Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire who is President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, made a curious case on Tuesday for letting local and state officials decide whether guns belong in schools. In one rural Wyoming school, she said at her confirmation hearing: “I imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
This logic was widely lampooned, in large part because invading grizzlies — animals that occupy only about 2 percent of their original range in the Lower 48 — do not represent a great threat to the vast majority of America’s schoolchildren. Even in the four states where grizzlies are found, attacks are very rare. Your chances of being injured by one in the grizzly ground zero of Yellowstone National Park are 1 in 2.7 million, according to the National Park Service.
But let’s consider the case of that one Wyoming school, an elementary in the town of Wapiti, which DeVos said Republican Sen. Mike Enzi told her had a fence to ward off bears. Wyoming is grizzly country, and although the animals are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, shooting one in self-defense is allowed. So might keeping an anti-grizzly gun on school grounds actually make sense there?
Not according to many bear and wildlife experts, who say that bear spray — a kind of pepper spray — is a far better deterrent for an attacking bear. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which addressed this question head-on in a grizzly fact sheet titled “Bear Spray vs. bullets: Which offers better protection?” comes down squarely on the side of bear spray. It notes that its own investigations of human-bear encounters found that people who defended themselves with firearms ended up injured half the time. Those who used pepper spray, on the other hand, usually escaped injury, while those who were attacked suffered less serious wounds and endured shorter assaults.
Understanding grizzly behavior — basically, detecting the presence of bears and avoiding them, like the Wapiti school does with its fence — is the best way to keep bear claws out of your flesh, Fish and Wildlife says. But in the unlikely event of an unwanted bear hug, the fact sheet notes that “compared to all other [deterrents], including firearms, proper use of bear spray has proven to be the best method for fending off threatening and attacking bears, and for preventing injury to the person and animal involved.”
This argument is supported by a growing body of research. One study on the topic, co-authored by prominent bear biologists Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero, was published in 2012 in the Journal of Wildlife Management. It examined 269 bear-human encounters in Alaska between 1883 and 2009 and found that people carrying guns suffered the same injury rates whether or not they used their weapons. The authors encouraged people to “consider carrying a nonlethal deterrent such as bear spray because its success rate under a variety of situations has been greater than firearms,” and wrote that even gun experts have a hard time shooting accurately in intense, life-or-death situations.
In an email to The Post, Smith — a Brigham Young University wildlife biologist who has written widely on the topic — listed a host of reasons that bear spray is the better choice for most people. First, bear spray deploys in a “wide shotgun pattern,” making accuracy less important, he said. Second, most people would be less hesitant to use a nonlethal method than a lethal one. Stray bullets, he added, have also killed or maimed bystanders during bear-human encounters. And finally, he said: Guns are heavy, cumbersome and “hard to bring into play.”
“So while some may carry firearms for protection, and it certainly is their right, the vast majority of persons would do themselves (and bears and quite honestly the rest of us!) a big favor by carrying bear spray,” Smith wrote.
Shooting a bear, “especially when the target’s coming at you at 30 miles an hour and swaying side to side, isn’t easy,” Herrero told Outside magazine. “All of our research continues to show that the basics of safety aren’t about how you well you deploy a firearm or how effectively you get to your bear spray, but how you avoid getting in those situations in the first place.”
Audra Morrow, a former teacher at an elementary school in Cody, Wyo., which is not far from Wapiti, told Mic that a fence and bear spray seemed to serve as perfectly sufficient security measures against the threat of grizzlies.
“No firearms in our schools!” Morrow wrote to Mic. “We do have bear spray but have never had a problem that would require using it.”