Reasonable, honest, well-intentioned people can disagree about what to do in response to mass shootings in America. There are data and stories to support a whole range of solutions, some legal and some cultural, some aimed at prevention and others at reducing harm, some drawn from the experience of other countries and others distinctly American, attuned to our unique attention to individual liberty and due process.
One solution not included in that range is the one proposed by Fox News host Sean Hannity on his Monday show: Militarize every public space in America until we have the total security of a bristling police state.
"I'd like to see the perimeter of every school in America surrounded, secured by retired police ... retired Secret Service ... military, and I want guys to donate 15 hours. I think we could cover every school, every hour, every day," Hannity proposed. "Add a metal detector, and I think we're going to have safer schools. Have one armed guard on every floor of every school, all over every mall, the perimeter, and inside every hall of every mall. ... We can do that with stores; we can do that in malls; we can do that pretty much anywhere the public is — courthouses — we can expand that out everywhere and keep Americans safe."
Presidential adviser Sean Hannity: "I'd like to see the perimeter of every school in America surrounded, secured by retired police ... have one armed guard on every floor of every school, all over every mall, the perimeter and inside every hall of every mall." pic.twitter.com/Renh47IiBY
— Brendan Karet (@bad_takes) August 6, 2019
Hear that? We can expand that out everywhere — armed guards on every street corner, in every shop, next to every classroom, ready to shoot at a moment's notice. Go to the movies; sit next to a gun. Eat your chips and guac under the watchful eye of a retired cop with a license to kill. Oh, what about churches? Hannity didn't mention them Monday, but his colleagues at Fox have entertained the idea of armed guards at places of worship. What could possibly go wrong?
In a word, everything. Gun rights advocates often argue that the gun control proposals now in vogue would fundamentally change our country. Whether you think that change would be positive or negative, they're not wrong. But this police state plan from Hannity would change it at least as dramatically, if not more. Thus militarizing our entire public life is a disastrous idea inimical to liberty and ripe for unintended consequences.
Consider first the practical implications. Hannity's specific pitch calls for retired law enforcement and members of the military to donate 15 hours of guard time per week, in exchange for which they are excused from paying all income taxes, state and federal. He proposed this structure because it makes the program "free," which it would have to be to make it feasible on such an enormous scale. (In reality, the money participants would save on federal income tax is probably more than what they'd make if they were simply paid by the federal government for their time.)
But that also means these guards are volunteers. To whom are they accountable? What use of force rules govern their behavior? Are they subject to the loose legal standard the Supreme Court has applied to police, which says mere "reasonable" belief in the presence of a threat justifies the use of deadly force? What happens when one of these guards makes a mistake? Are they prosecuted like the private citizens they are or accorded the protections and benefit of the doubt law enforcement consistently receive?
And mistakes would happen. Hannity's retirees would be more likely to make mistakes than active duty military or police, as with age comes decline in eyesight, hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and other aspects of physical fitness that are useful when you're standing around with a gun, looking for threats to shoot.
Disparate impact is likely, too, no matter how good the guards' intentions. It's well-known that many people have trouble distinguishing the faces of people of other ethnicities, and recent research has found the same phenomenon can apply to other groups we perceive as separate from ourselves, regardless of racial makeup. Studies have also shown black boys and girls alike are perceived as older, less innocent, and less in need of protection than their white counterparts. Is it so difficult to imagine what errors might arise if we set an elderly, white man to guard a bunch of minority high schoolers? No malice need be involved for ordinary human frailties to produce the very sort of tragedy this guard idea is supposed to prevent.
Yet even with perfect execution, Hannity's proposal should be roundly rejected. A society drenched in armed, quasi-state agents literally policing our every public move is not a free society. This is not a balance of liberty and security but a total erasure of the former in a desperate, dangerous plunge toward the latter.
The security checkpoints element — "Add a metal detector" — is ripped straight from China's onerous surveillance state in majority-minority areas of the country's west. Indeed, a 2018 Palladium Magazine report on the Xinjiang region could almost be Hannity's direct inspiration, right down to the age of the guards: "The sheer amount of policemen, police cars, police checkpoints, police stations, and security guards of all sorts is completely overwhelming," recounts Vadim Mikhailov, writing pseudonymously. "On arriving at our hotel, we stumbled upon another Xinjiang Characteristic. Shop checkpoints. The hotel had a small checkpoint with a metal detector, shields, and wooden bats in the floor. Two old men with police jackets were standing watch."
And the ubiquitous presence of armed guards is reminiscent of a nation Hannity would likely be even less willing to imitate than China: France, where heavily armed police and soldiers patrol popular tourist areas of Paris. The Eiffel Tower comes with a side of light machine guns. Do we really want the Statue of Liberty to have the same? The irony would be as thick as Hannity's hair gel.
Hannity began his pitch by noting that he has been "calling [for this] for a long time," suggesting all would be well if we would only stop ignoring his idea. But ignoring it is exactly what we should do, now and always. However we choose to address these horrific attacks, this cannot be it.
The answer to mass shootings is not a police state.