President Trump’s latest suggestion to stop school shootings — “Arming teachers” — is straight from the playbook of the National Rifle Association which helped fund his campaign. In a situation where guns have cause death and misery, his answer is “More guns”.

The practical problems are obvious. Are the teachers supposed to wander round with these guns in a holster? Or keep them in a drawer? Both scenarios raise the possibility of a mischievous (or evilly-inclined) schoolchild taking the gun away. And in a Parkland-style situation who is to say that teachers would be skilful enough to shoot an assailant, and not injure or kill a student in the crossfire? Worse still (and I come from a family of teachers), what if a teacher loses control? It is a highly stressful job.

The Romans had a phrase for all this: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or who guards the guards? A ruler can surround himself (or herself) with all the security they want. But it might one day occur to an armed guard that they have the weapons and the ruler does not. Indeed, this did happen many times to Roman rulers.

British policemen don’t carry guns in normal situations. And they don’t want to. Last year, 4 people died as a result of UK police action; in the US, the number was 987. More people were killed by police in the US last year than were murdered in the whole of the UK by anyone (723)*. While the American population is five times larger, that is still a staggering statistic.

Another person you have to guard against is yourself. Statistics show that American gunowners are around 90 times more likely to kill themselves with a gun than they are to kill an intruder.

One of the (understandably) angry fathers meeting President Trump yesterday proposed a different solution; treat schools like airports or public buildings with metal detectors and guards. This is subject to a recursive variant of the “who guards the guards” problem; where is the perimeter? Often schools have more than one entrance. But even if they don’t, a shooter could carry out a massacre on the playing field, in the car park, outside the gates and so on. Such measures shift the problem outwards.

If you have read this far, you probably believe in gun control too. But just in case, here is a chart from ex-colleague Simon Hedlin, which illustrates the issue. Other countries have violent video games, rap music and mentally ill people but they don’t have US murder rates. It is guns that make America stand out.

  • In the year from March 2016 to 2017
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Off the charts

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