thoughtful comments submitted by Richard Trout
Like you–and the entire nation–I was sickened by the horrific mass murder of 17 students and teachers, as well as the injuring of almost that many more, at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School. In the ensuing weeks since February 14, all Americans have struggled to somehow come to grips with yet another mass shooting–let alone another in our schools.
In the midst of the anguish, the anger, and the agony of the survivors and witnesses (which we all are), are the questions, the central one of which is: “What can be done to prevent another tragedy like this?” Unfortunately, we have heard this question before, after Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Las Vegas. And we have heard answers to that question after each of these tragedies. Yet, what happened in Parkland, Florida, has taken on a unique resonance that has permeated every layer of society. The repercussions, it appears, will be far reaching. Already, major retailers are re-thinking their policies and taking action. Governors and legislators are responding. The entire country is engaged. They echo what you said, Mr. President, just recently, “It’s time.” It’s time to answer the question, “What can be done?”
The “answers” suggested by many range from A to Z. As a society, we are engaging in a collective brainstorming session. As such, there are no “wrong” suggestions. Some are fiscally impossible, such as providing Kevlar vests for all students. Some are futuristic, such as building impenetrable schools. Some are born out of frustration, while others are an emotional response to personal trauma. As a society, we need to listen and then act whenever and wherever possible.
Arming our teachers
I am writing this letter in reaction to one suggested “answer” I’ve heard from both a large national organization and some political leaders, including you, Mr. President. Of course, I refer to the arming of our school teachers. This is a serious suggestion, with a degree of support, and is worthy of discussion. With your permission, I would like to present my reaction to this proposal from the viewpoint of a parent, a teacher, and a human being.
First, as a parent of five grown children–all of whom graduated from public high school and then college, and all of whom now have children in school–I grieve with all the parents of slain children. No one who has not experienced this deep a loss can imagine what these mothers and fathers and siblings are going through. They deserve to be heard. I pray no one else will have to experience such a loss.
Second, I identify with our nation’s teachers. I was one for over 40 years. I taught English in one of Chicago’s most volatile high schools from 1966 until 2001. After that, I taught in three other high schools. Even in the late 1960s, gun violence was all too present. I saw it up front and personal–especially during the days of extreme gang activity. I’ve attended the hospitals and funerals of several of my own students who were shot or killed. I mention this not to disparage my school in any way. I was there 35 years and experienced many great “highs” in the midst of a cultural shift. In fact, I am still in contact with some of the students I taught almost 50 years ago. However, in my day, the problem was handgun violence, with individuals being shot. It has since escalated to mass slaughter.
As one of the male teachers at my school, I felt the added responsibility to maintain or restore order whenever possible. Often, that meant intervening if I noticed a possible confrontation–especially in our overcrowded hallways. Over the years, I intervened dozens of times to break up fights, to quell a riot, to diffuse a situation, and, once, to save a life. Of course, I was unarmed (as all teachers were), and I am thankful I was not allowed to carry a gun in school. I fear I may have actually used it or had it used against me.
I strongly believe that I speak for the vast majority of teachers and administrators in saying that we (teachers) do not want to be armed in our classrooms. Law enforcement concurs. Most mayors, governors, and legislatures concur. The NEA concurs. I am not a pacifist. I do not shrink from confrontation. I will get involved. And I support the second amendment (as well as all the others). Still, from my perspective, arming teachers is not the answer.
I have personally known teachers with “issues.” Some could not relate to students of a different culture; some had serious anger management problems; some lost control of their class; some experienced “burn out;” and some had delusions of grandeur. While the great majority are quite responsible, any one of those I mentioned could be the first to volunteer to be armed, especially if a monetary “bonus” was given to them.
Then you have the practical questions. How would it be determined who would be allowed to carry a gun? How many employees should be armed: 10%, 20%, 30%? Would the principal choose them (possible favoritism)? Would the teachers choose (possible popularity)? Would parents have a say? And what if a parent objected to his child’s teacher having a gun, or worse, wearing one? Incidentally, that is what is being proposed (and done) in some schools. Proponents contend that the gun would be hidden from the students’ view. I would suggest that within minutes, every student in the room would know exactly which teachers are carrying.
From the perspective of a local school board member, would I be comfortable with the potential liability and legal ramifications from a teacher shooting an innocent student by mistake or in anger? We have all heard of well trained military personnel and equally well trained police officers who have mistakenly killed innocents. A recent incident in San Francisco saw a dozen officers fire 65 rounds at a suspected criminal, but the report I heard was “no one was harmed.” Where did all those bullets go? We know of innocents being caught in the cross fire, casualties due to “friendly fire.” Is there any doubt that–at some point–a school teacher would experience the same fate? All it would take would be one tragic incident, which could result in one giant lawsuit–and that could spell the end of teachers carrying guns.
