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Newtown ‘To School Security As 9/11 Was To Airport Security’

BOSTON — All around the country, because of the Newtown tragedy, school districts are now reviewing their security protocols and weighing whether steps like putting armed police officers in schools should be part of that picture.

In Massachusetts, some school systems are turning to Paul Kelly for advice. He’s a retired Secret Service agent living on Cape Cod, and a decade ago he helped edit a federal report on how to assess school threats. He also has a very personal take on guns and gun control.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Kelly Wednesday and he said he believes the Connecticut shootings will have an enduring ripple effect.

Paul Kelly: This event is a sea change event. This event is to school security as 9/11 was to airport security. This event was so horrific in that the victims were so innocent with no motive or direct target that we know of. The caution that I ask the administrators to exercise is, in your concern and anxiety, do not be hasty and do not overreact, and do some due diligence before you decide how you want to invest in reducing risk.

Sacha Pfeiffer: What do you find is the instinct, the immediate reaction, that schools feel that they need to do, that you think maybe they shouldn’t rush so quickly to do?

The immediate thing seems to be a technological approach — that we need more alarms, we need more videos, we need more monitors. That’s only true if you’ve got a staff that can monitor and respond. The biggest thing that’s been coming up lately is the discussion of having a law enforcement presence at the school.

Do you think that’s a good idea?

Well, the other alternative seems to be training teachers, selected teachers, to carry firearms at the school.

You think it’s a one or the other? We either need to have security personnel or teachers with guns?

No, I don’t. I think the key thing for any school is to examine their options based on the emotional climate and the culture of their individual school because different schools will have different threats and vulnerabilities. However, of the two, a uniformed presence is a very big psychological deterrent as an authority figure.

If a school comes to you right now and says, “We’re not sure we’re safe. What do we need to do to be safe?” what do you tell them?

Well, I could almost tell them that they’re not safe. But the question is, “Could it happen here? Could it happen at my school?” And the answer is yes. It’s also a possibility that a meteor could hit your house tonight. They know their school the best. That’s the first thing I tell them. They and the local police are the best authorities to know what the threat is, and I suggest that they sit down and ask themselves, “What do we consider to be the most likely threat?” For example, let’s say there’s a restraining order on one parent by another parent, and that parent decides to come to school to take their child out. That’s a lot more likely than an active shooter coming up. Be proactive and try to create an enhanced culture in the school where the students will be more open and likely to talk with the faculty.

You have an interesting perspective on this issue not only a former Secret Service agent who investigated threats against the president, but also as a former Marine — I believe you were shot twice in Vietnam. You’re a certified firearms instructor. You’re an NRA member. Where do you think gun control fits in this discussion?

My only observation is that there are some very staunch advocates of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms, but those folks better be considering their talking points and their negotiations and their fallback points for a compromise because the consequence of not making some concessions or compromise would be even more catastrophic from their perspective.

Do you believe there should be some limits or controls on gun ownership?

I absolutely do, especially when you start getting into what the commonwealth defines as an assault weapon. Magazine capacity, pistol grips, folding stocks, flash suppressors — all of these things, I question the need for any person who is using a firearm for hunting, sports or self-defense why they need that.

You still spend some time at firing ranges, is that right?

Yeah.

When you’re there, do you sometimes see people with semi-automatic rifles?

Almost everybody has a semi-automatic rifle, so that’s not an issue. What I’ve seen is a big difference in the types of application of semi-automatic. Instead of it being deer hunting practice, there are virtual war games practices. It looks almost like a paintball competition with people decked out in camouflage utilities, flak jackets, combat boots and all kinds of accoutrements on their semi-automatic rifle.

Is it sometimes just entertainment?

I don’t know. Certainly not in my case.

What about at the range? Do you see some people who are living out video game fantasies?

I think there are some people that, for them, this is their experience of being in a firefight.

Why would you want that experience?

You’d have to ask them because having been in one and being on the short end of a couple, it’s not a great experience.

You have mentioned before that you’ve seen a change in who owns guns or the types of guns they own. Can you tell us what shifts you’ve seen?

From the traditional going to the range to practice firing your shotgun for skeet and trap in your bird hunting or even your deer hunting and target practice with a handgun for marksmanship, now there’s more and more people who are going there and doing a lot more combat-type shooting techniques. Why does somebody have to have a semi-automatic rifle with optic fiber laser sights, with hologram sights, wearing flak jackets and helmets? I don’t get it. What are they practicing for?

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