A real-life McGruff returns to school. But is that a good thing?

York Dispatch editorial board

Most Americans of a certain age remember McGruff the Crime Dog, the anthropomorphic bloodhound who encouraged schoolchildren throughout the '80s and '90s to "take a bite out of crime."

The messages, delivered by local patrol officers in sweaty dog costumes, seem quaint in retrospect: Lock your doors. Memorize your phone number. Never talk to strangers. McGruff is still used by some school districts but his efforts feel inadequate against the threats posed by child abusers, drug violence and, of course, school shootings.

York City School Police Officer Quinn Johnson recently spoke on a troubling phenomenon among some of the city's students who arm themselves with guns for their walk to and from school, hiding them nearby before they attend class.

York City School police officer Todd Tyler poses with detection dog Blaze. If all goes well, Blaze should be patrolling the neighborhoods near York City schools as early as Oct. 15. York City School District photo

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Some of these students believe it's better to be caught with a gun than without one, Johnson said, noting that officers have discovered several of these guns stashed nearby.

Of course, there've also been a number of K-12 students gunned down in the city.

By Superintendent Andrea Berry's count, there've been nine students killed since she joined the district in 2017.

Against this backdrop, York City school officials approved the purchase Wednesday of a real-life McGruff — a Belgian Malinois that can sniff out gun and bomb residue — to help patrol the areas surrounding the city's schools, looking for these guns and assisting with investigations.

Berry stressed that this police dog will only enter the schools during emergency situations after staff clear the area of students. The dog, named Blaze, won't be sniffing students. Indeed, she said, Blaze won't be interacting with students or their possessions at all.

But it's a sad testament to the dysfunctional gun culture in our country that a school is forced to spend money on a police dog — the district plans to recoup the cost via pending grant applications — that could be spent on virtually anything else.

Teenagers don't simply wake up one morning with a gun.

And they don't simply decide to bring it with them on their walk to school.

There is a well-documented supply chain for these illegal guns, one that we've known about for decades.

In Pennsylvania, there's no background check requirement for guns purchased via a private seller. Likewise, the state doesn't require gun owners to report their weapons lost or stolen. Nor is there a mandatory waiting period or requirements that guns be kept in lockboxes. Finally — and this is less relevant for much of York City's gun violence — there's no system for keeping guns out of the hands of people who are suicidal or who have exhibited a history of violence.

Of course, state gun laws are only part of the equation.

A 2017 study conducted by the Chicago Police Department found that 60% of traceable guns recovered during the course of criminal investigations were purchased outside Illinois. Of those, the vast majority came from states with comparatively lax gun laws: Indiana (21%), Mississippi (5%), Wisconsin (4%), Ohio (3%) and so on.

Pennsylvania sees a similar phenomenon, based on Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives data that was last updated in 2019. Its top sources of traceable guns used in criminal activity include far-flung Florida (3%) as well as Georgia, Ohio and Virginia, each at about 2%. The percentages are lower, of course, because Pennsylvania itself has lax gun laws compared to Illinois.

More stringent local gun laws would certainly help but we also need a national solution to keep guns from crossing state lines. Instead of tackling these structural issues, the solution seems to be the increasing militarization of our schools via armed resource officers, metal detectors and, now, gun-sniffing dogs.

But wouldn't it be easier to keep guns out of kids's hands in the first place?