Republican lawmakers make a lot of arguments when it comes to allowing guns in schools. Gun-free school zones are targets for criminals, they argue, and only an armed teacher would be able to protect students from a gunman.
Last month, Department of Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos added another statistically unverified and unfounded argument to that list when she told Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT)—the man who represented Newtown in the House at the time of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting — that teachers should be armed in order to prevent attacks by grizzly bears.
“I think that’s best left to locales and states to decide,” she said. “I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming…I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”
The response drew laughter from the room. Murphy said after that he was “shaken to the core by her answer.”
“I thought that question was a no brainer,” he told ThinkProgress. “All she had to do was talk about our common commitment to making our schools a safe place… Her response was shocking.”
While DeVos’ response seemed tone deaf to many lawmakers and education experts, many members of her party share her support of guns in schools — including President Donald Trump. With GOP control in both chambers of Congress and Trump setting national gun policy from the White House, we may see firearms in classrooms in the near future.
If that were to happen, it would not come as a surprise to Trump’s supporters. Throughout his campaign, Trump made it clear how he feels about gun-free school zones.
Time after time, he promised to eliminate them as soon as he assumed the presidency. “First day in office we end that, believe me,” he said during a December 2015 rally in Arizona.
His first day has now come and gone and, needless to say, Trump did not come through on his promise. States across the country are still required to comply with the 1990 Gun Free School Zone Act, which prohibits unlicensed individuals from possessing a gun within 1,000 feet of a school.
That law, introduced by former Vice President Joe Biden (then a Democratic senator) and signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush, was considered uncontroversial at the time. As fears of violent crime rose, lawmakers and the American people agreed that schools should be safe places where firearms are not permitted.
But as the gun lobby has tightened its grip on Congress over the last two decades, more Republican lawmakers have begun to reconsider what many call commonsense gun laws. Sen. Ron Paul (R-TX) introduced legislation three times (in 2007, 2009, and 2011) that would have allowed teachers to carry guns on pubic high school and middle school campuses, but the efforts failed each time.
This year, two Republican lawmakers have already proposed overturning the 1990 bill, despite widespread disapproval.
“Guns in schools is not something Americans want or something they’re asking for,” Shannon Watts, the founder of gun safety group Moms Demand Action, told ThinkProgress. “It’s something the gun lobby is asking for.”
But in the end, the gun lobby only cares about its own profit and has no regard for school safety, Murphy said.
“The gun lobby doesn’t care about facts,” he said. “They just care about selling more and more expensive weapons. If they can sell them to teachers, they’ll sell them to teachers. If they can sell them to kids, they’ll sell them to kids.”
Gun bills in the House
Under current law, people with permits to carry firearms can still bring them into “gun-free” zones, and states have a lot of flexibility regarding who they want to license and how.
But Lindsay Nichols, a senior attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said Republican lawmakers and lobbyists want you to think the rules are far more restrictive.
“The gun lobby is capitalizing on misinformation about what the current law is now,” she told ThinkProgress. “The term ‘gun-free zones’ makes it sound like a very absolute law, and it’s not.”
On January 3, the first day of Congress’ current session, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the “Safe Students Act,” an NRA-backed bill to repeal the 1990 ban on guns in schools.
“Gun-free school zones are ineffective,” the Republican lawmaker said in a statement. “They make people less safe by inviting criminals into target-rich, no-risk environments. Gun-free zones prevent law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves, and create vulnerable populations that are targeted by criminals.”
Massie, the chairman of the Congressional Second Amendment Caucus, was joined by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Rep. James Comer (R-KY), Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA), and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) as cosponsors on the Safe Students Act.
The same day that Massie announced his proposal, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC) introduced a separate bill that would establish what the NRA likes to call “national reciprocity,” allowing concealed-pistol permits to function across state lines. That legislation also includes a provision that would give state and local officials the authority to set rules for guns in schools.
As of the beginning of February, Hudson’s bill already has 148 cosponsors, including two Democrats. Both bills have been referred to a House Judiciary subcommittee.
“It’s based on anecdotes by the NRA, not based on data.”
Gun safety groups point to research that shows gunmen rarely target gun-free school zones. A recent study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Stanford University, and the University of Massachusetts Boston found that 84 percent of the 111 high-fatality rampage shootings from 1966 to 2015 occurred in places where guns are allowed. Just 18 occurred in gun-free zones.
