On May 24, Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, became the scene of the most recent mass school shooting in the United States. In less than two hours, two teachers and nineteen children were murdered by 18-year-old Salvador Ramos. As the nation mourned the loss of innocent lives, people asked the familiar question: “How can we stop these shootings?” Although there has been the expected outcry for more gun control laws, there are also many people who think that we need more gun freedoms to combat these one-sided attacks.
Ever since Congress passed the Gun-Free School Zones Act in 1990, firearms have essentially been prohibited on and near school campuses. This federal act does not prohibit school employees who have a license to carry firearms (LTCF) from possessing a firearm on school property. But many states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that restrict teachers and staff from carrying a weapon on the job — even if they have such a license. In Pennsylvania, only law enforcement officers are allowed to carry firearms on school property. Such regulations often mean that once an armed criminal gains entrance to a school, there is no one inside who can stop him.
In response to the Uvalde tragedy, state Senator Doug Mastriano (R-Adams/Cumberland/Franklin/York) introduced Senate Bill 1288 to enhance classroom security by giving school employees the freedom to carry firearms at school. If the bill is passed, staff who desire to carry concealed weapons on school property would need to obtain an LTCF, then undergo between 15 and 30 hours of training, which would cover gun use in a crisis situation as well as interaction with first responders and law enforcement during an emergency.
Opponents of the bill believe that allowing guns in schools would increase the risks to students and staff, but supporters believe it is the best way for teachers to defend themselves and their students.
The Lancaster Patriot spoke with Val Finnell, Pennsylvania director of Gun Owners of America, and Lori Fulkerson, a long-time kindergarten teacher who is committed to protecting the children under her care. They explained why they believe this bill is important and why they think that arguments raised against it are insufficient.
Fulkerson has been with her school district for nearly 20 years and has spent most of that time teaching children their letters, numbers and fine motor skills. She sees herself not only as a teacher, but also as a protector of what she regards as “our most priceless and precious possessions.” She has taken every preventive step that she can under current regulations. She is involved in her school’s rapid response team, she makes sure that her classroom doors are locked and that the windows have blinds that can be pulled, and she teaches those under her care to be alert. Fulkerson is also an NRA-certified firearms instructor and has an LTCF. She carries her weapon frequently and appreciates the security it provides. But one place that she cannot carry it is into her classroom.
Finnell is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel with a doctorate in medicine and a master’s degree in public health. He has been involved with gun rights issues since the 1990s. Since 2019, he has devoted his time to gun rights in his native state.
Finnell said that one of the greatest challenges with school shootings is the speed at which events unfold. “When seconds count, help cannot be minutes away,” he said.
Some schools do have armed school resource officers on site, but the numbers are against them. Fulkerson’s school has one officer and nearly 800 students, yet she considers even this to be a luxury compared to some other schools. She teaches her students to watch for suspicious activity and to speak up if they notice something strange. She believes that “awareness is the currency that buys you time.” But even with these precautions, Fulkerson believes that there is no substitute for giving teachers the chance to fight back and protect the children entrusted to them. “If I’m the person that stands in the middle of unrighteousness,” she said, “then so be it. I’m that person.”
Finnell said that the value of arming teachers is supported by evidence, and he referenced a 2019 study by the Crime Prevention Research Center. The conclusions the study draws are clear in its title: “Schools that Allow Teachers to Carry Guns are Extremely Safe: Data on the Rate of Shootings and Accidents in Schools that allow Teachers to Carry.” The study reported that as of 2019, there had not been a single mass shooting at a school that had armed teachers and staff. This holds true even now with Uvalde. Although the school district is in Texas, one of the 20 states that have laws allowing teachers and staff to carry concealed weapons on school grounds, the district did not participate in the Texas School Guardian Program, which would have enabled employees to be armed.
Finnell is concerned that gun-free zones are open invitations to criminals. “If you create gun-free zones,” he said, “you’re basically painting a target on the back of the people who are in those places.” He noted that over 90% of mass shootings in public places take place in designated gun-free zones. Although he knows that mass shootings are rare, he does believe that the evidence shows that gun-free schools are targeted by these criminals.
Objections to Senate Bill 1288 have come from many Democrats, including Governor Tom Wolf. The state’s teacher’s union is also against it. Opponents are concerned that since the bill would bring more guns into classrooms, it will inherently increase risks to students: more guns equal more danger.
Fulkerson, on the other hand, does not expect that passage of the bill will result in a drastic increase in armed teachers. She believes that most teachers will not choose to carry weapons, even if given the freedom to do so — but she does think that the knowledge that someone in the school might be armed would deter attacks.
Concerns have also been raised that students would gain access to the guns of teachers. Finnell, citing the 2019 study, said that not once has a child gained access to a teacher’s weapon. Fulkerson added that the people who go through the process to obtain an LTCF have a great track record of safe gun ownership and use.
When asked whether armed teachers themselves might become criminals and use their guns against students, both Finnell and Fulkerson expressed doubts that this would happen. They noted that teachers have already been vetted and are held to higher standards than the average gun owner. On top of this, the crime rate for those who hold an LTCF is remarkably low. This section of the population is known to be less likely than others to “go rogue.”
Senate Bill 1288, which is co-sponsored by Mastriano and six other Republicans, is currently in the Senate Education Committee, which is chaired by Scott Martin (R-Lancaster). Fulkerson asks that those who are concerned for the safety of children reach out to their legislators and ask them to support the bill. She considers herself her own first responder and wants the chance to resist those who seek to destroy innocent lives. “Why not give us a fighting chance?” she asked.
Freelance writer Nathan Birx can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.