There are four steps schools can take to prevent tragedies like the one in Uvalde, Texas, Steven Bucci, a Heritage Foundation visiting fellow, says. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
“[I]t doesn’t have to be like this,” Bucci says. “We can mitigate the risk of these kind of things happening. I won’t say that any system is perfect and is going to stop every tragic incident, but boy, we could do a better job at it than we’re doing.”
Americans across the nation are mourning with the people of Texas and all the families who lost loved ones in the shooting at Robb Elementary School. Two teachers and 19 students were killed by a gunman, leaving Americans to ask, how can we ensure a tragedy like this never happens again?
Bucci served our country for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, and has served on the front lines of a number of tragedies. He joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss four practical steps every school can take to prevent shootings, and minimize casualties if one does occur.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: I am pleased to welcome to the show Heritage Foundation visiting fellow Steven Bucci. Steve served our country for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official. Steve, thank you so much for being here today.
Steve Bucci: Oh, it’s my pleasure to be here. Not a pleasure to be talking about this particular subject. But thank you for having me.
Allen: We really appreciate your insight, Steve, at this time as really the whole nation is grieving, right alongside all the folks in Texas. And of course, we grieve with every single family member who lost a loved one Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen students were killed and two teachers lost their lives. The gunman, we know, is also dead. But there’s a lot that we still don’t know.
Steve, you have served our country on the front lines in so many tragedies. What were your first thoughts when you heard the news Tuesday?
Bucci: Well, the first one was obviously, “Oh, gosh. Not again.” But the next one is, “It doesn’t have to be like this. We can mitigate the risk of these kind of things happening.”
I won’t say that any system is perfect and is going to stop every tragic incident, but boy, we could do a better job at it than we’re doing. And the simple tropes that you hear, “Well, just ban guns,” some of the things are silly because they don’t work, they haven’t worked, or they’re already in place, and the people calling for them are just chasing a political agenda. And that’s not what we need to do. We need to come up with good solutions.
Allen: Yeah. Well, I’m excited today that we get to talk about some of those possible solutions because everyone is asking that question right now, of, “How did this happen?”, and even more so, “How do we ensure that this never happens again?”
You have published pieces for The Heritage Foundation on school safety, and you said that there’s really four steps, there’s four keys to school safety. One is preemptive response. Secondly, access control. Third, hardening classrooms. And fourth, onsite incident response.
Let’s talk through each of these, beginning with preemptive response. How can we act preemptively to prevent these shootings from even occurring in the first place?
Bucci: Well, the first thing is, people need to be aware of what’s going on. In almost every one of these shootings, and now apparently in this one as well, there have been signals that the shooter has given, mostly on social media, sometimes to friends, family members. And the problem is people see these things like pictures of him with guns saying he’s going to go do a shooting.
Apparently, this young man had some friends that he used to cruise around the neighborhood [with] and shoot BB guns at people’s cars or at people walking on the street. Behavior like that is a signal. It doesn’t mean always that there’s going to be a big tragedy like this, but it’s the kind of signal that somebody needs to respond to.
And you cannot pass [it] off … “Oh, well, that’s just Johnny blowing off steam. He really doesn’t mean that.” We can’t say that anymore. We have to respond. We have to get authorities involved. There has to be an intervention. It’s in the benefit of the individual who’s doing that. Talking to the police … is a heck of a lot better than having a kid go and hurt other people, and then generally speaking, end up hurting themselves.
We have to look for the signals and then we have to respond to them. We can no longer just hope for the best and leave these things in place.
Allen: Within that, what do you think is the role of mental health and mental health treatment?
Bucci: It’s huge. I mean, if you look at this, almost every one of these young men, because the vast majority of them are young men, are troubled from a mental health standpoint, they need help. Some of them are in counseling already. There’s troubles in the home. There’s a nonstandard family. Not saying that every nonstandard family is troubling, but if there’s parents missing, that kid is potentially at risk, if there’s other signals there, like we see with the shooter in Texas.
So you have to get mental health professionals involved. There should be mental health professionals available in most school systems for young people that are still in school and they need to be engaged in the counseling, in the working with law enforcement to decide what is the best type of intervention for this particular case.
Allen: You also write that access control is the second key to preventing school shootings. Is that mainly the entrances in and out of the building that you’re referring to?
Bucci: Exactly. If you can keep the shooter out of the school it, in most cases, stops most events because that sort of foils their plan. They can’t get in there … so they just go away. But even if they try and do something from outside, there’s a heck of a lot better protection for the individuals, in this case, the little kids that were killed, if they’re in the building and the bad guy’s out of the building.
