys?  This is a romantic, bad idea that would kill a lot of people.  When the police arrive, how will they know who is the perpetrator?  I am not being irrational when it comes to imagining a shootout at a school. Have we gone back to the OK Corral?

Here’s the third scenario- my biggest fear.  I am substituting, when a gunman walks in (or shoots his way in) the door.  My first–and last–thought is “This can’t be happening.”  Now my gun is available for the shooter.  I am not going to likely carry my gun on my hip, and even if I do, taking it out to shoot will take far too long to deter any assailant.

Guns for students, for whom a breakup or bad grade can easily hijack their brain, are a recipe for disaster, for it takes only a brief flexion of a finger of an emotionally distraught person to destroy a life. That is the fundamental danger with guns and unstable people–an impulsive response, a brief movement, are all that is required.

If we don’t change our laws, I am completely certain we will have another mass shooting with more than 10 deaths.  There is no credible evidence to suggest otherwise.  There is a high probability it will occur in the next 5 years, and a lower, but still a very significant probability a much worse future incident–10 times the numbers of deaths–a true 9/11 in our world of gun violence.

We must not kowtow to the perfectionists; attempts to ensure complete safety are impossible, may backfire, produce a backlash, and get no changes at all. This happened with leghold traps in 1992.  The purists wanted hunting regulations, too, and that killed the proposition.  We had to wait two more years to introduce a bill banning leghold traps only, which did pass.  We must ban true weapons of mass destruction in America, fund mental health care adequately, and stop sales at gun shows.  Finally, no male under 20 should have unsupervised access to a firearm, because we currently cannot separate the “strange” from the “strange and dangerous.”  These are all rational approaches that, while far from perfect, will greatly decrease the probability of mass shootings.

I’ll probably teach, but I will lock the door.

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