Guns in schools? Sandy Hook rekindles hot debate on arming teachers. (+video)

Across the country, some argue that an armed teacher could have prevented the Sandy Hook massacre. But others say having guns in schools heightens the risk of other tragedies.

By , Staff writer

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    Students Zoe Bell (l.) and her sister, Sophie, join Los Angeles area clergy, religious leaders and citizens in an interfaith candlelight prayer vigil to end gun violence outside Los Angeles City Hall, Wednesday, Dec. 19. Instead of trying to get rid of guns to prevent school violence, Texas state legislators and pro-gun advocates nationally want to allow teachers and administrators who are trained and licensed to carry weapons in the classroom.
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Imagine this: Instead of blasting his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School and killing 26 students and staff without anyone to stop him, Adam Lanza runs into a teacher or supervisor with a gun. Mr. Lanza is killed or incapacitated, and a massacre is averted.

This scenario is what some Texas state legislators and pro-gun advocates nationally are arguing for in the wake of the tragedy. Instead of trying to get rid of guns to prevent school violence, they want to allow teachers and administrators who are trained and licensed to carry weapons in the classroom.

A host of Texas legislators say they will introduce legislation to allow gun-toting teachers in the Lone Star State. US Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) of Texas told Chris Wallace on Fox News last Sunday he wished the principal at the Sandy Hook Elementary School had a weapon.

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"Chris, I wish to God she had had an M-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out ... and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids."

A bill to allow guns in schools passed the Michigan Legislature the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, but was vetoed by the governor; Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell says it ought to be discussed; and conservative commentator Bill Bennett, a former Education secretary, talking about the idea on “Meet the Press” last weekend, said, “But, my God, if you can prevent this kind of thing, I think – I think – I think we ought to.”

The issue has sparked a hot debate. Those in favor say allowing teachers to arm themselves gives them a fighting chance. They argue that police can’t watch all the entrances to schools, so another tragedy is just a matter of time.

Those opposed say it sends the wrong message to the students – that getting into a gun fight is the way to resolve the issue. In addition, children might get hurt in any gun battle. And, they ask, what happens when police arrive on the scene and see someone in the classroom holding a gun? The police won’t know if it’s a teacher or an intruder and will just shoot, possibly killing the teacher.

“I’ve been involved with education my whole life, and I can’t imagine any circumstances where it can be done in a safe and reasonable way,” says Dr. Robert Villanova, director of the executive leadership program at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. “It’s hard enough to get teachers to lock their doors.”

Dr. Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of School Superintendents, worries that guns in the classroom could lead to unfortunate accidents.

“There is a risk the teacher sees a student and thinks the student has a gun,” says Dr. Cirasuolo, who has been involved with education since 1964. “The teacher shoots the student, and it turns out it’s not a gun.”

Cirasuolo, formerly the CEO of the American Association of School Administrators, thinks that over 90 percent of his colleagues in education would prefer not to be armed. “I know people who are hunters, and they would not think of teachers as carrying weapons around the school.”

Already 47 states and Washington, D.C., generally outlaw guns at K-12 schools, in safe-school zones, or on school-related transportation, except by law enforcement officials, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco.

The federal government, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, outlawed firearms carried by students. A state risks losing its federal funds if it violates the prohibition.

Opinion in Newtown’s small village of Sandy Hook, where the shooting took place, is mixed.

Sitting outside of the Demitasse Café, three college juniors are selling homemade Christmas ornaments to raise money for mental health counseling for those affected by the tragedy. All three say they are opposed to arming school staff.

One, Olivia, from the University of Connecticut, says she “absolutely” is against the idea. “That wouldn’t solve any problem.” 

However, as she pays her respects at a memorial wall of stuffed animals and candles, Sarah Rose of Bristol, Conn., says she thinks it’s a good idea.

“If a teacher who is licensed and trained wants to carry a concealed weapon, I don’t see why that is a problem,” says Ms. Rose. “But, I don’t know what the answer is to fixing our system.”

Attempts to allow weapons in principals’ offices or anywhere else in schools meet with howls of protest from teachers unions. They maintain that the answer is to spend more money on mental-health screening so dangerous individuals can be kept away from guns.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, notes that the majority of teachers are female, and that they might carry the gun in their purse, where it can be stolen.

“When you put your purse down, the chance of someone grabbing a weapon increases,” says Ms. Fallon, who is licensed to carry a gun herself.

She also worries that a police officer arriving at a classroom where there has been an incident won’t be able to differentiate between the perpetrator and the teacher.

“I have talked to the police, and they tell me that if they see someone with a gun and the person looks at them they will shoot them,” Fallon says. “It increases the risk to the teacher and that’s not a good idea.”

Former teacher Charles Russo, now a law professor at the University of Dayton, thinks giving a weapon to teachers could make a bad situation worse. “I have never used a gun, and I’m not sure I could hit a wall,” he says.

He says he saw a recent advertisement for bullet-proof backpacks for children. “What’s next?” he asks.

Professor Russo says the uproar over the Sandy Hook shootings is obscuring the fact that schools are actually very safe.

According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, less than 1 percent of all homicides or suicides among school-age children occur on school grounds, going to or from school, or on the way to or from school-sponsored events.

However, Steve Siebold, an author and commentator, thinks allowing teachers to pack a gun is the only way to level the playing field against people who want to kill innocent people. “It gives them a fighting chance,” says Mr. Siebold, author of “Sex, Politics and Religion: How Delusional Thinking is Destroying America.” “The government can’t protect our kids, and banning guns is delusional,” he says. “If there is a better answer, I’d like to hear it.”

Cirasuolo, of the school superintendents association, believes it will take a “multifaceted” approach that includes better use of technology, such as video cameras, limits on automatic assault weapons, and increases in services to the mentally ill.

Ciracuolo, who has been working with the Newtown school system since the incident, thinks society also needs to look more closely at the violence in electronic media.

“When we see movies about wars they are always glorious,” he says. Electronic games, he points, out tend to desensitize young people about killing others.

“The question is: are we inadvertently making them immune to the consequences of violence?”

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