Abbey Clements could hear the sounds of the nation’s deadliest K-12 school shooting as she huddled with her 2nd graders singing Christmas carols to drown out the terrifying noises coming from down the hall.
A gunman had turned left after he entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that day. If he had turned right, he may have ended up in Clements’ classroom. It took less than five minutes for the intruder to fire 154 shots from his Bushmaster rifle, killing 20 children and six adults on that December day in 2012. He shot himself as police arrived.
In the time since, the experience that Clements and her fellow Sandy Hook teachers shared has become a central argument for lawmakers around the country who push for less-restrictive gun laws to allow teachers and staff to carry guns in schools. It’s not unusual for a state legislator to assert that the shooting at Sandy Hook may have been prevented, or that fewer people could have died, if the school’s staff had been armed. It’s a suggestion Clements finds insulting.
“We’re not trained sharp shooters, we’re not trained first responders,” Clements said. “We are caregivers. ... I’m sure every educator out there would say that we want school safety, but arming teachers is not the answer.”
Clements is among a growing number of educators—some of them survivors of school shootings—speaking out about gun laws on the state and national level. The interest has grown strong enough that Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group that advocates for tougher gun laws, plans to launch Educators Demand Action, a campaign to help coordinate their efforts.
Educators, including Clements, have long been involved with the organization’s work. They feel a special sense of urgency this year as they watch to see if President Donald Trump, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, will follow through on a campaign promise to push for ending federal gun-free school zones that he once referred to as “bait” for a “sicko” who may attack a school.
The federal law prohibits carrying or discharging guns within 1,000 feet of public or private school grounds unless a person is specifically authorized to do so by a state.
Pro-gun groups argue that those restrictions make schools more vulnerable. Would-be shooters, they argue, know that they are less likely to be confronted by armed individuals. And there are some educators who favor having armed staff in their schools in hopes of preventing another tragic shooting.
“Gun-free zones prevent law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves, and create vulnerable populations that are targeted by criminals,” said U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican who recently proposed a bill to eliminate gun-free school zones.
But groups like Moms Demand Action counter that teachers and school staff aren’t prepared to respond to armed intruders, and that carrying guns would interfere with their duties to support and teach students.
“You hear these noises and you have no idea where the gun shots are coming from,” said Clements, who now teaches in another Newtown school. “So, you know, the idea that had a teacher been armed that she could save the day, like in the movies—that you would quickly know where the shooter was, know that there was only one shooter, and that the kids would be quiet and sit still so that they wouldn’t get hurt—is insane.”
A 2015 CBS News/New York Times poll found that 57 percent of all respondents opposed allowing teachers and staff to carry guns in schools, though the idea was more popular among Republicans.
In the confirmation hearing for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who represented Newtown as a congressman, asked the nominee if guns have “any place in or around schools.”
DeVos said that decision is best left to states and localities. She referred back to a school in rural Wyoming with a special fence to protect it from grizzly bears that had been mentioned earlier in the hearing.
“I think there I would imagine that there’s a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” she said. DeVos also said she would support the president if he moves forward with a push to end gun-free school zones.
Her response drew mocking jokes from late-night talk show hosts and stoked concern from educators opposed to guns in schools. Moms Demand Action gathered 40,000 signatures on a petition opposing DeVos’ nomination—1,000 of them from educators, the organization said.
The organization invited those educators to join its Educators Demand Action effort, which now has about 3,000 members who meet with local chapters, attend lobbying days to learn how to communicate with state legislators, and testify about bills and policy changes at the state and local levels.
Their work comes as lawmakers in many states take up a perennial batch of bills that would loosen gun restrictions. The group’s members focus particularly on laws that would require schools and college campuses to allow concealed carrying of handguns by staff and teachers or that would give districts the option to allow armed staff. Nine states currently allow concealed-carry permit holders to carry guns in schools.
“Teachers have such an incredibly powerful voice on this issue because they are in the classroom and they really do know what’s best for students,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action.
In some states that have debated guns-in-schools bills, police have opposed them, noting the difficulty of cornering a shooter in a chaotic situation, even with law enforcement training. Noting federal data that show that children are more likely to be shot outside of school, educators involved in Moms Demand Action push for more-restrictive gun laws, like those to expand background checks for gun buyers.
“It shouldn’t be up to teachers to stand up to gunmen because our Congress won’t stand up to the gun lobby,” Watts said.
The group also partners with the national Parent Teacher Association to offer educational materials on how to safely secure guns and keep them out of the hands of children. While high-casualty shootings often grab headlines, attacks at schools are often smaller in scale and involve guns that were insecurely stored, Watts said.
Moms Demand Action only supports guns in schools if they are carried by trained security guards and police officers. That’s not far off from an earlier position of the National Rifle Association.
