I grew up in a small town in West Virginia where having guns in your home was quite common. My dad had rifles, muzzleloaders, and antique pistols in the house. I respected guns as tools that fed my family and controlled the deer population. My dad, a Vietnam vet, also taught me that guns weren’t toys. He knew first-hand the devastation a gun could unleash. I never dreamed of touching his guns, but I knew if I wanted to learn how to hunt, he would properly train me about gun safety.
Mindful of the potential danger, Dad took every precaution to keep us safe from his guns, even though they were a far cry from the automatic weapons responsible for recent slaughters, like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Since that massacre, many educators and students have felt a sense of urgency to change our country’s mindset about assault rifles and how we approach keeping our citizens safe.
Guns are prevalent in our lives, but not just for hunting and keeping the deer population under control. Our culture is filled with video games and movies that romanticize guns, especially military-style weapons. Our current reality is one filled with mass shootings that happen so often many of us struggle to keep up with the number of lives lost. Many citizens have become numb or just accepted this as a fact of life. However, I refuse to accept that my students could be attacked on any given day by someone who can easily buy a weapon that kills many within seconds.
Sensible gun policies and stricter licensing are a start, but keeping schools safe requires much more than this."
If we had stronger regulations and requirements at the federal level, we could reduce firearm-related violence overall. While the federal government has a national background check system, it relies on states to supply information about prospective gun buyers’ criminal histories. In many cases, this information is incomplete or not provided, which makes the system unreliable. Jonathan Crohn from the Huffington Post writes that some experts suggest requiring gun purchasers to get licenses from the federal government—a controversial suggestion but one I think would help protect our children. Such a licensing process could make gun-safety courses mandatory, and require registration fees, character references, and in-person applications at local law-enforcement offices for anyone who wants to buy a gun.
Focus on Mental Health
Sensible gun policies and stricter licensing are a start, but keeping schools safe requires much more than this. We must also begin to address mental-health issues in ways we haven’t done before, such as providing all students with access to licensed counselors, social workers, and psychologists, and training educators to better identify the needs of students. Pro-gun advocates often say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And yet, they quickly suggest arming teachers with guns rather than focusing on increasing schools’ capacity to help students who are facing depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental-health issues.
The truth is as a society we need to focus on helping kids stay resilient in the face of adversity, rather than letting negative emotions fester until they erupt in violence. School counselors, social workers, and psychologists all have a powerful impact on the development of our students’ mental health. Our schools need these staff members to support all students both early in their development and throughout their high school years.
Sadly, 1.6 million students in this nation attend a school that employs a law enforcement officer but not a school counselor, according to a 2013-14 federal data collection. In fact, in some of our largest school systems, including New York City, Chicago, Miami-Dade County, and Houston, you are more likely to run into a security officer than a counselor. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students, but in a recent survey, the 10 largest districts were not close to meeting students’ needs.
I firmly believe that having guns in our schools is not the answer. If trained law-enforcement officers have trouble hitting their targets, how can we expect an educator, whose role is to teach, to hit a shooter within a school? Accidental discharge is possible, along with the fact that in a heated moment, anyone is capable of making a bad decision. Do we really want our schools to resemble prisons with armed authority figures, metal detectors, and limited access for the community?
In addition, if many schools can’t afford to provide books, paper, pencils, and other classroom materials for learning, do we really have the money to buy guns for teachers to carry? If our districts can’t afford counselors, psychologists, and adequate staffing to support students’ emotional and learning needs, can we really afford to train educators to use weapons? Educators want to impact students’ futures in positive ways, not serve as prison guards in a school. The responsibility of school staff members is to help students learn the skills to ask questions and seek answers in the world around them, to process those answers, and to realize their own potential. Subjecting students to more guns will not make them feel safer and is certainly not conducive to a positive teaching and learning environment.
If we arm anyone, we need to arm our students—with the resources and tools they need to be healthy, globally minded citizens. We need to arm children with caring adults who can give them the attention they need in small classes. We need to arm them with more opportunities to learn about other cultures and empathize with those who are different. And with counselors and social workers who can provide the support students need when they struggle with depression, anger, or abuse.
Educators began the #ArmMeWith movement on Twitter not too long ago to bring awareness to these very issues. When we arm kids with a society where they feel safe, have a sense of belonging, and know how to empathize, they, in turn, will create a world that is safer.
Parkland, now among our deadliest mass shootings in the United States, comes almost 20 years after the horrific massacre at Columbine. As rational beings, we should have learned ways to prevent tragedies such as these. But we haven’t. This lack of progress represents a blatant and shameful denial of responsibility as we bury even more students. It’s the kind of negligence that would have horrified my late father, as it does many other responsible gun owners across the country.