I am a licensed gun owner and have been ever since I was able to purchase a firearm legally. I also possess a pistol permit and have ever since I could apply for it legally. My pistol permit allows me to “carry concealed.” That’s right, I can legally carry a handgun, and you wouldn’t even know it. In fact, I own several handguns, rifles, and shotguns. I hunt sometimes. I target-shoot sometimes. I am a law-abiding, responsible citizen. Oh, and I am also a school principal.
Once again our nation has been stunned by a school shooting, this time at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington state last week. No one wants to compare mass shootings—the loss of any life is horrible, no matter what. The Sandy Hook Elementary School killings certainly took a bigger toll on me and likely most other people, however, because of the age of the victims. I was badly shaken by the news, and during the weekend that followed that 2012 tragedy, I found myself riveted to the televised reports of the devastation caused by one lunatic. I listened to President Obama that Saturday evening and agreed with him that, individually and as a nation, we have said (emptily) too many times that something needs to be done. As we approach the second anniversary of that horrible day, I continue to look forward to our taking significant action as a nation.
The National Rifle Association’s eventual reaction to what happened at Sandy Hook, as expressed by its executive vice president and CEO, Wayne LaPierre, was not surprising: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” In fact, Mr. LaPierre’s response was pretty consistent with what it’s been to every shooting—perhaps a little more forceful in this instance, if only because he had to counter and deflect the horrific reality of 6- and 7-year-old children being murdered.
I’ve never belonged to the NRA and never will. I disagree with its position on anything and everything related to “gun control” because the NRA opposes it. I believe there are reasonable steps that should be taken to limit access to guns, but that is not the point of this essay.
On the K-12 front, one of the more out-there prescriptions suggested was for school personnel to carry guns, thus ensuring that armed security forces would be present on every campus. The idea took hold with many, perhaps even originating with Mr. LaPierre when he called for a “national schools shield safety program.” It seemed to be an easy fix to school shootings.
I believe that changing laws and regulations to allow educators to be armed in schools is flatly bad policy and a bad idea.
However, I believe that changing laws and regulations to allow educators to be armed in schools is flatly bad policy and a bad idea. I don’t differentiate between arming principals, teachers, or other school personnel. It is a poor excuse for a response to unnecessary school tragedies that we witness all too often.
Using a gun to defend yourself—which thankfully, I’ve never done and hope I never will have to do—in any situation is not to be taken lightly. Most people would not have the nerve, rational thought, or skill to do it on the spot. Providing stop-gap “training” would not address the whole picture. You would be taking people who were trained to educate—many of whom had most likely never owned or even fired a gun—and transforming them into the appointed defenders of schools.
How sane is that? How much training do swat teams, police officers, or security guards undergo before they are ready to handle these dangerous encounters? How exactly can we ready educators in a shortened time frame? People who become public defenders know what they’re getting themselves into. Educators didn’t (and don’t) sign up for that line of work.
This approach would require us to be placing guns in schools now—guns that could easily be used inappropriately. Don’t for a minute think that a secured gun, stored in a school, would be inaccessible. For a gun to be available for defense, it needs to be accessible. That means it would be accessible to more than just the principal or teacher. This will become an even greater concern should more states pass gun laws that allow people with valid pistol permits to also carry them in schools.
Although in New York state, where I am a principal, it is illegal to bring a gun into a school, more than two dozen states have passed such laws, and seven of those states allow teachers and school staff members to carry guns, according to an NBC report from September. Earlier this month, a 6th grade teacher in Utah wounded herself at school when her handgun, which she was legally carrying, accidentally discharged. An isolated incident, perhaps. But what if a child had been nearby? If more states jump on the bandwagon, more guns will be in schools and accessible to more than just the legal user.
Yes, I am a licensed handgun owner, and, yes, I am comfortable with guns. I know how to shoot. I know how to handle guns safely. I have hunted and killed animals. It is true that there are many educators who are even more comfortable with guns than I am. And I would like to think that if put in a life-threatening situation, I and others like me would be able to act appropriately. But there is no guarantee. Until it happens to you, you can’t really know.
I have even greater doubts about people who do not have my level of experience with guns. Is it easy to make an instantaneous decision whether a particular threat merits pulling a gun? Having an armed intruder is probably an obvious time to do so, but there are many other circumstances that are not so clear-cut—the angry, aggressive parent; the out-of-control 17-year-old student; the gang member who’s guarding his turf. We don’t pull guns in these instances now, but if given the authority to do so, would some people do just that?
I do not have enough faith in our citizenry—regardless of their comfort level with handling guns—to believe that everyone would have and/or use the proper judgment in the many uncomfortable and sometimes intimidating, even threatening interactions that can and do present themselves in the school yard or building. And, referring again to last week’s school shooting in Marysville, Wash., the shooter reportedly was confronted by an unarmed teacher, who is being considered a hero for her actions.
Allowing educators to carry guns makes them the appointed defenders of our schools. But what if the principal (or teacher) doesn’t act quickly enough? Or doesn’t believe in pulling a gun? Or couldn’t find the key to the locked drawer containing the gun? Or wasn’t in the building when a threat presented itself? There now becomes a culpable nondefender, someone who didn’t do her duty and now another target for finger-pointing, excuse-making, lawsuits, or worse.
Educators carrying guns? Not an answer to the policy questions before us. My guns stay home.
Retired Montana Principal John Moffatt says arming teachers and school staff is not the right way to respond to the threat of school shootings. His opinion is informed by his own experience as the survivor of a 1986 school shooting.
A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Guns Don’t Belong in Schools