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December 22, 2008

A Fine Example

Tragedy was averted on December 9 when police arrested 15-year-old Richard Yanis, who planned to carry out a mass shooting at his high school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

Yanis was going to “shoot everyone he did not like” at Pottstown High School. He planned to tell friends to leave the school’s grounds prior to opening fire on teachers and students. Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman characterized the would-be school shooter as “an outcast, a loner who didn’t have many friends. He was picked on, he felt like he didn’t fit in very well.

In preparation for the shooting, Yanis stole three handguns and ammunition from his father’s locker and gave them to a friend. The friend was to deliver the weapons to Yanis at the high school on the day of the shooting. However the plot began to unravel when Yanis’ father, Michael Yanis, reported the guns stolen to police, touching off an “intense, month-long investigation.” The friend holding the weapons soon dumped them in a river with the help of his stepmother and alerted school officials. Police intervened and quickly took Richard Yanis into custody. He has been charged with criminal attempt to commit first-degree murder.

The incident touches on a number of hot button issues regarding the role of guns in schools and the responsibilities of firearm owners...

Recent years have seen aggressive efforts by the gun lobby to push concealed weapons into America’s schools. Gun rights organizations have argued that arming teachers and allowing others to carry handguns into schools will enhance children’s safety. The Harrold School District in Texas made national news when it became the first K-12 campus in the country to allow teachers and faculty to carry concealed handguns. Defending the district’s decision, Superintendent David Thweatt stated, “When the federal government started making schools gun-free zones, that’s when all of these shootings started. Why would you put it out there that a group of people can’t defend themselves? That’s like saying ‘Sic ‘em’ to a dog.”

Not only did Thweatt ignore the facts—a recent study showed that youth ages 5-18 are over 50 times more likely to be murdered when they are away from school than at school—he also failed to consider that a better solution might be to prevent active shooter situations before they even happen. The Pottstown case demonstrates that good investigative work by police, and vigilance by school administrators, can forestall a tragedy without the need to inject guns into a learning environment.

The Pottstown incident also highlights the importance of reporting lost and stolen firearms to the police. One can imagine what might have happened had Michael Yanis failed to make that critical call to law enforcement. As District Attorney Ferman noted, Richard Yanis “had the immediate capacity to commit the crime with the guns and arsenal of ammunition waiting to be delivered upon his word.”

One might think that reporting lost and stolen guns is a common-sense thing to do. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has reported, however, that “most gun owners do not report stolen firearms to the police.” In the state of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Police recently reported that out of 1,900 firearms recovered on crime scenes in 2007 and 2008, only 231 had been previously reported missing or stolen.

The city of Pottstown recently passed a new ordinance that requires gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to the police. The National Rifle Association (NRA), remarkably, opposed the ordinance, stating, “It’s not going to end up lowering crime. All it ends up doing is further victimizing someone who’s been a victim of crime.” The NRA, however, has been unable to cite a single instance where a law-abiding gun owner was wrongfully prosecuted under the law in any of the seven states where it has been enacted. At a recent Pottstown City Council hearing, one local gun owner, David Blankenhorn, had a very different view: “[My pistol] turned up in a drug raid in Auburn. Because I reported it in 24 hours, because I cooperated with the law, I was given that gun back. This ordinance can have a major benefit. If you simply follow the law, it works with you.”

Hopefully, municipal officials across the country will look to Pottstown as an example of how to prevent tragedies in their schools without putting students at additional risk of gun violence.


  1. What evidence do you have that the Harrold District Superintendent "failed to consider that a better solution might be to prevent active shooter situations before they even happen" by choosing to allow some teachers (who must take a special training course tought by law enforcement) with CCW permits to carry their guns with them at school?

    There is no reason a school can't pick both options: Work with the police to identify threats to the school and eliminate them, AND allow lawful trained CCW permit holders to carry their guns in case threats are not detected in time to stop them (which is always a possibility).

    The police deserve a lot of credit for breaking up the potential killing spree at Pottstown before it happened, but what if they had not discovered the plot in time to stop it? In that case, there clearly would have been an unhindered killing spree at the school until the cops arrived, likely resulting in many deaths. Perhaps you are okay with that outcome, but it doesn't mean the rest of us should be.

    Harrold has put in place a "backup plan" to protect their students and staff in the event that an actual shooting does occur. They should be commended for it.

    Also in regards to the stat that "out of 1,900 firearms recovered on crime scenes in 2007 and 2008, only 231 had been previously reported missing or stolen," you fail to consider the possibility that most of the crime guns could have been obtained by means other then theft.

  2. This is what happens when everything "goes right". Plus, there is nothing wrong with being prepared to defend yourself and or others. If I knew exactly when I would need my concealed carry weapon I'd wear it that day and not worry about it the rest of the time. Of course if people/kids were nicer to each other this wouldn't happen as well. People already report lost/stolen firearms why make it a crime NOT reporting it?

  3. Thanks for your comment, thestaplegunkid9. The local and national media covered the Harrold School District’s decision to arm its teachers in great detail. Nowhere in any of these reports did we find mention of the district having upgraded its procedures to “work with the police to identify threats to the school and eliminate them.” If you have seen reports to the contrary, please let us know, we’d like to see them.

    We think you have it right when you describe the Harrold School District’s plan as a “backup plan.” That’s exactly what it is—a plan that can only react to a school shooting once it has already begun—and which has no resources focused on prevention. It also completely fails to weigh the risks posed by having guns in schools on a daily basis against the potential occurrence of a school shooting—an event which is rare even in the United States.

    Finally, we did not fail to ignore the possible derivations of crime guns recovered by the Pittsburgh police in 2007 and 2008. In addition to being stolen, these guns could have been: a) Used by previously law-abiding gun owners to commit crimes; b) Trafficked illegally by their original purchasers to the individuals who used them in crime; or c) In the case of long guns, sold by their original purchasers to the individuals who used them in crime through private sales. These sales are unregulated in Pennsylvania and involve no background check whatsoever.

    None of that should be of comfort to the citizens of Pennsylvania and, of course, part of the reason for laws requiring the reporting of lost and stolen guns is to provide law enforcement with additional tools to investigate cases involve firearms trafficking. - CSGV

  4. First of all, I loved the part about the law abiding gun owner who reported his gun stolen and it was returned to him. I think this is a sign that both sides really can work together. People who are trying to make laws to keep gun ownership and gun sales safe have no intention of taking away guns from those who are willing and legally/mentally able to use them--there just need to be some precautions to thwart off those who are not capable. (And a note to Rudy- obviously the statistic from Pittsburgh proves that not everyone reports their guns lost or stolen.)

    However, I completely disagree with the idea of guns in schools, and completely agree with your idea to prevent these types of crimes from happening in the first place, rather than adding more violence into the mix once they've already begun. Allowing guns in schools uses an "If you can't beat them, join them" approach to violence, which is not ok. I would never send my child to a school that allowed guns.