The numbers don’t add up when it comes to arming teachers

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President Donald Trump (center), with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (second from left) and Vice President Mike Pence (second from right), bows his head during a prayer before a listening session on gun violence with teachers and students in the State Dining Room of the White House on Wednesday. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

You don’t need trouble grasping big numbers to believe in God.

But it helps.

Whenever a foe of evolution explains how some natural wonder, the human eye say, is so complex it just had to be created by Divine intelligence, I know we’re dealing with someone who can’t — or, to be kind, won’t — wrap his head around the concept of millions of years. Who has no patience for the slow evolutionary crawl from single-celled organism to giraffe that science has mapped out in its gradual glory.

Which is fine, as far as that goes. I begrudge no man his illusions. A pretty story helps us get by.


It’s only when they insist that their origin fable be taught along with science in public schools, as co-equals, that I raise an objection. Because one is solid fact, and the other a tissue of fantasy, and musty, millennia-old fantasy at that. There is still a difference.

Not that religion has a monopoly on innumeracy. Gun ownership — while a fun and unobjectionable hobby for most — has become a redemptive religion for others, for a minority who, alas, drive the conversation about guns in this country. It isn’t about hunting quail or shooting targets or collecting, not anymore.

It’s about belief. And ignoring big numbers.

Generally. The National Rifle Association, their papacy, has no trouble grasping big numbers such as millions of dollars, and understanding exactly what those mega-bucks can do when purchasing politicians.

Like any religion, they have beliefs they consider truths, and can rattle them off: that guns keep them safe from a frightening world, that more guns keep them more safe, and the prospect of fewer guns, for whatever reason, is an existential threat to the nation.

The fact that assault rifles were banned for a decade and the Republic did not crumble doesn’t register, except to prompt a homily on the complex controversy over exactly what an “assault rifle” might be.

Normally, I don’t meddle in another’s faith. If stockpiling firearms makes you feel better about yourself, well, go for it, pal. The threat caused by buying a gun is mostly to the purchaser and his family.

But just as your religion becomes my business when it stops being a warm story you tell in your church on Sundays and starts being a narrative you want taught to kids as if it were real, so the religious passion that certain Americans, and their bought politicians, have for guns becomes my business when they suggest that their holy relics will save us all, that the answer to school shootings is arming teachers.

A spectacularly bad idea, and here is where math comes in. As with evolution, the notion of large numbers points the way, with the addition of the concept of false positives. Take a very large number: the number of teachers in the United States, for instance. And apply it to a supposed solution to a very rare problem — school shootings — you have to understand that the risk from the solution, the false positives generated by all those armed English teachers and heat-packing football coaches — must outweigh any beneficial influence on the rare problem you are supposedly coping with.

Think of police officers — trained, far more than teachers could ever be. In 2015, police officers killed about 100 unarmed black people. There are about a million police officers. There are about 3.6 million elementary and secondary teachers. Including last week’s Florida shooting, about 145 people have been killed in the United States in mass school shootings since Sandy Hook in 2012. Gun-toting teachers will kill far more students than they save.

This isn’t taking anything away from teachers. But they are human. Imagine them armed, all day, every day. Vigilance eases, lockers are left open, guns accidentally discharge. Disturbed kids get access to their guns. Not to mention teachers who fire their guns in error, or who themselves snap.

So when anyone talks about arming teachers — and the idea won’t go away just because Donald Trump tried to walk back his suggestion that it be done — they are floating a solution, based on faith in guns and general ignorance, certain to killmore kids than are killed by the problem they are trying to address. The numbers don’t add up.

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