Gun Violence in Schools: A European Perspective

By: Nick O’Connell

Too often, American citizens have experienced mass shootings in schools across the country, with Parkland being the latest example. Pundits, citizens, and politicians all weigh in to denounce these events, but ideas on how to stop this kind of violence often polarize the debate. Gun control is central to this conversation, dividing the American people between those who believe in stricter gun laws as a way of keeping weapons away from certain individuals, and those who believe that more guns in the hands of ‘good’ citizens will make for a safer environment. In response to the Parkland shooting, President Trump has invited survivors to the White House to discuss the issue and to outline some of his administration’s ideas to prevent future school shootings. One of his proposals, arming teachers, has been the most controversial and highly criticized, though some schools have already applied the policy arming school staffers and teachers.

An outside perspective, of someone who has not been involved in the storm of the issue, provides insight otherwise left unheard. To better understand the international reaction to gun violence in schools and the drastic policies proposed by the Trump administration, I interviewed European teachers from countries with extremely few mass shooting incidents. The goal of the interviews was to hear their ideas, their experience with school safety, and their position on the possibility of arming teachers.

Have you heard about America’s problem with school shootings?

“Every teacher knows about the issue,” says Chus Casales, a Spanish high school teacher. Most European teachers know about the issue through their schools’ exchange programs, through which students sometimes spend a year in the United States. Others, through Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine, have become accustomed to the issue – as pointed out by Laurent, a French teacher.

How does your country protect its school? Does your school have any security measures?

European teachers say this is an American problem and many European countries don’t have to deal with these kinds of issues. Carmen Merinero, a Spanish teacher, says that “in Spain there are no security policies regarding the issue, simply because the average citizen doesn’t have easy access to guns. There are very tight gun control laws in Spain.” Again, Rita Dell’Amore, an Italian Literature teacher, says that “Italian schools don’t have gun safety policies. I have never heard of an Italian school shooting, it just doesn’t happen.” In France, schools now have stricter security systems as a response to terrorism, not school shootings. Even in Finland, the European country with the highest rate of gun-related crime, government officials have not deemed the introduction of drastic security measurements necessary. “We’ve had our own school shootings here in Finland, so we’ve trained our students to hide, just in case. But nothing more” said Pasi Majasaari, principal of a Helsinki high school.

Did you know many American schools already have armed guards on site?

Interestingly enough, the majority of interviewed teachers did not know about this situation. Some heard about it only following Parkland. Many of the teachers interviewed were surprised that U.S. schools already had such drastic measures and could not understand how this was not enough to prevent these tragedies. Many thought the introduction of armed guards was a solution proposed by the Trump administration. Finnish principal Pasi, who experienced two school shootings in his country, once in 2007 and again in 2008, stated that he knew about this measure, but said it would be unthinkable to introduce such a policy in any Finnish school. “It would be really strange to see that type of thing [armed security guards] in Finland. You don’t avoid gun related crimes with more guns.”

Have you heard about Mr. Trump’s proposal to arm teachers?

All of them agreed on the absurdity of the proposal. “Teachers are not policemen,” says André, a teacher from Paris. Pasi added that “guns are rooted in American culture, so the idea that more guns can reduce violence makes sense to them. Here in Finland, it doesn’t.”  Learning that there are already schools with armed teachers, Letizia Bisacchi, a teacher in Italy, says “It is very paradoxical since schools should be safe heavens, not armed fortresses.” “In Europe we have a different mentality,” says André, “we have to face terrorism that can happen anywhere, but more guns are not a solution for us, it’s not in our way of thinking, a huge majority of people are against the right to have a weapon.” Pasi made an interesting point, stating that “the days of the Wild West are gone. And I don’t buy the idea that guns are rooted in American culture. Europe used to be the same, centuries ago. People used guns to protect themselves from bandits and thieves in country land with no laws, but we moved on and they will too.”

In talking to European teachers, I found that many acknowledged the delicate nature of gun laws, and focused more on other possible solutions, not fighting guns with guns. Carmen from Madrid says that funding for the prevention of dangerous situations could be part of the solution. She highlights how often lack of communication between the school and the students’ families is the source of many problems, violence in schools included. She also points to the importance of working with and investing in student counseling and orienteering to provide a supportive platform for students who need one. Also, helping families with a lack of resources to support their children’s overall education and personal growth is important.

Teachers don’t think being armed will solve gun violence in schools. Laurent from Paris concludes with a possible situation in which “someone enters my classroom with a semiautomatic gun. Do you really think that I would be good enough and properly trained to shoot him with a handgun in my purse? We’re not in a movie.”

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