Two states aim to arm teachers despite opposition from educators and experts

Two states aim to arm teachers despite opposition from educators and experts
George Frey

Two state legislatures are considering measures that would permit teachers and other school staff to carry arms in the aftermath of the Texas elementary school shooting that killed 19 children last month, despite opposition from gun safety advocates, teachers’ groups and school security experts.

While the idea isn’t new — many Republican-controlled legislatures considered similar legislation after the 2018 Parkland, Florida, shooting — it is a growing talking point as the country has witnessed a number of mass killings in the past few weeks. Two states, Ohio and Louisiana, are now considering either decreasing the requirements to arm school staff or permitting employees to carry a firearm after fulfilling the required training.

It’s a popular talking point in conservative circles. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said in an interview on Fox News on the day of the Uvalde school shooting that the state, which already allows teachers to be armed, should go further to ensure school employees have firearms.

Seth Garza pays his respects with his daughter Lilly at a memorial on May 31, 2022, dedicated to the 19 children and two adults killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)
Seth Garza pays his respects with his daughter Lilly at a memorial on May 31, 2022, dedicated to the 19 children and two adults killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

“We can’t stop bad people from doing bad things,” he said. “We can potentially arm and prepare and train teachers and other administrators to respond quickly because the reality is that we don’t have the resources to have law enforcement at every school.”

At least 28 states, including Texas, currently allow teachers or school staff to be armed in the classroom under varying conditions, according to a 2020 RAND Corporation study. It is unclear how effective that has been at undermining a school shooting threat and critics note research that shows that adding firearms to a situation only increases the risk of gun violence.

Video: Former FBI agent turned teacher addresses proposal to arm teachers

“These bills are about rhetoric and distraction — they’re not about solutions,” said Rob Wilcox, federal legal director at Everytown for Gun Safety. “If you were to introduce guns into schools, not only is it ineffective, but you’re introducing more risk. How will guns be stored? How will folks be trained? When will guns be used? How do you ensure kids won’t get access to them? How do you ensure a gun isn’t used in a tense situation at school? These are all critical questions about this type of legislation that never gets answered.”

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have long expressed their opposition to arming teachers as a solution to gun violence at schools, and many have also shared concerns about the heightened risk of legal liability for teachers and schools.

School security experts also shared frustration that many of these programs provide limited training as a cost-saving measure for security, as it appeared to show a lack of commitment to safety.

“You can tell me all you want with your rhetoric that school safety is a priority, but I will know whether it is when I look at your budget, your actions and your leadership,” said Kenneth Trump, who has served as an expert for civil litigation trials after shootings and serves as the president of Ohio-based National School Safety and Security Services. “One thing I’ve learned in 30 years of working with schools is that it becomes a priority when the parents are outraged or when there’s media attention.”

Ohio’s and Louisiana’s pushes to arm teachers

The bill headed to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk from the state’s Republican-controlled legislature would lessen the threshold for carrying a weapon.

DeWine said in a statement that he called on the Ohio General Assembly last week to pass the bill that would allow school districts to “designate armed staff for school security and safety.” He said he looked forward to “signing this important legislation.”

“My office worked with the General Assembly to remove hundreds of hours of curriculum irrelevant to school safety and to ensure training requirements were specific to a school environment and contained significant scenario-based training. House Bill 99 accomplishes these goals, and I thank the General Assembly for passing this bill to protect Ohio children and teachers.”

Ohio state Sen. Cecil Thomas, a Democrat from Cincinnati, said “the bank of common sense is bankrupt in the Ohio legislature, noting that he’s been pushing for new regulations aimed at preventing gun violence since a 2019 mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, left nine dead and 17 wounded.

“Since then, the most we got in the legislature is to put more guns out there and made it easier to have access to firearms,” said Thomas, who served on the Cincinnati Police Department for 27 years.

A teacher puts on a bulletproof vest during a live fire training session in Thistle, Utah,  on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (George Frey / Bloomberg via Getty Images file)
A teacher puts on a bulletproof vest during a live fire training session in Thistle, Utah, on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (George Frey / Bloomberg via Getty Images file)

The measure to arm teachers is heading to the governor’s desk as Ohio also prepares, in two weeks, to formally lift the requirement that gun owners have a concealed carry license as the state’s “Constitutional Carry” law goes into effect.

While those laws have passed easily in the Republican-controlled legislature, Thomas said he’s had no luck getting a hearing for legislation he’s written to limit the procurement of arms, such as red flag laws, universal background checks, background checks for the transfer of firearms, increasing age requirements for firearm purchases to 21 and more.

In Louisiana, state Sen. Eddie Lambert, a pro-gun Republican, amended a controversial gun bill passed by the statehouse on Wednesday, stripping the legislation of a measure that would allow permitless concealed carry, to pursue a similar idea. Because it is too late to introduce new bills into the legislative session, which ended Monday, his changes would delete the original concept of permitless concealed carry.

In place of the old language, he added text that would give school districts the authority to designate school administrators or teachers who could carry a gun and serve as “school protection officers” after they took a training course and obtained a permit that allowed them to carry weapons in schools. He said they would receive training similar to that provided to police officers.

“You don’t want anybody who is not fully trained in this situation: this is not for just some Joe Blow,” he said, adding that teachers would have to keep the concealed gun “on them at all times” and out of reach of children.

Lambert said the original bill — a copy of legislation vetoed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards last year — had no chance of passing. This “common sense” law did, however, and he said he felt it necessary to include the language after reading about the Tulsa hospital shooting and the attack on the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

“You’re going to have some of the gun rights people criticize me for that,” he said, explaining that some were upset with him for changing the bill. “You know what? I’m just going to do what can be done to protect people.”

Bel Edwards’ office said it had not changed its position on permitless concealed carry since the governor, a gun owner, vetoed the bill last year, but added that it was too early to comment on legislation that hadn’t yet passed the Senate and would have to be voted on again in the House.

Teachers not enthusiastic about being armed

The question is, however, do teachers want to be armed in the classroom?

In the past they’ve said, no. A 2019 national survey of 2,926 teachers, including more than 450 gun owners, conducted in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting found that more than 95 percent of educators did not believe teachers should be carrying a gun in the classroom.

Only about 6 percent said they would be comfortable using a gun to stop a shooter.

Texas is one of the states that has allowed teachers and other school employees to be armed, but it’s not a particularly popular program, either.

Under its “school marshal” program, Texas has licensed certain school employees to carry a firearm since 2013. After an 80-hour course, a psychological exam and a $35 fee, school staff members can be approved to pack heat in schools. But in nine years, the state has only licensed 256 marshals in 62 of the state’s 1,029 school districts, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

NEA President Becky Pringle said in a statement that “teachers need more resources, not revolvers.”

“Educators and parents overwhelmingly reject the idea of arming school staff,” she added. “Rather than arming educators with guns, we need to be giving them the tools needed to inspire their students. Rather than putting the responsibility on individual teachers, our elected leaders need to pass laws that protect children from gun violence and bring an end to senseless and preventable killings.”