Guest opinion: Is training teachers to shoot the answer for mass school shootings?

My heart stopped when I heard about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 24th. Ironically, I was headed to a gun safety presentation given by our local police department and felt empty as I read and listened to the details of the shooting. Throughout the training that evening, it was difficult to focus and not think about the family, friends and community of the 19 children and two teachers killed that day.

I remember similar feelings in February 2018 during the Parkland Florida High School shooting, December 2012 during the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting and in April of 1999 during the Columbine High School shooting. While times have changed, mass school shootings haven’t.

Tragically, there is no way to predict when or where a school shooting will occur. Since 1999, 169 lives have been taken in school-related mass shootings with ages ranging from six to 67 and 369 suffering injuries. This does not even take into effect the psychological harm inflicted on all students at these schools.

Since 1999, mass school shootings have occurred in twelve states, three elementary schools, six high schools, and five colleges. 

Sadly, any meaningful reform on the federal level has failed to curb the rising tide of school shootings and both Republicans and Democrats share the blame for the lack of meaningful change. 

The question that has been circulating as long as I remember is how do we prevent such shootings. I recently learned that the Utah County Sherriff’s Department is providing active shooter training to school teachers, in a 20-hour course on critical skills such as de-escalation tactics to self-defense and firearms training.

I appreciate the proactiveness of Sherriff Mike Smith and the Utah County Sherriff’s Department for donating their time and energy to take the initiative to teach our teachers and protect our children. I applaud any effort that can make a difference in protecting children’s lives. 

Will training teachers to engage in an active shooter incident save children’s lives?  

To better understand if this is a viable solution, we have to consider the human factor. Teachers teach. They are not law enforcement, they do not receive firearms training, and until recently no teacher carried a gun to school. They are trained to interact and positively engage with children, not to kill them, which is key as the average age of a school shooter is 16. 

Teaching someone to shoot at a target is different than teaching someone to shoot at an animal. Teaching someone to shoot at an animal is different than teaching someone to shoot at another human being. No amount of training will guarantee that a trained person will pull the trigger to kill another if the situation arises. 

Even if a teacher receives the appropriate training, understands the risks and trains regularly, there is no common scenario. If an active shooter comes into a classroom, what will the teacher do if a child is taken hostage? Will the teacher engage the shooter and risk hitting the child? Even in the best of scenarios, will the teacher be able to engage the shooter and actually hit the shooter in areas that will end the threat? If a teacher shoots and misses, will the missed shot injure or kill a student in their classroom or in a neighboring classroom?

Taking the human factor aside, what about the firearm used by teachers? Typical firearms used for self-defense and that are concealable utilize smaller barrels and lower caliber of rounds. Why this matters is because the shorter the firearm barrel, the less accurate the firearm. Unfortunately, despite using lower calibers, the rounds still have the ability to penetrate multiple walls before stopping. Lower calibers are also less effective against shooters wearing body armor. 

Will arming teachers and increasing the number of guns in schools across Utah and American increase the number of accidental shootings in schools? If teachers are armed, will those who wish to do harm simply ambush teachers to gain access to firearms inside of schools?

Finally, arming teachers is pitting those who are trained to teach against those who are devoted to kill. Teachers will be without any protection against higher caliber, higher round capacity, and highly accurate weapons. 

In a state that has some of the lowest paid teachers nationally, is it a bridge too far to train teachers to kill in scenarios where the odds of success are stacked against them? That being said, regardless of training, I believe that our teachers will engage the shooter, as I believe our teachers will do anything to protect their children, but at what cost?

Are there alternatives aside from meaningful legislative action? Yes. Is it effective? Maybe. 

Ideas that can help minimize mass school shootings include target hardening, which is making a building more secure through the use of monitored points of entry, reinforced doors and windows, metal detectors and more security. However, all of this protection is overcome with one door left open at recess or one window left ajar during a hot day. 

Other ideas include using lesser lethal weapons such as tasers or chemical sprays or defensive gear such as ballistic shields. However, tasers are limited to less than 10 feet for effectiveness and requires an accurate shot and a shooter who is not wearing thick clothes or body armor. Chemical sprays require a similar proximity and do not affect all people. Ballistic shields are heavy, unwieldly and only protect the person behind it.

Perhaps another defensive alternative is the use of a hand-held stun grenade. These devices create a noise louder than 170 decibels when ammonium nitrate is detonated and a bright flash of light measured at 7 megacandela causing blindness for about five seconds. In comparison, a jet engine is just over 140 decibels and 7 megacandela equals the light of 7 million candles. These devices disrupt vision, hearing, and balance and is effective against persons wearing body armor. 

A teacher would simply pull the pin in the device and throw it in the general direction of the shooter. Accuracy is not needed and extensive training would not be required. However, the use of such a device guarantees that most if not all of the children in the classroom will suffer from concussions, headaches, blown eardrums, burns, bloody noses, potential injuries from shrapnel and up to death. 

At the same time, the shooter would be equally affected and give the children and teacher(s) a chance to survive. It would also alert the whole school as it would blow out windows and create a noise that would be unmistakable. Not an ideal solution, but one that gives the chance of survival where little exists now in a school mass shooting incident.

There is no perfect solution but it is undeniable that change must happen. We cannot continue to have our children killed in schools through mass shootings. Perhaps arming teachers is better than nothing, but should we do more? I believe that the family, friends and community of the 19 children and two teachers killed in Texas last week would argue yes.

Tony F. Graf, Jr. is an attorney, a member of Tooele City Council and a father of three school-age children