America's Response to School Shootings; Teachers Are Being Trained to Shoot Their Students
February 4, 2018
Joel Gunter / BBC News & Patricia J. Williams / The Nation
Two schoolchildren died on Tuesday and 14 others suffered bullet wounds when a classmate opened fire outside a school in Benton, Kentucky. It was the third shooting incident at a school in 48 hours and the 11th in the three weeks since the start of the year. In lieu of any serious discussion about gun control, there has been instead a proliferation of laws and bills that would arm teachers, and train them to be able to kill -- to kill their own armed students, if necessary.
There Have Been 11 US School Shootings This Year.
Is It Time to Arm Teachers?
Joel Gunter / BBC News
(February 1, 2018) -- Two schoolchildren died on Tuesday and 14 others suffered bullet wounds when a classmate opened fire outside a school in Benton, Kentucky. It was the third shooting incident at a school in 48 hours and the 11th in the three weeks since the start of the year.
The victims were Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, both 15. A 15-year-old boy was arrested and charged with the attack.
The story fell somewhere into the middle of the day's news agenda. "Americans have accepted these common atrocities as part of life here," wrote one commenter on the New York Times website. "Another day, another shooting spree, and no political will to do anything about it."
But there is political will building behind a certain sort of gun legislation -- reforms that aim to increase, rather than decrease, the number of firearms in schools and other public buildings, and arm teachers and school staff as a means of defence.
Hours after the shooting in Kentucky, Republican State Senator Steve West rushed to file a bill that would allow Kentucky schools to have armed school marshals patrol the site. His bill joins another in the state which seeks to loosen gun restrictions around college campuses.
Mr. West's bill received cross-party support from state Democratic Senator Ray Jones. "We need armed officers in every school in Kentucky," Mr. Jones said. "That is a small price to pay if it saves one child's life."
The bill joins a raft of state legislation in recent years designed at putting more guns in schools. Most recently, the Michigan State Senate passed a bill in November which would allow teachers at primary, middle and high schools to carry a concealed handgun in class. Similar bills have been filed this year in Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia.
If successful, those states would join at least nine that already allow some form of concealed carry in high schools. Each fatal school shooting reignites a long-running debate over whether the solution is more gun control, or more guns.
Good Guys, Bad Guys
Efforts to arm teachers and school staff were jumpstarted in the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary in Connecticut, in which 20 children and six teachers died. Facing a public outcry at the massacre, and renewed calls for gun control, the NRA pushed heavily in the opposite direction.
"The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun," said the NRA's Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, a week after the shooting, and the catchphrase evolved into a philosophy that underpinned the NRA's key legislative priorities.
The lobby group published a report ["National School Shield"] calling for armed officers or staff in every school in America, and in 2013, the year after Sandy Hook, seven states enacted laws permitting teachers or school staff to carry guns.
"Over the past two or three years we've seen an explosion of legislative proposals to force schools to permit guns or to arm teachers," said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "And it's not just pushing the idea that people need guns in schools to be safe, it's the idea that people need guns everywhere -- city streets, public parks, even government buildings."
Teachers are given training on a gun range, as well as in tactical situations
But advocates say these kinds of reforms are the only meaningful way to protect schoolchildren. They point in particular to more rural schools, where an emergency response from police may take too long in the context of an active shooter incident. They also argue that gun-free zones are creating "soft targets".
In Kentucky, home to Tuesday's shooting, Republican State Senator Tim Moore introduced bills in 2017 and again in 2018 in an effort to reduce restrictions around guns on school and college campuses.
"Whenever in our country people with evil intent seek to harm others, including innocent children, they will seek locations where they know there's going to be minimal chance of resistance," he said in a telephone interview.
"Allowing law abiding citizens who are properly trained, properly vetted, with a thorough background check and criminal check . . . that is a deterrent."
School shootings erupted into the public consciousness in April 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. That massacre has since been eclipsed by shootings at Virginia Tech college (33 dead), Sandy Hook elementary school (25 dead), and 203 other shooting incidents in or around schools.
According to an FBI study of 160 active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013, nearly a quarter occurred in educational settings, and more of half of those were at junior or secondary schools.
Fourteen years after Columbine, and eight miles down the road, Littleton suffered another shooting. Karl Pierson, 18, went to Arapahoe High School in December 2013 with two guns and shot 17-year-old Clare Davis in the head, before killing himself in the school's library.
One of the first police officers on the scene that day was Swat team member Quinn Cunningham. Still a serving officer, he now runs three-day active-shooter training sessions for armed teachers.
