The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Across the country, measures to arm teachers in schools stall

The front entrance of the Mad River school district administration building in Dayton, Ohio, in March 2017. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)

In the two months after the Florida school shooting that left 17 dead, Republican legislators across the country introduced 25 measures to arm teachers and staff members in schools.

Despite support and encouragement for such laws from President Trump and the National Rifle Association, just one of those efforts has succeeded, and there are few indications the others will be enacted.

Trump and the NRA called on states to arm teachers as a front-line defense against school shooters days after the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

Since then, Republicans have led the campaign for the measures in 14 states that would give teachers and staff members access to guns in schools or expand their ability to do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan nongovernmental organization. Nineteen of those bills were sponsored by Republican legislators, while the remainder were nonpartisan or sponsored by legislative committees.

The only measure that has succeeded is in Florida. A school safety bill there stipulated that public school staff members, including counselors and coaches, could become “marshals” — but full-time teachers would not be eligible to be trained and armed.

Opponents of arming teachers, including teachers unions and gun-control activists, have fought the proposed legislation. Instead, they have pushed for states to focus on implementing background checks for gun sales and on red-flag laws allowing law enforcement or relatives to obtain court orders limiting access to guns by individuals who are a threat to themselves or others.

The NRA wants teachers to have guns, its critics say, because arming even a small fraction of the United States’ 3.2 million teachers would be a financial boon to gunmakers.

The NRA did not respond to a request for an interview.

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Ten days after the Parkland, Fla., shooting, Trump tweeted, “Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them. . . . Must be firearms adept & have annual training. Should get yearly bonus. Shootings will not happen again — a big & very inexpensive deterrent. Up to States.”

Trump also told the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 23 that an armed teacher would have stopped the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

“A teacher would have shot the hell out of him before he knew what happened,” Trump said.

Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, also pushed to arm teachers and called on schools to be “the most hardened targets in this country.”

In Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana, Washington, Minnesota and nine other states, Republican legislators heard that call and introduced, or in some cases reintroduced, measures that would put guns in the hands of teachers who were trained and had passed psychological evaluations.

“President Trump is absolutely correct. The only way you’re going to stop these school shootings is to harden the target,” said Wesley Morgan, a Republican member of Kentucky’s House of Representatives who introduced legislation that would allow school districts to have teachers and school staff members “carry firearms for their own protection.”

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The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 prohibits unauthorized people from possessing a gun within 1,000 feet of a K-12 school. But the law permits states and local jurisdictions to allow licensed gun holders on school grounds.

Morgan’s legislation was filed a few days after the Parkland shooting and just weeks after a shooting at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., left two students dead and 14 injured. For Morgan, arming teachers is an obvious solution.

“If we’re going to keep our kids safe and keep them alive, train their teachers,” he said. “You have to get away from the gun-free zones. They are just an invitation for a shooter to come and prey on a large number of people who have no way to protect themselves.”

While there was a burst of legislative activity after the Stoneman Douglas attack, 11 of the 25 bills that would allow for teachers to be armed have failed, and 13 remain pending. The one enacted into law was a provision of the large school safety bill that sailed through the Florida legislature in early March and was signed into law by Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R).

Legislation that was drafted before the Parkland shooting was approved in March by South Dakota’s Republican-dominated legislature and would permit private schools to allow firearms on school grounds.

Much of the more recently proposed legislation has come under attack from gun-control groups and teacher unions who want fewer guns in circulation and don’t want educators to have to take on life-or-death law enforcement responsibilities.

In a survey of 1,000 members in March, the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, found that 82 percent of educators said they would not carry a gun in school, including a substantial majority who own a gun. And two-thirds of respondents said they would feel less safe if teachers were allowed to carry guns.

“The idea of arming teachers is ill-conceived, preposterous and dangerous,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement. “Teachers should be teaching, not acting as armed security guards, or receiving training to become sharpshooters.”

The National Association of School Resource Officers has also come out against arming teachers. “Anyone who hasn’t received the extensive training provided to law enforcement officers will likely be mentally unprepared to take a life, especially the life of a student assailant,” Mo Canady, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement.

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a national gun-control organization, said Republican legislators have been pushing to arm teachers since a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012 left 26 students and staff members dead.

In 2013, 33 states introduced more than 80 bills related to arming teachers and school staff members, according to a 2014 joint report by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan organization that works with states on policy issues. Seven of those bills became law, including an Oklahoma measure that allowed individuals with concealed-carry permits to have a firearm on school grounds; a Texas law that created a new category of law enforcement officer designated as a school marshal; and a South Dakota law that authorized school boards to supervise the arming of school employees.

Watts said her organization opposes such laws because they don’t have the support of teachers or police organizations and because there is no research showing that arming teachers is effective.

“We’re not opposed to armed guards who have had background checks and extensive training,” Watts said. “But the solution should be focused on disarming dangerous people and not arming teachers.”

Arming teachers would put black and Latino kids in danger

Liz Pike, a Republican member of the House of Representatives in Washington state, saw a measure she introduced to arm teachers fail this year. She blames the “extreme wing of the Democratic Party that thinks the only way to stop school violence is to take all guns away from law-abiding citizens.” The bill, Pike said, was a sensible solution requiring extensive training and psychological testing for teachers who volunteered to be armed at school.

“There are people on campuses ready to defend their students,” Pike said. “We can fix this if we just have some courage and do something.”

Pike plans to reintroduce her legislation at the next session.