By Daisy Ni (PO ’21)
In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting on February 14, 2018, legislators at every level of government have been revisiting gun policy. One approach in particular, endorsed first by the NRA and now President Trump, rests upon the assumption that “the only thing stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Trump, in response, has proposed a plan of arming 20 percent of our teachers, provoking backlash from teacher unions, educators, and politicians on all sides of the political spectrum.
Currently, many states already have legislation in place to allow faculty to bring weapons onto school grounds: at least 10 states allow faculty to possess or have access to a weapon on campus. Broadening the scope of this policy initiative onto the federal level, however, raises concerns. Even defenders of the Texan marshal program, in which participating schools can authorize a secret checked and trained marshal force to carry guns, have admitted that the success of the program is based on the needs of the community and parental support. A federal program is less flexible, and could face opposition in specific regions where teachers and parents both object. This possibility gives rise to scenarios in which someone uncomfortable with wielding a gun or using it on an active shooter would be forced to do so, prompting moral and ethical questions.
Opponents further criticize the proposal as impractical. Teachers are educators, a role that is irreconcilable with that of law enforcement that they would take on under the policy. Firearm training would both be an additional burden that would both take away from their institutional duties and not contribute to the sufficiency and comprehensiveness needed to fulfill their role. Evidence from the Parkland shooting indicates that even actual law enforcement personnel are often incapable of confronting real active shooting threats, and teachers with limited experience will likely have much less impact.
Arming teachers furthermore invokes questions with racial implications. Primarily, there is concern that arming teachers could exacerbate current unequal disciplinary practices in schools with systems that are prejudiced against students of color. Many students of color are at risk of being seen as potential troublemakers, and often face disproportionately severe punishments even for minor misconduct. The disparity in treatment can be caused in part by individual teachers’ implicit racial biases. As such, arming educators with weapons could raise levels of hostility, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline, a phenomenon in which biased or overly strict discipline processes funnel students from school into the criminal justice system. As such, arming teachers could fuel the racial inequality in quality and safety of education, serving to push students of color out of the education system. These concerns carry similarities to the underlying causes of police brutality, opening more possibilities in which misinterpretation or miscommunication based on racial discrimination terminate in violence.
More fundamentally, arming teachers could have repercussions on students’ First Amendment rights to expression, Fourth Amendment rights to privacy, as well as Fifth Amendment protection. The fear and tension that can manifest in student-teacher relations—especially in relation to already vulnerable students of color—may stifle student voices. Students may feel insecure and unsafe in exerting their freedoms in face of the potential consequences of their actions. Arming teachers also strains the spirit of the Second Amendment with which proponents have used to justify the policy. The Bill of Rights preserves individual liberty—specifically, the Second Amendment preserves the right of individuals to protect themselves against governmental overreach or tyranny. Arming teachers, however, prompts concerns of state militarization and the conversion of schools into police states, especially in light of possible unintended consequences such as the abuse of the fear factor. In forwarding the armed teacher policy, proponents must thus simultaneously concede the sacrifice of individual control to state power.
Supporters of the policy must also grapple with issues of liability. In recognizing that teachers are not law enforcement and do not have all knowledge and expertise in regards to law enforcement, legislators must recognize the possibility of accidents. Mistakes in firearm handling can occur, and have occurred, outside of incidents of active shooting threats, as well. As such, questions concerning legal liabilities and responsibilities arise. Insurance poses as a particular uncertainty. Kansas, an an example, had passed laws in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre allowing teachers with concealed-carry permits to carry their guns into schools. Insurance companies, however, recognizing weapons on campus as a heightened liability risk, declined insurance renewals for such schools. Many schools who had been considering the proposal backed down. Before implementation, as such, policymakers will have to navigate legal complications and contend with the private sector to even make the proposal a possibility.
Arming teachers on the federal level seems impractical, and could aggravate the existing tensions and racial inequalities in practice. Moreover, the focus on this particular proposal distracts attention from other options of gun control. Students in Parkland seek a comprehensive gun control policy concerning background checks and regulations. They seek to reduce the possibility of guns in school, not more. The president’s disproportionate focus on arming teachers as a policy indicates his priorities toward the NRA, rather than to the students that he has vocally—and ultimately emptily—supported.