As a former teacher, I have already expressed my general view, but I understand the other side. The rationale for your suggestion, Mr. Trump, I believe is based on the idea, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is by a good guy with a gun.” I understand why this idea seems palatable. After all, several of America’s most successful movies and movie franchises are based upon real people performing heroic acts. Other films extol the feats of fictional heroes or mythical/comic book heroes who “save the day.” Many identify with that fearless American, armed with a single weapon (or just their hands), who takes on and defeats a multitude of bad guys. But remember, movies are scripted. Other than biographies, they are fantasy. Mr. President, I admire your sentiment when you said that you would hope you would have rushed into Douglass High School unarmed to face the gunman. However, the result of that would undoubtedly be one more dead body. I understand your point: you would want to take some action to help. Bravery is helpful, but it is not enough. You can do much more from the Oval Office.
Even with training
A word about “training.” Of course, you would want to see the teachers trained to use fire arms. I submit that there is no amount of training you could give to most teachers that could convert them from a Mr. Chips (or even Mr. Kotter) into Rambo or Annie Oakley. Essentially, they would have to become lethal sharpshooters. People who “serve and protect” are trained to use weapons to “shoot to kill.” Guns are not “the tools of the trade” for most teachers. Granted, there are some school personnel who may have “the right stuff” to handle an armed intrusion, but I contend that the risk may be greater than the gain.
Furthermore, even well trained officers of the law, familiar with guns, can panic under sudden attack. Witness the deputies at Stoneman Douglass. They were armed, trained professionals. No matter how serene a situation is before chaos ensues, what happens immediately after an explosion, a gun shot, a conflagration, or some sudden trigger rarely reflects any corporate training that took place in the board room or a shooting range. The point is that pandemonium trumps training; emotions trump logic; self preservation trumps altruism.
Imagine the scenarios
Imagine, if you will, a typical school day in a typical classroom. Perhaps it’s a Friday and both students and teachers are eager to pack up and start their weekend. Suddenly an alarm rings. Is it a fire? Screams are heard in the hallway. There are loud sounds coming from somewhere. What should the teacher do? Does he/she leave the room to investigate? Does the teacher shepherd the students to the safest area? Or does the teacher start looking for his gun if it is in a locked box or a safe? Can she think quickly enough to dial the correct combination or find the key? Panic begins to set in. If the teacher is wearing a gun, does he/she pull the weapon out and prepare to shoot? And what if the gunman is actually down the hallway, which is now engulfed in hysteria? Does the teacher shoot at the threat and risk hitting a student? Or does the teacher hesitate using her small handgun, and in so doing, catch the attention of the assault-weapon-carrying gunman, who then unloads 50 rounds in her direction? Perhaps only one round hits the teacher, but it could be fatal. Her four children may be motherless.
Or imagine the armed teacher is in the hallway ready to confront the intruder. He sees someone with a gun coming up the stairs. The teacher fires and kills the intruder. But, it was not an intruder. It was a plain clothes officer or security person. Or perhaps, that “intruder” was another teacher with a gun. Sometimes a person who has never fired a gun in fear, pulls the trigger first–before thinking of the possible consequences. Consider also the scenario in which a security guard or officer sees a man in the cafeteria or hall with a gun and then reacts with lethal force. But, that man was actually a teacher. The potential danger of “unintended consequences” resulting from such possible situations should give us pause. Arming even a small portion of the 3,000,000+ public school teachers would undoubtedly exacerbate, not alleviate, the problem.
On a purely human level, consider the psychological and emotional consequences for the teacher who accidentally killed an innocent person–or, for that matter, even if the teacher killed a 17-year-old gunman. Who can predict what damage that “righteous shooting” might do to the psyche? It’s an unnatural situation for most people to take a life–and it comes with heavy baggage.
Finally, consider that–since 2012–there have been 35 mass shootings, with the majority being “off campus.” Those occurred in public places: restaurants, concerts, theaters, nightclubs, offices, and even our houses of religion. If teachers should be armed to protect the students, should also our clergy be armed? And our waitresses? And our ushers? And our concert goers? Where will it end?
One vote, one voice
President Trump, I will not presume to advise you on the best course of action to prevent the next mass massacre. Certainly your comments on March 1 were encouraging. I do not believe this is a Constitutional issue. I do not believe this is a partisan issue. Erase the labels: Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal. Insert human.
I have no real political power, other than one vote. But I have a voice. I have a heart. And I have much experience. My experience tells me that teachers face enough stress in their lives already without the prospect of possibly having a shoot-out during math class. Allow those who have been charged with the education of our children do what they do best–teach.
I have no idea if this letter will ever get to you, but I knew I had to write it. If it does make it to you, I thank you in advance for considering it.
P.S. Like many others, I believe wholeheartedly in prayer, and we do pray for all those involved, for our lawmakers, for those in authority, and for our country. Yet, I am reminded of what Paul said in the book of James (2:17): “Faith without works is dead.” Let us keep the faith, but now is the time for action.
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