Keeping Students Safe from Gun Violence

This article is adapted from How to Stop Shootings and Gun Violence in Schools: A Plan to Keep Students Safe, by the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund in partnership with the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA). Together, as the report states, we are “working to ensure our approach to safer schools is driven by evidence, expertise, and care.” The full report, which is available in English and Spanish, includes detailed recommendations derived from high-quality research on helpful and harmful practices.


For the last 20 years, students, educators, and parents have lived with the reality of increasingly frequent school shootings. The worst period for this violence has been in the 2021–22 school year, which saw nearly quadruple the average number of gunfire incidents since 2013. From an average of 49 incidents in every school year since 2013, this past school year saw 193 incidents of gunfire on the grounds of preschools and K–12 schools.

We need meaningful actions to keep our schools and surrounding communities safe, actions that address what we know about gun violence in America’s schools. It’s time for our leaders to adopt a multifaceted approach that provides school communities with the tools they need to prevent school-based gun violence. How to Stop Shootings and Gun Violence in Schools: A Plan to Keep Students Safe focuses on approaches that have been proven most effective, such as keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them in the first place, fostering safe and trusting school environments, crisis intervention programs, access and lock upgrades, and trauma-informed emergency planning.

The report provides a proactive plan to prevent active shooter incidents and, more broadly, address gun violence in all its forms in America’s schools. Using what we know about school gun violence, our organizations have put together a plan that focuses on intervening before violence occurs. These solutions work hand in hand to foster safe and nurturing schools, to address violence at its earliest stages, and to block easy access to firearms by those who would do harm.

In order to effectively address violence in our schools, we must first acknowledge that school violence is, in part, a gun violence problem. Many “comprehensive” school safety plans have been proposed over the last 20 years. Few have thoroughly addressed the issue common in all school shootings: easy access to guns for those at risk of committing harm. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA firmly believe that any effective school safety plan must involve an effort to enact gun safety policies that enable intervention before a prospective shooter can get their hands on a gun. These policies work hand in hand with school-based interventions to create safer school climates and to intervene before a student becomes a shooter.

When communities are focused on student well-being, schools can be places of care and compassion for the challenges kids face, while also creating the conditions for preventing school shootings and other violence. Given that most school-age shooters are current or former students and that they nearly always show warning signs, the locus of school violence prevention must necessarily center around schools. Therefore, our recommendations address both gun safety policies and school-based interventions.


Gun Safety Policies

1. Enact and Enforce Secure Firearm Storage Laws

The most common sources of guns used in school shootings and across all school gun violence incidents are the shooter’s home or the homes of friends or relatives. This is unsurprising, as nearly 4.6 million American children live in homes with at least one gun that is loaded and unlocked. Secure firearm storage laws require that people store firearms securely when they are not in their possession in order to prevent unauthorized access. Under these laws, generally, when a person accesses a firearm and does harm with it, the person who failed to securely store the firearm is responsible. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have some form of secure storage law. In addition, several cities have passed secure storage laws. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that states enact and enforce secure firearm storage laws. In addition, policymakers should promote public awareness programs that can encourage secure gun storage and induce behavior change.

2. Pass Extreme Risk Laws

Extreme risk laws create a legal process by which law enforcement, family members, and, in some states, educators can petition a court to temporarily prevent a person from having access to firearms when there is evidence that they are at serious risk of harming themselves or others, giving them the time they need to get help. Extreme risk protection orders, sometimes also called red flag orders or gun violence restraining orders, can be issued only after a legal determination is made that a person poses a serious threat to themselves or others. They also contain strong due process protections to ensure that a person’s rights are balanced with public safety.

Because extreme risk laws are a proven tool with strong due process protections, they enjoy strong bipartisan support. Nineteen states and DC now have extreme risk laws on the books. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that these states train law enforcement on the availability and use of these laws and that public awareness campaigns help to make knowledge of this option widely known. School officials also need to know that this tool is available to them as part of a comprehensive intervention with a student who is at serious risk to themselves or others.