The "Faster" training courses -- funded by Coloradans for Civil Liberties and the Independence Institute -- include a day of "mindset development" -- preparing teachers for the possibility that they will have to shoot dead one of their own students.
Mr. Cunningham, 44, asks the teachers to close their eyes and imagine the student entering the classroom with a gun. In reality, a teacher might have just a split-second to assess the situation and respond. This is the most difficult and emotional part of the training, and reduces some of the participants to tears.
"But if we can have them win in their minds first, against that student, then when it comes to the actual incident they will prevail," Mr. Cunningham said.
Five members of staff from Fleming High School in north-east Colorado volunteered last year for the training, which takes place in the summer break to keep students in the dark about who's involved. One teacher who took part, who asked to remain anonymous, said she decided to picture her favourite student during the preparation exercises, in an effort to harden herself to the worst possible eventuality.
"Teachers aren't really supposed to have favourites but you know, you have the ones that are close to you," she said. "But if that student made the poor decision to endanger everyone, I'm going to have to do something about it."
The school now has posters at every entrance stating that some of its teachers are armed. The students spent "about a week or two" trying to work out who was carrying guns, before giving up, the teacher said. Her wardrobe changed "quite a bit" to accommodate a handgun, she said. "It's just dressing to fit the gun."
Training on the range in Colorado
The volunteers at Fleming High were subjected to background checks and a voice stress analysis, similar to a lie detector test, said school superintendent Steve McCracken. All five passed and now carry guns in the school.
"At the end of the day, no one in our school or community is in favour of having guns, but if a bad guy comes to the school we are now able to take care of it," he said.
"We do not have a local police department in our little town, and the sheriff's office could be at least 15 to 20 minutes away on a good day. The main reason for this is to close that gap."
Some staff vocally opposed the presence of guns and one teacher later left the school, but the general reaction from staff and the community was supportive, he said.
In a 2013 poll by the National Education Association, only 22% of teachers said they approved of the idea of arming staff, while 68% of teachers said they were opposed. In another survey the same year, 72% of teachers said they would not want to carry a gun even if the law allowed.
In Michigan, when the state senate passed legislation in November that extended concealed carry to high schools, churches, day care centres, and sporting events, former teacher-turned-Democratic state senator Jim Ananich was among a vocal minority who opposed the bill. He said he thought the "overwhelming majority" of his former colleagues would be against the idea.
"Trying to play Rambo just doesn't fit with the reality of what happens in a stressful situation," he said. "Untrained individuals are much more likely to shoot a bystander, a police officer, or a child."
The three days of training administered by Faster -- and the legal minimum standard in Michigan of just eight hours for armed teachers -- was not nearly enough, he said.
"Pursuing the NRA philosophy that you can put guns into the hands of teachers and untrained individuals, and expect them to make decisions that law enforcement or military are supposed to make, is backwards and it's dangerous."
Faster offers three days of training, which some argue is inadequate
Those fighting to keep guns out of schools say arming teachers is a bad solution to the wrong problem, particularly in states that lack laws around securing firearms in the home.
According to the Giffords Law Centre, 27 states and the District of Columbia have some sort of Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws, which dictate how securely guns should be stored in the home.
The CAP laws in Kentucky, where the shooter reportedly took a gun from his parents' closet, are among the weakest of all those states. Parents or guardians will only break the law if they knowingly provide a gun to a child convicted of a violent crime or likely to commit a crime.
"If we want to talk about preventing school shootings, we should be talking about stopping kids getting their hands on guns in the first place," said Mr. Skaggs, chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "Those are the laws we should be looking at."
On the ground, groups like the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus are fighting state-by-state against the NRA, its state-level affiliates and other gun-advocacy groups to defeat pro-gun schools legislation.
"We -- the collective gun violence prevention community -- are defeating most of the bills right now, but the intensity on the other side is there," said Andy Pelosi, director of Keep Guns off Campus. "The NRA has its fingerprints all over this issue now, they want to push guns everywhere," he said. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
Teachers Are Being Trained
To Shoot Their Students
But we can't shoot our way out of
America's gun-violence crisis
Patricia J. Williams / The Nation
(February 26, 2018 issue) -- Within the first 23 days of 2018, there were 11 school shootings in the United States. In lieu of any serious discussion about gun control, there has been instead a proliferation of laws and bills that would arm teachers, and train them to be able to kill.