So we have to minimize the number of entrances to any school. You can’t have every door open. You can’t say, “OK, everybody has to come in this door.” And then on the other side of the building, somebody props open a door with a rock because they want to go back and forth to their car without having to utilize their key or their door fob or something like that. It’s inconvenient and it’s a pain.
But in this case, prime example, this young man jumped the fence and walked into an unlocked back door of the school. That’s how he got in.
And if you limit those points of entry, you can then place people there who can monitor that entry, make sure that the person coming in is supposed to be there, make sure that the person coming in isn’t carrying weapons openly or carrying bags with weapons in them. And then the person who’s manning that door has to have the wherewithal to say, “Hey. Stop. Please open your bag. Let me look at it.”
If the person’s wearing a big, long coat in the hot weather of Texas on the southwest border in mid-May, yeah, that’s a signal. You need to check that person and make sure that they’re OK coming in. That is legal. They’re coming onto school property, they’re subject to any kind of search you want to do when they’re carrying things. And unfortunately, that’s what we need to do. And so that is the next key.
If you can keep it outside the building, it almost always makes the result much better than if they can get in and start to do mischief.
Allen: That’s so true. Ultimately, that is what we want to make sure, that these school shooters can never get access inside the building. But in those cases where they do, you discuss the importance of hardening classrooms or securing classrooms. Talk a little bit about that and the importance of that for school safety.
Bucci: Sure. Well, that has to do with lockdowns. Once there’s an indicator that a person with mal intent is in the building, there needs to be some kind of signal that can go out over the intercom—however the school wants to do it. The intercom is probably the best way to do it, but something that says “immediately lock down.” There’s all sorts of ways to do that. But here that means grabbing the kids, get them into the classroom, lock the doors.
For instance, in the school where my grandkids go, the doors are always locked, but there’s a magnet that blocks the door from closing all the way under normal circumstances. So all a teacher has to do is grab that little magnet off the doorframe. The door closes all the way and locks.
Next, they need to cover the windows that are in most school classroom doors. We have the windows there so that people can see in so nobody can do anything bad inside the classroom unobserved. But you don’t want a perpetrator looking in there to see that there’s targets, so that window needs to be covered.
Many schools today have installed additional barricade-like devices that make the door even more secure. So it’s not just the lock on the doorknob, but there’s some sort of bolt that can be thrown, a piece of metal that can go into the door in the floor, something like that makes the door even stronger than it would be otherwise. OK. So you do that. The door is secured.
Next, you need to get the children into the best place in the classroom to protect them from random shooting. And I can’t tell you where that is because it’s different in every classroom. But the teachers who operate in their own classrooms need to have made that determination before this thing happens, that OK, over in this corner, because of the lockers on the wall or the construction of that particular wall, that’s the safest place for them to be.
You get the kids to that position. You get them calm, down, quiet. You ensure that there’s no cellphones being used because you don’t want to make noise.
Because the object of this whole purpose is the bad guy comes to the door, tries it, sees that he can’t open it, can’t see in so he doesn’t know if there are any potential targets in there. He can’t hear anything. And then that person, in most cases, will just move on.
These shooters are not trained breaching teams like we have in the military or in law enforcement. So if they get that amount of resistance and they get no feedback that there’s a target, they will usually move on and that’s what we want them to do.
And there’s one more step on that, though. Inside the classroom, there should be some sort of last-ditch weapon that the teacher can deploy if a person does in fact breach the door, something that is useful.
If a school allows teachers to be armed, that’s fine. We found a useful thing is something like bear spray or wasp spray that you can shoot a distance and see it without any particular skill. Wasp spray is a neurotoxin, that’s why it kills the bugs.
If somebody’s trying to come in that classroom to hurt those kids, as they’re coming in the door, if you spray that at them and hit them in the face, they’re not going to be shooting anybody for a few minutes.
And that can then give that teacher, as a last-ditch thing … I’m not saying go chase the guy down with this stuff. But if they’re coming in the door, that’s a good last-ditch defensive tool to try and protect the children that are in the room.
Allen: And then when it comes to the response on the ground, what are those responses that schools should have in place to be ready to respond directly to that active shooter if it comes to a point where a shooter’s in the building and is on the move?
Bucci: This is probably the most controversial part of my four points. But we have found that the faster somebody responds directly to the shooter, the sooner the carnage stops, or hopefully doesn’t even start. Law enforcement will try and get to the school as quickly as they can once they get that 911 call. So this is not a criticism of the police in any way, shape, or form, they just can’t fly yet.
There’s going to be at least a couple of minute delay in almost all of these situations. Sometimes just locking down is sufficient, but often you have to respond directly to that person with what you have in hand. Some schools have school resource officers, their law enforcement officers assigned to that school. They would respond.
