I’m a Teacher And I Don’t Want to be Armed

I was 29 years old the first time I fired a gun. My friend and colleague Chris, a U.S. Marine turned teacher, took me out to the Rifle and Pistol Range in Garden City. After a lesson on gun safety protocols, I was ready to fire my weapon. It was a .30-30 Winchester lever-action rifle, and it was loud.

I felt the allure almost immediately, but I also felt an overwhelming sense of reverence. I’m not afraid of guns; I respect them. I respect them the same way I respect the ocean or a passing LIRR train on an express track. There is a powerful force at play there. A gun need not be fired to command attention. It represents power—lethal power. Turn your back on that power and you could lose more than a finger.

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As an English teacher on Long Island, the symbolism and loaded imagery associated with guns come easy to me. What doesn’t is the concept of arming teachers. I’ve given it a great deal of thought. I’ve even counseled with colleagues. And yet, I can’t seem to find the level of comfort I felt that afternoon at the range—the day I pulled the trigger on that .30-30 Winchester and obliterated a paper target 30 yards away.

An armed teacher in a room filled with children does nothing to assuage my concerns over the potential of a shootout in a school. I’m not the only one either: 73 percent of teachers in America oppose the idea of carrying guns, according to a March 2018 Gallup poll. My concerns become amplified at the thought that there might be more than one teacher armed with a gun responding in the building. “What ifs” play over and over in my head. What if an armed teacher snaps? What if an overzealous armed teacher demonstrates the proper way to unload a gun but pops one off into the ceiling by mistake? What if an armed teacher battles with his or her own questions during that split-second, career-changing moment: Is this the shooter running in my direction? Wasn’t he in my fourth period class last semester? Is he turning the corner and reaching for his…cell phone?

Teachers are expected to arm students with 21st century, digital literacy skills. We are expected to prepare America’s youth for the competitive global job market that awaits them upon graduation. It’s part of the Common Core mandate. The disparity between the haves and the have-nots in public education isn’t shrinking. Access to the tools that enable and encourage success in this field should take precedent over any plan to strap a pistol under the arm of a few eager educators. But computers and technology are risky investments, I get it. The moment you install them in a classroom, they’re probably obsolete and in need of more than a few updates.

Perhaps the money would be better spent on rehiring the mental health professionals that were culled after budget negotiations during the last economic downturn. Where I work, you need one chaperone for every 30 students at an extracurricular event. And yet, we operate a building with a few thousand students…and only two mental health care professionals. Do the math.

Guns in schools may work. It worked at Great Mills High School in Maryland where school resource officer Blaine Gaskill’s quick thinking prevented the shooter from killing more than one victim. Here’s the difference: Mr. Gaskill is SWAT-trained. He’s not only equipped with the right tools to handle an active shooter situation, he is trained and mentally prepared to act accordingly.

I have a graduate degree. I’m trained in more than just the three R’s. I need to know how to detect the subtle cues of abuse, of mental distress, of normal teenage growing pains. That’s part of the job. Tactical Neutralization and Immediate Action Rapid Deployment are job descriptors for a whole different caliber of professional.

The smoke had hardly cleared before those in favor of arming America’s teachers were touting the “good guy with a gun” narrative as a victory at Great Mills High School, the um-teenth shooting in a school setting in 2018 alone. This should not be regaled as a win for the white hats. Another peaceful community has been rocked by tragedy. It could have been worse. Much worse. But we want it to be better than that. Good people must bear this scar now, a scar that will mar prom, yearbook and the quiet halls that were once filled with the idle chatter of teens. The story will fade, but those scars do not.

Again, I’m not saying that guns have no place in schools. I’m not armed with enough comprehensive data to make that call, and quite frankly it’s above my pay grade. But I do know “more guns” will ultimately transform the halls of our schools. And the argument that a shooter will think twice before entering a “hot” school doesn’t take into account that a shooter’s second thought might be to double down. Are we prepared to engage in an arms race with a teenager looking to incur a maximum amount of carnage as quickly as possible? Because if we are, then where does it end?

Some things take getting used to. It took a while, but I got used to the sight of the M4 carbine in the hands of the National Guard at Penn Station. There still needs to be some discussion and changes on other fronts, but I might be able to get used to the sight of armed resource officers in or around our schools. I just cannot get used to the thought of teachers in America carrying more to school each morning than graded papers, love for their students and perhaps a thermos full of coffee.

But don’t shoot the messenger, I just work in a high school.