Curbing gun violence after Newtown: Let's arm teachers

Critics worry that arming teachers will create 'fortress' schools and invite gun accidents. But a well-thought-out program can avoid these pitfalls, and take advantage of teachers and staff who are eager to act as trained protectors for our children.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama walks from the White House to board Marine One Feb. 4 for departure to Minnesota, where he will talk about gun control. Op-ed contributor and pistol instructor Michael Brown writes: 'There are many good instructors who can turn a non-shooter into a competent defender in about 40 hours.'

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school attack in Newtown, Conn., President Obama is taking his gun control ideas on the road, and politicians, school administrators, and parents across the country are reviewing school safety. Many are discussing how to better protect schoolhouse doors and update safety drills, whether to add armed guards as the National Rifle Association proposes, and even whether to arm teachers.

That last idea is not as far-fetched as it may sound to some people. America's banks, courts, top elected officials, and super celebrities are protected by armed guards. Armed pilots and air marshals protect us in the skies. So why not armed teachers protecting our children?

State lawmakers in Arizona, California, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Tennessee have introduced or plan to propose legislation that would allow teachers and/or other school employees to have guns at school. Utah already allows concealed weapons at schools and at least 200 teachers have volunteered for firearms training since the Newtown massacre left 20 children and six adult women dead  at the school in December.

Critics worry about schools becoming fortresses, about accidental shootings, and liability issues. The consulting firm, National School Safety and Security Services, advises against arming teachers, though not against armed guards. But a well-thought-out program can avoid most of these pitfalls, and take advantage of teachers and staff who are eager to act as trained protectors for our children.

I'm a mild mannered eye doctor who comes from a family of teachers. Many years ago, I discovered the joy of competitive, combat-style, pistol shooting and went on to become certified as a pistol instructor. The first thing to understand about arming teachers is that learning to shoot is not rocket science. Modern firearms are designed to be easily used defensively by ordinary human beings under stress. Millions of new pistol shooters have been amazed that with proper instruction they can shoot pretty well. Carbines, like the AR-15s used by police officers, are even easier.

There is no practical reason that a sufficient number of teachers can't be trained to defend the children they care about. Those who don't have the right mindset simply won't volunteer, but those who do volunteer will be highly motivated.

A large firearms training industry has developed in the last two decades as the number of concealed carry licenses has exploded. There are many good instructors who can turn a non-shooter into a competent defender in about 40 hours.

People who get their gun knowledge from Hollywood will tell you that shooting someone intent on killing during the frenzy of a school attack is impossible. I don't buy that. If a madman comes into your workplace and starts shooting, I think you will know exactly what to do, just like the many merchants who defend themselves against armed robbers virtually every day and the moms who defend their kids from home invaders.

It's highly unlikely that students will be running every which way. They will be on the floor, under desks, and locked in classrooms. A trained, armed teacher will know to take cover, kneel, and aim with rising shots. The teacher will also know every inch of the building, having the advantage.

That's the basic scenario, but the devil is in the details.

One way to arm teachers is for them to carry a concealed pistol, like millions of licensed citizens do now. That cuts down on the “school fortress” perception. It is important, too, that the aggressor not know who is armed, in order to complicate his planning, hopefully to the point that he abandons his plan entirely.

Modern security holsters make it very hard to snatch a pistol, but for some teachers, keeping their weapon a secret while in close daily contact with students may be problematic. Certainly some teachers can carry discretely, but I feel it is important to include principals, maintenance people, secretaries, and administrators who are better able to maintain their personal space.

A very good option would be to keep some firearms in security cabinets that are accessible only to those who have completed proper training and have been given the key or combination. Since they are not being carried, an appropriate long gun should be stored instead of a pistol. This can prevent accidental shootings.

The next issue is how to find enough volunteers. In some areas, volunteers will be plentiful, as recent armed teacher classes in Utah and Texas attest. In places where guns are unfashionable, armed guards or resident police officers can do the job, albeit at a higher cost.

Among the possible sticking points will be deciding who screens and selects from the available volunteers. Workplace politics and personality conflicts common to school faculties would suggest that the decision should be made at the district or state level.

Volunteers should be willing to give up a week of their summer vacation for initial training and two weekends a year for refresher courses. The state should pay for training and supply approved firearms. Police agencies should offer their trainers and facilities, as some already have, but excellent civilian trainers are available if needed.

Obviously, the names of the armed staff members must not be made public, as this will negate some of their effectiveness. Only the general fact that a school is protected should be announced in order to benefit from the deterrent effect. Ironically, it may be that this effect is more important than any particular skills or training. As long as people believe that a school is protected, the exact methods may not matter at all.

This is definitely not a one size fits all situation. It is critical that school districts have as much flexibility as possible to chart their own way, based on their finances and the local culture.

Even if all obstacles are overcome and an armed school protection plan is put in place, it will be difficult to measure its effectiveness for the simple reason that serious school attacks don't happen very often. Gathering statistically significant conclusions may not be possible, because how can you identify when a perpetrator has been dissuaded from attacking a target? Like many elements of the great American gun debate, support for such a program will hinge on emotional and cultural factors in the community, rather than hard evidence.

Michael Brown is a member of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership.

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