Improving public safety, particularly the safety of our children, is a universally recognized need that has become central to the gun debate. President Obama has suggested hiring more police officers. The National Rifle Association has proposed that all (nearly 100,000) public schools have armed security instead of the current 23,000. Though both proposals have merit, both are also extremely expensive. What if there was a way to have more armed security, enhance deterrence and provide more efficient response when lethal acts occur, all at a tiny fraction of the cost?
There is a way, and it could be achieved relatively quickly by expanding arrangements that already exist.
Many states have programs to train and license individuals who need to carry lethal weapons in their employment, such as armed security guards and detectives. This system could be expanded to train and license a new type of public servant, a licensed public security agent. These agents would be unpaid volunteers who undergo the same qualifying requirements — including psychological testing — and receive the same training and licensing as do current professionals who carry firearms. However, they would not be employed as security personnel. Instead, they would function in public places and in their place of employment, if authorized by their employer, as agents authorized to protect public safety.
Public security agents would carry a concealed firearm and credentials, be trained in the law and use of lethal force appropriate to their function, and be subject to legally established procedures and limitations. Their function would not be to replace the police, but to be only early responders to lethal situations until police could arrive. Retired police officers, sportsmen and sportswomen (among others) could serve the public good in this way. Safeguards against both negligent action by agents and unwarranted lawsuits against them could be provided through a "Good Samaritan" law, and matters such as insurance and liability would also be necessary.
These agents could have an immediate bearing on minimizing public massacres such as the one in Newtown, Conn. That's because we know, as researcher John Lott Jr. has reported, that nearly every public shooting in the United States in which more than three people have been killed since at least 1950 has occurred in a place where citizens are not allowed to carry a gun. Mr. Lott's observations demonstrate that criminals choose such "gun-free zones" precisely because they know that they will be safe there. Well-intentioned, gun-free zones are like Prohibition: They inadvertently encourage the undesired behavior. As with Prohibition, repeal of gun-free zones is the best solution. Allowing public security agents to carry firearms in otherwise gun-free zones, as law enforcement officers can, would likely eliminate the incentive for criminals to target gun-free zones, dramatically altering the dynamics that now facilitate mass shootings.
Agents could also improve general public safety. In 1993, criminologist Gary Kleck conducted the first research ever devoted explicitly to investigating armed self-defense by private citizens in the United States. It found that each year there are between 2.2 million and 2.5 million uses of guns for self-defense, not including professional law enforcement cases. This means about 6,000 Americans defend themselves with a gun per day. Even if the figures were 10 percent of that, 600 Americans having to defend themselves with a gun every day indicates a level of crime that would justify the creation of a public security agent corps.
Mr. Kleck's research also revealed that when citizens defended themselves with guns, the gun was fired in only 24 percent of the instances, with only 8 percent resulting in wounds. Since brandishing a gun is usually sufficient to stop a crime, such a corps could improve public safety while seldom injuring anyone.
Public schools and other employers could select and pay for the training of several public security agents for a fraction of the cost of hiring a single professional security officer because those people already work for them, are regularly on-site and would serve without additional compensation. Government could bear the costs for training agents whose employers do not for a tiny fraction of hiring more police officers. This makes sense because public safety is a government responsibility. Often, public security agent candidates would already own firearms and holsters.
Another benefit of a public security agent program would be that many more trained security agents would be functioning in public places, in schools and elsewhere at very little cost to the public. Mr. Kleck notes that not a single referenced study has concluded that increased numbers of licensed citizens carrying firearms has increased crime. In fact, crime — including the murder rate — has been dropping since 1993 at the same time that gun ownership and concealed-carrying of firearms has been increasing. Rather, many criminal acts would likely be stopped before they become massacres.
Widely publicizing the increased number of security agents would likely provide a substantial deterrent effect. David Kopel recently reported in The Wall Street Journal, "At the Clackamas Mall in Oregon [Dec. 12, 2012], an active shooter murdered two people and then saw that a shopper, who had a handgun carry permit, had drawn a gun and was aiming at him. The murderer's next shot was to kill himself."
George Van Pelt Campbell is a professor of sociology and religion at Grove City College and a contributing scholar with the Center for Vision and Values.