Anyone who doubts that Utah has the same problem as the rest of the nation when it comes to firearms in school must have forgotten what happened a year ago in Vernal.

As reported that day, a school resource officer at Vernal Middle School, Orion Young, was able to apprehend a student and his gun before anything bad happened. Police had little more to say than that at the time.

This week, The Washington Post filled in some of the details. A student had come to the office, saying he had heard another boy brag he was going to shoot his ex-girlfriend and her best friend. The student said he had seen a loaded gun in the other boy’s backpack. To be safe, he had brought both of the girls to the office when he made the report.

Office workers provided Young with the suspect’s class schedule. He rushed to the boy’s classroom and, with the help of another officer, was able to grab the boy just as he was reaching for his backpack after seeing the officers. Inside the backpack, they found the loaded gun.

The Post used this as one example to illustrate its own lengthy investigation on guns in school, an investigation whose results are shocking, raising more questions than can be answered.

Last school year, more than 1,150 guns were brought to elementary and high schools nationwide, a rate that averages to more than six per day. In all, 1.1 million students last year attended a school in which at least one gun was confiscated and reported, the Post said. 

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But that number is misleading because it covers only those incidents that generated a report by the media. The post said it surveyed 51 of the largest school districts in the nation and found that “58% of seizures in those districts last academic year were never publicly reported by news organizations.”

These districts said guns have proliferated on campuses in recent years, especially following the pandemic. Guns have been found in “bookbags, lockers, trash cans, bathrooms, cars, pockets, purses, bulging behind waistbands and hidden above bathroom ceiling tiles.” Not everyone with a gun intended to kill.

In many ways, this is a reflection of a gun-saturated American society as a whole. By some estimates, there are about 400 million guns in circulation in the United States. 

But in reality, that is an incomplete and unsatisfying analysis. Reports about the number of guns in circulation may be misleading. 

A study by the Violence Policy Center, using figures from the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, found that the percentage of households with guns has been on a steady decline for at least 40 years. In 1980, 53.7% of Americans said they lived in a household with a gun. In 2021, that figure was 35.2%, up slightly from the lowest point, 32.1%, in 2012. 

The study said the decline in hunting may explain some of this, with the percentage of hunting households dropping from 31.6% in 1977 to 14.1% in 2021. But even the overall number of males owning a gun has dropped by 29% over about 40 years.

Second Amendment supporters will be happy to know this isn’t necessarily a gun ownership issue. But the bad news is this doesn’t get us any closer to really understanding the problem.

Why do so many students feel a need to bring a firearm to school? And why are mass killings on the rise? The Associated Press reported 28 of these in the first six months of 2023, with 140 victims. Why do so many people, including children, imagine mass murder as a solution to any problem?

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And why, if gun ownership is on the decline, do they seem to be more ubiquitous than ever? The TSA reports its agents confiscated 5,072 firearms at airports nationwide through the first three quarters of this year, which is on pace to surpass last year’s record 6,542.

Most people don’t carry firearms with the intent to do harm. Many simply forget they have them when going through security. Perhaps it has always been so.

However, absent serious answers to questions about those who do intend harm, the best we can do is sharpen our ability to spot problems before they happen. The Post report is clear that schools need to be more transparent about incidents, especially to parents, even if these never get reported in the news.

And resource officers need to be more like Young, who may have saved Vernal from an unspeakable tragedy by acting quickly to the report of a young student a year ago.

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