After the most recent school shooting, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a 19-year old gunman was charged with killing 17 people, debate flows freely, yet again, on how to best prevent these tragedies from ever happening. Anyone with a heart can surely agree this is the overall goal. The morning after the shooting, NC State Representative Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus County) stated that he wants to work with police to train and allow teachers to carry guns in attempt to limit the death and destruction caused during a school shooting.
“We have to get over this useless hysteria about guns and allow school personnel to have a chance to defend their lives and those of their students,” Pittman said during a meeting of the Joint Legislative Emergency Management Oversight Committee, as reported by the News & Observer.
Defending children is a must, but putting a firearm in the hands of even the most trained teacher isn’t the answer. Anyone suggesting this solution has clearly never experienced a situation like the one seen in Parkland because it oversimplifies the complexity of an active shooter situation, especially in close-quarters. It is not as easy as a “good guy with a gun stopping a bad guy with a gun.”
I ask that you take a few minutes to understand my perspective and why I feel strongly about this matter. Before recently moving to Charlotte, I served for three and half years as an Army infantryman, stationed at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska, and I deployed to Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province in 2011. By the time my tour was over, I left a place that claimed two members from my company, cost six others at least one limb, wounded over 25 percent of our total force, and left me with shrapnel in my face and a bullet hole in my left thigh. When I saw the news flash of another school shooting I couldn’t help but think of the firefights I had been involved in and how these students and teachers just encountered their own version of Afghanistan.
Make no mistake, the fear and chaos they faced is no different than what my fellow soldiers and I faced in Afghanistan—a fear and chaos that I still remember like it happened yesterday.
“Martin! MARTIN!” is still audible in my mind six and half years later. I turned and saw three members of my platoon pinned down in the field behind me. Their screams still clear as day, as they called for help. A routine patrol in the Panjwa’i District had turned into an ambush, with us taking fire from three enemy positions, some as close as 20 yards (the distance of a pitcher’s mound to home plate). I, along with some of my fellow soldiers, began to return suppressive fire. Just as the first man safely reached us, the feeling of Arnold Schwarzenegger swinging a sledgehammer into my leg rushed over my body. That’s what being shot by a high-powered assault rifle felt like to me.
Assisted by an extremely calm and poised Sergeant, I was able to move to cover in a canal, as bullets cracked and whizzed by my head and exploded in the dirt around me. The sound a bullet makes as it passes mere inches away is another sound that will forever stay with me.
Luckily, or so I thought at the time, a medic was already there to start administering aid. There was only one problem. The medic froze.
The medic, who had spent at least the last year of his life training for this exact moment, could not move. When this news made its way down the line to the other medics, they came to my location and ensured I received proper medical attention.
The bullet traveled through my left thigh, shredded my left hip flexor, moved through my left butt cheek before ultimately stopping halfway in the right one (there’s a Forest Gump joke in there somewhere). Big picture, the bullet missed my colon and spine by a half-inch and traveled over a foot inside my body.
Now, I share this story not to draw attention to my actions during this firefight or as a condemnation of the medic. I simply want to illustrate how even the best trained members of the military react differently when bullets start flying. Someone shooting at you, specifically trying to kill you, is probably the most terrifying life event a person could ever experience.
Regardless of training, you don’t know how people will respond in life and death situations until the moment comes. You don’t know how people will react when they hear gunshots. You don’t know how people will react when the person next to them is shot. You don’t know how a person will respond when their task is shooting someone they know or taught. You just don’t know.
And now we are expecting teachers, even with training, to perfectly handle this situation. I say perfectly because anything less could mean even more tragedy and death. This isn’t a movie where bullets always miss the hero. These teachers aren’t action stars. These are average people, who more likely than not, have never come close to experiencing anything like this.
Few people actually run towards gunfire. Most search for cover. Some can’t function. Fight or flight. Adrenaline floods your body. Time doesn’t exist. Your heart beats outside of your chest. Fine motor skills stop working. People urinate and defecate themselves. Good luck holding steady aim at a moving target. Even the simplest of tasks, such as reloading can become difficult. Your hands shake for hours afterward. It’s chaotic on a level that is beyond comprehension until you experience it.
This what I want you to consider when the discussion moves toward Rep. Pittman’s assumption that allowing teachers to arm themselves is the proper action to take.
“There is barely enough time in the school year to train teachers on basic lesson planning and data use,” a friend who currently works for CMS told me. “So adding weaponry is just so absurd.”
Members of the military and police spend hours, days and weeks at a time training with their weapons. They train on close quarter tactics with partners, teams, squads and platoons. Safety and awareness is ingrained in you from day one. Dry runs are the norm. You practice and train methodically, going door by door, hallway to hallway, communicating and marking cleared rooms as you pass.
You do this over, and over and over. Why? Because no two professions better understand the devastation of a gun when things go wrong. No two professions better understand the actual stress of being shot at and the absolute need to remember and implement the months and years of training for these exact types of situations. The margin for error in close quarters combat, such as a school environment, is razor thin. There is a reason it’s already part of a profession that involves life and death decision making and not placed in the skillset of a high school math teacher.
The only responsibility a teacher should have during a school shooting is ensuring the safety of the students in their classroom. Period. They should be barricading doors to ensure the shooter can’t enter and leading the students by example as they implement active shooter lockdown procedures.
Further, Rep. Pittman totally disregards that a person or teacher with a gun, even with the best intentions, can create a tragedy on their own. There are what ifs on top of what ifs. What if during the chaos of an active shooter situation a teacher shoots an innocent student? Are we willing to accept this as a society? What if the teacher is shot (a very likely scenario)? What if the shooter knows exactly who the armed teachers on campus are? What if on a regular day a teacher goes to break up a fight in the hallway and the firearm is accidentally discharged?
According to an FBI study about active shooter situations, police officers who engaged the shooter were wounded or killed in 46.7 percent of the incidents. We’re talking about individuals who are specifically trained to respond to these situations and not teachers trained over the the weekend or during summer break.
The potential collateral damage is not worth it. There are just too many possible negative outcomes and risks that so severely outweigh the small chance that they stop an active shooter threat, where most of the death and destruction is carried out in the first few minutes. If you don’t believe me, watch here to see what can happen in this exact situation.
This piece is not meant as a knock against teachers, nor am I by any means questioning their bravery in these situations. God knows our country has seen example after example of teachers and students shielding others from gunfire. Heroic doesn’t begin to fully explain the bravery of the person behind those actions. I’m completely certain there are teachers willing to volunteer for this role and almost positive that some have already secretly brought a firearm into school. I don’t question a teacher’s commitment toward protecting their students.
My goal here is to bring the reality of the situation to the forefront. Politicians who are blasé about the complexity and rigorous training required for these types of engagements and who underestimate the physical, physiological and psychological toll a combat environment brings to those involved, should be forced to place themselves in these types of simulations.
Ultimately, I’m saddened by the fact that we’ve reached a point where people in this country want teachers to arm themselves as moonlight deputies. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m confident that arming teachers isn’t the answer—now or ever.
Photo: Rich Pedroncelli – AP