In 1999, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told a gathering of NRA members that the organization believed in “absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance schools” with “the rare exception of law enforcement officers or trained security personnel,” a statement that was met with applause. But after the Newtown shootings, LaPierre said politicians did little to address school attacks but brag about gun-free school zones with signs that “tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”
He pushed for armed security in every school and the use of armed volunteers, like military veterans, if necessary. LaPierre stopped short of directly advocating for arming teachers.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said. “Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away ... or a minute away?”
A representative of the NRA did not respond to requests for comment or provide the organization’s position on pending state gun bills.
Motivated by Sandy Hook
In the year following the Sandy Hook shootings, state lawmakers filed hundreds of bills related to school safety, responding to a swell of public concern, an Education Week analysis found. Of those, 73 called for loosening or ending the prohibition of guns on school grounds. And in states where districts already had discretion to allow teachers and staff to carry firearms, some moved to change their policies.
That was the case for the Argyle, Texas, district, which armed an undisclosed number of staff members after the idea drew support at a public meeting following the Newtown shootings, Superintendent Telena Wright said. Parents were concerned that the 2,500-student district—located about 40 miles north of Dallas—only has one on-site police officer and that local police may not respond quickly enough, she said.
Signs outside of Argyle’s schools warn visitors: “Please be aware that the staff at Argyle ISD are armed and may use whatever force is necessary to protect our students.”
“It goes back to Sandy Hook, really,” Wright said. “I think that was kind of the pivotal point of it all. I know so many schools in Texas and I know many schools throughout the nation reviewed their safety and security policy after that.”
Citing security concerns, Wright won’t disclose how many staff are armed or how many are teachers. That information is not accessible to parents, either, though Wright said she has not received any complaints. Armed staff were first recommended by district leaders, passed a psychological screening, and received district-provided training, she said. The district has never had any problems with its policy, and participating staff have never drawn their weapons in its schools, Wright said.
Many proponents of loosening gun restrictions in schools cite security concerns in rural areas, where police may have slower response times. And many state bills wouldn’t require additional training beyond what’s required to obtain a concealed-carry permit for teachers and school staff to carry guns in schools, sometimes without seeking permission from or providing notification to their districts.
Educators Demand Action opened the current legislative session monitoring guns-in-school bills in seven states, the organization said, and they expect that number to grow.
In a recent Montana legislative hearing, the supporter of a bill that would allow the concealed carrying of guns in schools asked: What would have happened if the principal of Sandy Hook had been armed? John Moffatt, a retired Montana principal who works with Moms Demand Action, stood to oppose the bill, speaking from his own experience.
In 1986, Moffatt was an assistant principal at Fergus High School in Lewistown when he heard a loud noise upstairs. Thinking a boiler had blown up, he ran upstairs.
In the hallway, he met the eyes of a 14-year-old student and saw that the boy had a gun. Moffatt would later learn that the boy had shot and killed the substitute teacher monitoring his French class. From about six feet away, the student shot Moffatt in the side, causing him to fall to his knees. The bullet went all the way through him, its ricocheting fragments bouncing off the cinder block walls and striking the feet of nearby students.
The student raised the gun again, this time aiming for Moffatt’s head. He missed and the bullet struck Moffatt’s hand. The gunman then fled the school, running all the way to his house where he was later caught by police. Moffatt is certain he couldn’t have stopped the shooter if he’d been armed. What may have prevented the incident, Moffatt said, was keeping the student from ever getting his hands on the gun—which belonged to a relative and had been left unsecured in a truck.
Moffatt, a former hunter, said he’s not “anti-gun,” but he wants policymakers to be thoughtful and consider evidence when they revise gun laws. He can quickly describe every shooting at a Montana school or college in the last 50 years, and explain why he doesn’t think armed staff would have prevented any of those incidents.
Even police on campus that day weren’t able to prevent the attack, Moffatt said, and the chaos after the initial shots would have challenged even the most skilled responder.
“There was screaming. There was absolute pandemonium,” he said. “If you throw into that mix a poorly trained teacher, or at least minimally trained, and all of that is going on around you... The only thing that could have happened is that it could have made the shooting worse.”
He recounts his time working in elementary schools, where young children regularly approached to hug his side, their faces falling about where a gun would rest if he wore it on his belt.
Moffatt and other educators involved in the gun debates said they hope to help balance lawmakers’ conversations, which are sometimes colored by fear and a lack of classroom experience.
“People who have no actual skin in the game—they’re not the ones in the public schools, and they’re not the ones there day after day—are the ones proposing this legislation,” Moffatt said.
Gun-rights advocates across the country are pushing to allow educators to carry concealed weapons in classrooms to protect students from an attack on a school. But many organizations passionately disagree that arming staff will help keep kids safe.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as Educators Join New Fight to Stop Gun Bills