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Arming teachers will not make U.S. schools safer

Other countries have reacted to school shootings by trying to put out the fire at its source, rather than pouring gasoline on it by arming staff.

Like all teachers, Austin Sayre spends a lot of time worrying about her students. How are they handling their course loads? This one didn't do very well on a test – what's up with that?

Until this week, Ms. Sayre kept the door to her Cincinnati high-school classroom unlocked. That changed after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which killed 14 students and three staff members.

"The day after it happened, I let my students know that my door would be locked from the outside, and they'd have to knock to get in. Previously it hadn't been," said Ms. Sayre, who teaches advanced-placement language, remedial reading and public speaking, in a phone interview from Cincinnati. She talked with the students about what they would do in case of an attack – a conversation she's had before, as have most high school teachers in America. "It was a horrifying discussion to have."

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The anxiety she feels for her students just got worse, partly because of the school shooting, and partly because the President of her country, as well as other high-ranking officials, suggested that future massacres could be prevented if teachers were armed.

When I ask Ms. Sayre what she thought of that proposal she laughed, but it wasn't what you'd call a happy laugh. "I think it's absolutely ridiculous," she said. "I don't even know where to begin with how ridiculous it is. I don't know how to use a gun, I do not want to learn to use a gun. All the research points to the fact that by having a gun I'd be more vulnerable. I want my room to feel like a safe space. I want my students to be able to come and go at will. If I have a gun, it's no longer a safe space."

The conversation around arming teachers, which has been largely ridiculed by teachers themselves, is not new. But it was given fresh life in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, when Donald Trump indicated that teachers with side arms would somehow provide a magic bullet to deter future killers: "You won't have these shootings because these people are cowards. They're not going to walk into a school if 20 per cent of the teachers have guns, or maybe 10 per cent or maybe 40 per cent. What I'd recommend doing is that the people who do carry, we give them a bonus."

The bonus idea is particularly cynical, given the impoverishment faced by many American schools. Across the country, the average teacher's salary lands in the princely range between $39,000 and $75,000. A 2016 survey revealed that teachers spend, on average, $531 out of their own pockets on school supplies annually. Who wouldn't want to choose between purchasing a .38 or some glitter glue at the beginning of the school year?

The president's remarks were echoed in conservative circles, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who said: "I think it makes perfect sense that if teachers want to exercise their right to keep and bear arms, that will only make schools safer." Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, did not concur: "Teachers don't want to be armed. We want to teach. We don't want to be, and would never have the expertise needed to be, sharp shooters; no amount of training can prepare an armed teacher to go up against an AR-15."

Around the world, other jurisdictions have reacted to school shootings by trying to put out the fire at its source, rather than pouring gasoline on it. In the wake of the 1996 massacre in Dunblane, Scotland, that killed 16 children and one teacher, the British government brought in a series of laws banning private ownership of handguns. Germany, in reaction to school shootings, increased its mental-health resources in schools, as the Washington Post recently pointed out, including funding for in-school psychologists and training for teachers to act as "trusted personnel" for kids experiencing difficulties.

Then there's Ms. Sayre's other point – the presence of guns does not actually increase safety for the people in the vicinity of the guns. This "good guy with a gun" myth, so beloved of U.S. Second Amendment activists, is Hollywood nonsense. A comprehensive Scientific American story published in 2017 points out that "most of this research – and there have been several dozen peer-reviewed studies – punctures the idea that guns stop violence." In fact, there are studies that show the presence of a gun will actually increase the rate of murder, suicide or accidental death. (Of course, the area is under-researched because the Centers for Disease Control, which would normally study firearm violence, has been prevented by Congress from conducting such research since the mid-1990s.)

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Perhaps this will all change. Perhaps the idea of arming teachers will be dismissed as the crock that it is and the energy will flow toward meaningful gun control instead. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, fiercely inspirational in their commitment and no-BS attitude, are doing their best to make it happen.

Or perhaps the moment will fizzle, as it has before, most notably in 2012 in the wake of the gun slaughter of 20 young children and six staff members at their school in Newtown, Conn. "I hope it's a turning point, but people thought that after Sandy Hook, too," Ms. Sayre said. She has noticed a positive change, though: Students in her school are talking about joining the national school walkouts to protest against gun violence and planning how to make the moment most effective. Should they write to their senators? March to the local police station?

Ms. Sayre and other faculty will advise the students, but the kids will have to decide for themselves what action to take. For herself, though, she has already made a crucial decision, one that will never change: "If they ever mandate that I'm required to have a firearm in my room, that will be the day I hand in my resignation."

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