3. Raise the Age to Purchase Semi-Automatic Firearms

Despite the evidence that most active shooters are school-age and have a connection to the school, few states have stepped in to close gaps that allow minors to legally purchase high-powered firearms. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA believe states and the federal government should raise the minimum age to purchase or possess handguns and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns to 21 in order to prevent school-age shooters from easily obtaining firearms. Under federal law, in order to purchase a handgun from a licensed gun dealer, a person must be 21. Yet to purchase that same handgun in an unlicensed sale (online or from a private individual), or to purchase a rifle or shotgun from a licensed dealer, a person only has to be 18. Only a few states have acted to close these gaps. Minimum-age laws can work in tandem with secure storage and extreme risk laws to cut off an easy way for shooters to obtain firearms.

4. Require Background Checks on All Gun Sales

Background checks are proven to reduce gun violence. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already require a background check on all handgun sales. State laws requiring background checks for all handgun sales—by point-of-sale check and/or permit—are associated with lower firearm homicide rates, lower firearm suicide rates, and lower firearm trafficking.

Current federal law requires that background checks be conducted whenever a person attempts to purchase a firearm from a licensed gun dealer, to ensure that the prospective buyer is not legally prohibited from possessing guns. For example, when a person becomes subject to an extreme risk protection order, that record is entered into the federal background check database, and a background check at the point of sale prevents that person from buying a firearm at a gun store. However, current federal law does not require background checks on sales between unlicensed parties, including those at gun shows or online. As such, people with dangerous histories can easily circumvent the background check system. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that states and the federal government act to pass laws that require background checks on all gun sales so that potential shooters cannot easily purchase firearms.

School-Based Interventions

5. Foster a Safe and Trusting School Climate

Supportive and trusting school environments are the strongest way to prevent school violence. One means of creating safe schools is to support them to become “community schools” that work with local partners to provide valuable services that help uplift the entire community. They not only become centers of education but fulfill a broader purpose of contributing to stable, healthy, and safe neighborhoods.

Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that schools utilize district, state, and federal funding to help schools partner with community members to move beyond the normal confines of a school, particularly in communities that experience high rates of gun violence. In schools facing high levels of violence in and outside of the school building, a community school might fund programs such as creating safe passages to and from school, granting alternatives to out-of-school suspensions that offer meaningful educational opportunities for students, providing family counseling, increasing access to mentoring both in and outside of school, and incorporating restorative justice into discipline policies. Significant resources must also be provided to assist students impacted by gun violence. Educators see that the trauma and anxiety that gun violence creates does not simply vanish. Students carry this trauma and fear with them inside and outside the classroom. All levels of government must invest resources to ensure that every school has the appropriate number of mental health professionals on staff and that other mental health support programs are in place.

6. Build a Culture of Secure Gun Storage

In addition to enacting secure storage laws, policymakers and educators should encourage a culture of secure gun storage by increasing awareness of secure storage practices. Governors, federal and state departments of health and education, legislatures, nonprofit organizations, and local officials should also work together to develop and fund programs that increase awareness of the need to store firearms securely. Schools should distribute information to parents about the importance of secure storage. Thus far, school districts comprising nearly three million students have taken this vital action. Encouraging secure storage practices can make an enormous difference in reducing gun violence in school communities and would address the most common source of firearms used in school gun violence incidents.

7. Create Trauma-Informed Crisis Intervention Practices in Schools

The most important thing that schools can do to prevent active shooter incidents—and gun violence overall—is to intervene before a person commits an act of violence. To do this in a manner that serves students and protects the community, Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA recommend that schools, concurrent with other community partners, create trauma-informed crisis intervention practices involving the convening of a multidisciplinary team that responds when a student shows they may be in crisis. These teams receive information about a student in crisis, evaluate the situation, and design interventions to prevent violence and provide appropriate treatment, support, and resources. State legislatures should also make funding available for schools to invest in personnel training and the mental healthcare resources needed to promote the restorative justice and de-escalation practices that trauma-informed crisis intervention requires. Based on what we know about school violence, it is critical to respond to many forms of student crises, such as housing instability or substance abuse, not only threats of violence.