“Successful civilian uses of guns to stop a mass shooting were incredibly rare and about as common as armed civilians being shot while attempting to respond to mass shooting incidents,” the report said.
Moms Demand Action founder Watts questioned how teachers or faculty members would be able to accurately fire a weapon to protect students when even trained police officers often shoot inaccurately in crisis situations.
“We feel so strongly that all laws around guns should be based on research and data,” she said, adding that pushes to repeal the Gun Free School Zones Act are “based on anecdotes by the NRA, not based on data.”
Nichols agreed that research does not back up calls for guns in schools.
“From a statistical viewpoint, schools are actually very safe places,” she said. “The gun lobby is capitalizing that kind of distortion as well.”
The NRA president
Despite what Donald Trump said on the campaign trail, he does not have the ability to repeal the Gun Free School Zones Act on his own, and would need Congress to pass a law. But Sen. Murphy doesn’t think the legislative branch necessarily has the appetite for a battle over gun-free zones.
“I don’t think Congress is going to want to touch this issue, especially with what happened on the DeVos nomination,” Murphy said.
But Trump has not been hesitant to touch other controversial issues in his first two weeks in office. Last week, as he responded to fall-out from the White House’s Muslim ban, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about Trump’s campaign promise to repeal gun free school zones.
“The president has been very active in getting executive orders out and following up on campaign pledges that he made to the American people,” Spicer responded. “We’re going to continue to move through this process.”
Though Trump has not yet acted on the promise, he has not shied from showing his close ties to the country’s largest gun lobby. On Wednesday, he invited NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre to the White House and thanked the group for the role it played in the election.
“We have a president in office who was given more than $30 million by the National Rifle Association, more than any other outside donor.”
That cozy relationships concerns gun safety advocates, especially after eight years of a president who advocated for expanded background checks and who took executive action to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
“Now we have a president in office who was given more than $30 million by the National Rifle Association, more than any other outside donor,” Watts said. “We know they’re going to expect to see a return on their investment.”
The main argument Republicans use for allowing guns in schools can best be summarized by LaPierre’s remarks in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said one week after a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators at the Connecticut elementary school.
But Abbey Clements, who taught second grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School at the time of the attack, said she is confident that a gun would not have made her students more safe.
“I think there’s this understanding that if you just had guns in these stressful situations, that you would A) Know where the gun is and where the gunman is, and B) How many there are,” she told ThinkProgress. “There’s no way on earth.”
When the gunman entered her school on the morning of December 14, 2012, Clements pulled all of her 19 students into the coat area of her classroom and huddled with them, singing Christmas songs to drown out the noise until police arrived. Clements said she heard hundreds of gunshots blaring from the hallway and had no idea that there was only one perpetrator. “I just assumed it was a gang,” she said.
“There have been people who over the years have asked me, ‘[What if] you had just had a gun, if teachers could have guns?’ Story after story you hear of mass shootings, even law enforcement don’t know where and how many gunmen there are.”
“You just don’t have time to think,” she said.
Sandy Hook did not have an armed security guard on site, but many schools can and do, as licensed gun holders are not prohibited by the Gun Free School Zones Act. But there is no discernible link between safer schools and armed guards, and arming anyone inside of schools presents other potential issues, like guards leaving their weapons in a student bathroom.
While the NRA is adamant that other untrained faculty members should also be armed, Nichols said that teachers like Clements should not be the ones to bear the burden of trying to defend their students.
“It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect teachers to play this extra role of being security guards for their schools,” Nichols said.
While the NRA has increased its power in Congress over the last few decades, the last few years have also shown that the counter-lobby can have just as much power — if not more. Clements, who works as a Survivor Fellow for Everytown for Gun Safety, said she is hopeful that groups like hers will be able to mobilize people to support gun-free school zones.
“It’s definitely a scary time, but it’ll be interesting to see if Americans stand up to say that we shouldn’t need to be armed to be safe every hour of the day in our country,” Clements said. “I’d like to think that people will stand up.”
Murphy vowed to fight against pro-gun legislation the same way he fought for background checks last year, when he held a 15-hour filibuster and used every tool at his disposal in Congress, he said.
“If people thought the DeVos nomination created a tempest of fury from teachers and parents, the amount of outrage produced by repealing the Gun Free School Zones legislation would make what happened on DeVos look like a picnic,” Murphy said.