Observes Adam Skaggs, of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, "it's the idea that people need guns everywhere -- city streets, public parks, even government buildings." It's also the response of a nation at war with itself.
One example of the trend is the Buckeye Firearms Foundation's funding of so-called "Faster" programs, three-day training sessions for teachers from around the country. In addition to target practice, one day of the training is devoted to "mindset development," or bolstering teachers' preparedness to shoot after split-second assessments.
Trainees are asked "to close their eyes and imagine the student entering the classroom with a gun" and then are taught how to command the grit necessary to kill that student. One teacher from Colorado told the BBC that "she decided to picture her favourite student during the preparation exercises, in an effort to harden herself to the worst possible eventuality."
A Faster instructor was quite encouraging of such resolve: "if we can have them win in their minds first, against that student, then when it comes to the actual incident they will prevail."
What an astounding proposition, this tragic lesson about winning "in their minds first, against that student . . . ." This adherence to a toxic shoot-'em-up Wild West ethic puts teachers in a clear bind: They must labor from the untenable position of actively imagining their students in the crosshairs, the objects of target practice. If this isn't the end of civilization, I don't know what is.
Deputizing teachers as locked-and-loaded "peace" officers speaks volumes about how challenged police are by the quotidian nature of gun violence. It should make us ponder how much democratic assumptions about the state having a monopoly on violence have been frayed by anarchic ideologies of "every man for himself." And it brings that us-versus-them mentality into the classroom.
The Colorado teacher imagined her favorite student; I'm guessing that many would imagine their worst student, or some stereotype of dangerous otherness. Either way, the imaginative act of seeing the best as worst and the worst as expendable is a separate danger in itself -- a premeditated license to shoot faster, ever faster . . .
In the United States, more than half the population believes that having a gun enhances the chances of survival in a world overrun by gangs of terrorists. But data shows very conclusively that gun ownership is much more likely to increase the risk of harm. Research shows, as Slate notes, "a gun in the home was far more likely to be used to threaten a family member or intimate partner than to be used in self-defense."
According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, not only is "[t]he risk of homicide . . . three times higher in homes with firearms," but in addition, "[k]eeping a firearm in the home increases the risk of suicide by a factor of 3 to 5 and increases the risk of suicide with a firearm by a factor of 17." There is no reason to suppose that such figures wouldn't apply to gun-centered classrooms.
I can't comprehend this foolish disregard of empirical data about what actually reduces gun violence.
When the nuclear-warning system accidentally went off in Hawaii a few weeks ago, many experienced the profound helplessness of confronting an unfathomable force of violence. Perhaps it lends a certain sense of control to imagine that we'd have time to "protect" ourselves by crawling into an air-raid shelter, but in case of nuclear attack, it is clear that anyone within broad range would be incinerated instantly. The only real hope for survival is limiting access to and control of the weapons themselves.
The same holds true for the extraordinary arsenal Americans own privately. We can do our best to protect ourselves against every unexpected irrational attack like the one in Las Vegas, but unless we wrap our bodies perpetually in Kevlar and travel in bomb-resistant tanks, the problem remains: There are simply too many guns in circulation for us ever to imagine that we might protect ourselves without simply reducing the number of them. In America, guns exact a toll greater than that of active warfare.
According to The Guardian: "Since 1968 . . . there have been 1,516,863 gun-related deaths on US territory. Since the founding of the United States, there have been 1,396,733 war deaths.
That figure includes American lives lost in the revolutionary war, the Mexican war, the civil war (Union and Confederate, estimate), the Spanish-American war, the first world war, the second world war, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the Gulf war, the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, as well as other conflicts, including in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Haiti."
And yet . . . Faster's training does map rather neatly onto America's romance with redemptive vigilantism. Previously in this column, I recommended Harvard scholar Caroline Light's excellent book Stand Your Ground: A History of America's Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense.
Let me add to that recommendation Jean-Paul Sartre's short story "Erostratus." There, the narrator derives misanthropic and sexual pleasure from carrying a gun hidden in his pocket. That exhilaration comes, he says, not from the gun, but rather "it was from myself: I was a being like a revolver, a torpedo, or a bomb."
Philosopher Robert Esposito writes that "things constitute the filter through which humans . . . enter into relationship with each other." Guns, torpedoes, and bombs are precisely such things. Warns Esposito: "The more our technological objects, with the know-how that has made them serviceable, embody a sort of subjective life, the less we can squash them into an exclusively servile function."
Patricia J. Williams is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law and a columnist for The Nation.
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