Most students facing crises will never commit an act of violence and must not be treated like criminals. Our recommended practice is the opposite of “zero tolerance” and is not based on a punitive or criminal justice approach and should not rely on exclusionary discipline as a means of intervention. A school needs to be a trusted place where students feel safe to share when they or someone else is in crisis, knowing that it will lead to help and support rather than punishment or prison. Any crisis intervention program must be paired with a rigorous assessment of efficacy and collateral harms to prevent disproportionate or unwarranted interventions. Any decision that leads to punitive action or law enforcement engagement requires thorough review by school district leaders, as these instances need to be the rare exception to a healthy program based on supportive intervention.

8. Implement Access Control Measures and Door Locks

The most effective physical security measures—the ones on which most experts agree—are access control measures that keep shooters out of schools in the first place. As a secondary measure, internal door locks, which enable teachers to lock doors from the inside, can work to deter active shooters who are able to access the school, protecting students and allowing law enforcement time to neutralize any potential threat. Preventing unauthorized access to schools through fencing, single access points, and simply ensuring that doors are locked can keep shooters out of schools. State legislatures should provide funding for access control measures for schools to ensure that would-be shooters cannot have easy access.

9. Initiate Trauma-Informed Emergency Planning

Security experts agree that school personnel need to have an effective emergency plan in place to respond quickly to and neutralize any threat. Recommendations for effective planning include efforts to ensure that schools work with law enforcement and first responders to provide information about the school’s layout and security measures, that staff and law enforcement work together to ensure that they can identify the nature of a threat, and that schools make a detailed plan for their lockdown and evacuation procedures. Emergency procedures must be trauma-informed, meaning that their design should be buttressed by trigger warnings and access to mental health counseling and should never simulate an active shooter event. Trauma-informed emergency planning requires that the staff involved have tools to change emergency and evacuation planning in real time, should any activities prove harmful to anyone participating.

10. Avoid Practices That Can Cause Harm and Traumatize Students

Research shows that three practices—arming teachers, shooter drills involving students, and law enforcement in schools—are ineffective in preventing school gun violence or protecting the school community when shootings do occur, while introducing new risks and causing harm to students and school communities. We share the desire to respond to unthinkable tragedy with strong solutions. But as the report details, arming teachers is an ineffective and risky approach that does not stop gun violence in our schools. A wealth of research demonstrates that allowing teachers to carry guns in schools increases the everyday risks to students. Similarly, frequent school shooter drills involving students, particularly those that simulate a real shooting, are having measurable impacts on the stress and anxiety levels of students, parents, and educators alike. Finally, the traditional model of law enforcement working in schools has not been shown to reduce school shootings or gun incidents, but the presence of law enforcement has played a heavy role in criminalizing students, particularly students of color, and can have a negative impact on learning outcomes for all students. Everytown, the AFT, and the NEA urge our leaders to instead adopt solutions that are proven to address what we know about school gun violence.

Using the comprehensive plan outlined in How to Stop Shootings and Gun Violence in Schools: A Plan to Keep Students Safe, policymakers and school communities can work together to prevent active shooter incidents—and gun violence more broadly—in their classrooms. These solutions form a thorough strategy by providing points of intervention at each level of a shooter’s escalation to violence and by creating a system where people with dangerous histories cannot easily access guns. Targeted gun violence prevention policies are designed to intervene when a shooter is intent on getting their hands on a gun. School-based strategies work to provide holistic support for students and intervene in situations where warning signs are showing a student in crisis. Finally, the planning and security strategies present a last opportunity for intervention and ensure that a school is prepared to quickly respond to and neutralize any threat.

For more on preventing school shootings, along with extensive endnotes, see the report here.

[Illustrations by Eva Vázquez]

American Educator, Winter 2022-2023