To Arm Or Not to Arm - That is the Question!

            It has been 400 some years since Shakespeare’s Hamlet first posed the question, “To be or not to be.” Today, a modern twist seems to be a recurring question; to arm or not to arm.

Edwin Booth as Hamlet
By J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. (19th century) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
            Since the shooting at LAX that left one TSA agent dead, the question of arming TSA officers has come up. I’ve seen arguments both for and against arming TSA. It is not unlike the arguments about having armed security in schools or even arming teachers.

            It is not a simple question to answer. First and foremost is to avoid making decisions in a knee-jerk reaction. It is amazing how often within the security realm that an event happens and suddenly there is a rush to make changes. It may be within an organization that experiences a crime, such as an attack on a staff member, resulting in new measures that may or may not always make sense. In other cases, such as this with the LAX shooting, the response and attention is in the public eye, not just an internal matter.

            When there is a major incident or security breach, it is common sense, even wise to review what happened, and make changes when necessary. However, the changes should be well-thought out and address the situation at hand. Following a shooting, there is almost an element of surprise that it happened in that location or type of organization. However, we’ve seen shootings occur almost anyway, from churches, hospitals, museums, small businesses, universities, rural and urban schools and even an Amish school. The bottom line is that a shooting can happen in any location, in any state, in the city or in the country. So a better reaction would be to avoid the next shooting or protect the next target instead of thinking about stopping the last event. Often military leaders are accused of training and preparing to fight the last war, instead of looking to what will be needed to fight and win the next war.

            It is easy to focus on the past instead of looking to the next steps and it is natural, in this case to wonder about arming TSA officers. I have seen some opinion pieces by airline employees argue against arming TSA. The bottom line seemed to be a lack of trust or maybe even an underlying fear of firearms in general. It strikes me as odd, that a group who are entrusted with protecting our airlines from terrorists would be untrustworthy to carry firearms. On the other hand, this was a single incident and does not automatically mean that TSA officers are a target. In fact, I would argue that airports are far safer than many other public venues. Airports have more security and a large contingent of armed police officers to respond to any types of violent acts. I have also seen TSA officers, in uniform, on their way to work, sometimes using public transportation. If TSA is such a high risk target then those employees should be instructed not to wear the uniform on the way to or from work and change at the airport. In fact, that would create a risk that someone could follow an employee home; steal their uniform and perhaps identification to pose as a TSA officer to gain access to secure parts of the airport.

            Self-defense techniques and training unarmed individuals on how to respond to an active shooter have been growing more popular as well. I certainly believe in the benefits of learning self-defense and think that unarmed individuals should not just give up and become victims during a shooting. However, there is an old saying about bringing a knife to a gunfight being a sure way to lose. Bringing nothing to a gunfight is even more risky. Many of the techniques appear to be good ideas and could help save lives. However, most of these attacks are carefully planned and the shooter will certainly see the same news stories and watch the same online videos and adapt their tactics to counteract any resistance.

            So the question really comes back to what is the best way to protect individuals from armed attacks. Lots of money and training has gone into teaching unarmed response. Perhaps we need to reconsider the response yet again.

            Most active shooters have ended when the shooter is confronted by armed response. The real solution may be to train on-site security personnel how to respond the way law enforcement does to an active shooter. This is certainly one solution not getting much attention and is especially suited for organizations that do have a dedicated security force. Hospitals are one example. Shopping malls are another, as are many office buildings in urban downtowns. For enterprises or locations that do have onsite security, the focus should shift to training those personnel how to respond to and stop an active shooter.

            Following the shooting at Columbine High School, law enforcement began developing new tactics to respond to active shooters. At the time, I was a police firearms instructor so was very involved in that training. For the first few years afterwards, the tactics changed repeatedly. As police officers, we finally settled into accepted tactics that we focused on learning and practicing. However, as important as this training was, the amount of time spent for patrol officers was one time a year, often not even a full day. In fact, officers might only run through a couple of active shooter scenarios during the training.

            The point is that private security could easily train and learn some of the same tactics in a relatively short amount of training time. In fact, private security officers would know the building and organization much better than outsiders would and, being onsite, could respond much quicker than law enforcement. Just the presence of armed security would likely deter a shooter, at least away from that target.

            The decision about arming or not arming security is certainly daunting. However, for those organizations that do have security, serious thought should be given to providing private security with the training and tools that would be the strongest deterrence and most protection from an active shooter attack.


Eric Smith, CPP is the leading authority on organizational self-defense. He has extensive experience in law enforcement as well as security management. Eric is available for staff education and security awareness training as well as business coaching to help organizations provide safe workplaces. To learn more email Eric at businesskarate dot com.



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