In Part 1, we posted on how to devise regulatory remedies to the Sandy Hook “problem.” The four points were:
1. A well-posed problem is essential for devising a solution. Problems that are not well-defined don’t have remedies.
2. Not all problems have regulatory solutions. Regulation is a tool for problem-solving, but it’s not always the best tool.
3. There is more than one way to skin a cat. A credible approach to regulatory problem-solving involves thinking creatively. Oftentimes that leads to many different approaches, and more than one that could be effective.
4. Estimate benefits and costs for each alternative. All regulatory alternatives have both benefits and costs, and all should be estimated except those that are trivial even under worst-case conditions. Special attention should be devoted to identifying unintended effects, and estimating their magnitudes.
5. Establish effective quality controls over benefit and cost estimates to ensure objectivity. Advocates are likely to focus on benefits and treat costs dismissively; opponents have the opposite incentives. But each has the right incentive to rigorously review the estimates of the other. It is sensible to take advantage of this, but also to empower a genuinely neutral party to decide which among the competing estimates are the superior ones.
6. Be transparent about your decision rule. Economists are fond of maximizing net social benefits, and this principle has been enshrined in federal practice since 1981. Of course, people may prefer other decision rules. They should be transparent about it.
In this post we begin to look qualitatively at some regulatory alternatives. Today we consider the question of physical security. Was security insufficient at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Is it insufficient more generally?
Sandy Hook Elementary School
From press accounts, it appears that Adam Lanza killed his mother, left their home with three guns that she legally owned, then ventured to Sandy Hook Elementary School. CNN has published this graphical representation of the school. Lanza apparently entered the locked front door by shooting out the glass.
CNN also reports that Principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung had instituted substantial security precautions, including the installation of a locked entry. Such precautions may be unusual for a small town with little crime, and Hochsprung’s reasons for adding additional security are not self-evicdent. (The FBI reports that in 2011 there were 13 violent crimes (0.47 per 1,000) and 189 property crimes (6.8 per 1,000) committed in Newtown.)
Visitors were required to ring a bell to gain admission. According to CNN, Lanza defeated this security system by shooting out the glass. But if Lanza had been unable to gain entry through the front door because, for example, it was steel instead of glass, he could have done so through another door, unless the other door also had no glass. So, in principle, entry might have been prevented if there had been no glass doors.
Evident on the left side of the entrance graphic, however, Sandy Hook Elementary School was designed and constructed in a conventional style, with ample classroom windows. Indeed, it appears that the very classrooms in which Lanza found the children he killed were fronted by windows. Lanza could have fired through the windows.
This discussion assumes that Lanza acted in a calculated rather than impulsive way, and that assumption appears may well be false. To date, there has been no disclosure of any information suggesting that he planned the assault on Sandy Hook or that his actions followed some organized pattern. He could have “changed his mind” at any point after attempting to gain proper admittance without success. (It has not been disclosed whether he rang the bell to gain admittance or preemptively shot out the glass.)
Elementary Schools in General
Sandy Hook’s design is hardly uncommon. Many (most?) elementary schools have glass doors or entry foyers enclosed in glass. None would be secure from a shooter such as Lanza who could not gain proper admission. Locked glass doors are thus an effective security device only against those unwilling or unable to break the glass.
Many elementary schools have banks of windows along one longitudinal dimension of a wing of classrooms. None would be secure from a shooter such as Lanza who was willing to shoot through glass. Security glazing could be installed to make windows bullet resistant. An Internet search shows at least one company that sells glazing capable of withstanding the impact of anywhere from one to a few bullets. Depending on its rating, this glass is 1-2 inches thick and weighs 10 to 25 pounds per square foot.
In short, physical security could have been sufficient to prevent the Sandy Hook massacre, and it could prevent similar future events. To determine whether investments in such security have net social benefits requires performing a benefit-cost analysis. Because of the difficulty of correctly estimating benefits and costs, decision makers likely would have to make a complex, simultaneous choice that qualitatively balances levels of additional protection against the cost of providing it different ways.
If Additional Physical Security would Save Just One Child’s Life, Wouldn’t It Be Worth It?
This is a popular and durable myth. To see why, consider that there is no end to the additional physical security that could be installed. Principal Hochsprung appears to have invested in more security than is customary for elementary schools in quiet small towns with little crime. Perhaps she also could have ordered the installation of ballistic glazing, or the bricking of all ground-level windows, whichever was less expensive.
Meanwhile, each incremental investment in physical security comes at a price that consists of the value of benefits foregone. Funds expended for additional physical security cannot be used for anything else. At some point, Sandy Hook would more resemble a prison than an elementary school. This almost certainly would have real, though unintended, costs with respect to the school’s purpose: education.