Some schools have allowed teachers who have voluntarily said, “I am ready mentally to do this. I’ve had training. I have a concealed carry permit for a weapon. I’m willing to be part of that response team.” And they use that. Others use volunteers, parents, or people from the community who are willing to give their time to do that.
Generally speaking, it’s preferable if those folks have had some degree of training, either a military, law enforcement background, they’ve been through courses for this sort of thing, and they need to be screened. You need to pick the right people to do this and then have them in place or have them available. So you can have people on your staff, on your faculty, or extras added in.
If you have enough money in your school district, it’s a private school that’s well endowed, you can hire higher-end security people to do this sort of work as well. I know there are schools in Florida, for instance, parochial schools who hire former SEAL Team 6 or Delta operators to do this kind of protection. That’s pretty pricey and way out of reach for most schools.
But you have to have somebody there who can engage the shooter directly and quickly. And in most cases, at the very least, the shooter is distracted and stops trying to look for children to be targets and has to defend themselves. In many cases, it ends the incident right there.
And we’ve seen that several times. There was one in Maryland where a school resource officer came in, immediately engaged the shooter and took him down. It’s the best way to respond until law enforcement gets there.
Once law enforcement arrives, all of those assets need to stand down and let law enforcement deal with it. But in that couple of minute interval between when you discover it and when the law enforcement arrive, my study of it, my analysis of these other shootings, it’s almost always best to have somebody on-site who can respond immediately with force, directly at the shooter. And that will, in most cases, bring the thing to an end.
Allen: You [have] been on the front lines of so many tragedies in our country through your work in the military and at the Pentagon. Right now, walk us through a little bit of what is happening on the ground with law enforcement and officials in Uvalde, Texas. What are they looking for today? How is this investigation starting?
Bucci: Well, there’s several parts to it. The first part is the physical processing of the actual scene at the school. In this case, at the shooter’s home where he wounded his grandmother, the car that he used to go from his home toward the school, where police first encountered him. They were moving to him because the grandmother had called despite being badly wounded and said, “Hey. My grandson just shot me. He went in this direction. This is what he’s driving.”
So they have to process the vehicle, the home, the school itself, and determine all of the details of the shooting, how he got in, what he did when he got there, which way he went. All of those become part of the criminal case and the investigation.
At the same time, there’s a whole extra set of police and law enforcement who are crawling all over every bit of social media that this young man was involved in, all of his devices, anything else they can find. Contacting friends or acquaintances that may have gotten some sort of clue. Trying to put together, what were the motives behind this? How did he plan it? Where did he get the stuff that he used to do it? All of those pieces there.
That brings in the federal law enforcement authorities, like the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] and others who help with tracking down the weapons and where they came from. Were they legitimately acquired? Which, in this case, it appears they were. And so they’re doing all that.
All this is happening simultaneously. Everybody is going [with] a hundred mile … focus and determination to get to the bottom of it, to put all of these pieces together, to make a decision as to what was missed, what should have been done differently. All that process is now going full steam.
That’s why it’s not always helpful when politicians, and this is politicians of all stripes, come in, or the news people come in and start speculating or opining about this. It takes law enforcement a little while to do it because they want to do it right and they want to do it accurately. And we need to give them that space to do it, in this case.
Allen: Steve, last question before we let you go. What do you think the role of the president is right now in the situation?
Bucci: The president is supposed to be, in this case, sort of the comforter-in-chief. He is supposed to be trying to help these folks get through this, help that community, that state and the nation at large to process and understand this.
President [Joe] Biden started down that road with his remarks last night, but very quickly detoured straight up into politics because he thinks, in his head, there’s a certain set of solutions for this, which he thinks are totally frustrated by the gun lobby when they’re actually frustrated by the Constitution and about half of the country.
And I’m sorry to disagree with the president, but his solutions would not help. And they’re based on emotion and particular political positions.
I agree with him, we need to do something, but we need to help schools implement things like we just talked about and not sit there and try and make sweeping rules that are not really going to have any effect other than to curtail the rights of legitimate citizens who haven’t broken any laws and haven’t done anything wrong.
And using fake statistics, which he does pretty regularly, and other things, saying, “Well, statistics show this.” And it’s like, “No, they don’t.” His claim about the assault rifle ban that he helped craft when he was a senator, it didn’t change mass shootings at all.
They say things like that, but when you actually look at the statistics, it’s not true. I would recommend anybody listening to go to my Heritage [Foundation] colleague Amy Swearer, [who] has written a ton of stuff, scholarly, documented analysis of the studies that are out there and the statistics. Read her stuff and you’ll get the straight scoop on it.
The politicians and the pundits on the news, they haven’t done their homework. They’re just following their script and that’s not going to help the country or any of these situations.
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