WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Jessica Fiveash sees nothing wrong with arming teachers. She’s one herself, and learned Thursday how to safely use her 9 mm Ruger with a laser sight.
“If we have the ability to stop something, we should do it,” said the elementary school teacher, who along with nearly 200 other teachers in Utah took six hours of free gun training offered by the state’s leading gun lobby.
It is among the latest efforts to arm or train teachers to confront assailants after a gunman killed his mother and then went on a rampage through Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 children and six adults before killing himself.
In Ohio, a firearms group said it was launching a test program in tactical firearms training for 24 teachers. In Arizona, the attorney general is proposing a change to state law that would allow an educator in each school to carry a gun.
The moves to train teachers come after the National Rifle Association proposed placing an armed officer at each of the nation’s schools, though some schools already have police officers. Parents and educators have questioned how safe the proposal would keep kids and whether it would be economically feasible.
Some educators say it is dangerous to allow guns on campus. Among the potential dangers they point to are teachers being overpowered for their weapons or students getting them and accidentally or purposely shooting classmates.
“It’s a terrible idea,” said Carol Lear, a chief lawyer for the Utah Office of Education. “It’s a horrible, terrible, no-good, rotten idea.”
Kristen Rand, the legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy organization, said to believe that a “teacher would be successful in stopping someone who has made the decision to engage in a shootout is just not rationale.”
“No teacher is ever going to be as effective as a trained law enforcement officer,” Rand said. Even trained police officers don’t always hit their targets, and arming teachers could put innocent students at risk of crossfire, she said.
Gun-rights advocates say teachers can act more quickly than law enforcement in the critical first few minutes to protect children from the kind of deadly shooting that took place in Connecticut. They emphasized the importance of reacting appropriately under pressure.
“We’re not suggesting that teachers roam the halls” looking for an armed intruder, said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, the state’s biggest gun lobby. “They should lock down the classroom. But a gun is one more option if the shooter” breaks into a classroom.
The group waived its $50 fee for the training. Instruction featured plastic guns and emphasized that people facing deadly threats should announce or show their gun and take cover before trying to shoot. They cautioned teachers about the liability that comes with packing a gun in public.
“It’s going to be a hassle. It’s another responsibility. You can’t just leave your gun lying around,” Aposhian said. “Not for a minute.”
The teachers at the basic gun training applied for a concealed-weapons permit, submitting fingerprints and a mug shot for a criminal background check. The class kicked off as an instructor in the “psychology of mass violence” offered various tactics to disrupt an assailant.
The first, the instructor said, was to start with the command: “Stop right there!”
“I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot if the danger was immediate,” said Fiveash, adding that her laser sight would make shooting in tight quarters safer.
English teacher Kevin Leatherbarrow said he often felt threatened while working at an inner-city school in Buffalo, N.Y., where he got a license to carry a pistol. He moved less than a year ago to Utah, where he feels safer. But he said gun violence can break out anywhere.
Leatherbarrow said he was highly trained in handling guns — and was taking criticism from parents who don’t appreciate his views on school safety.
“I’m in agreement not everybody should be carrying firearms in school. They’re not trained. But for some parents to think we’re cowboys, that frustrates me,” he said. “I wish parents would understand.”
In the U.S., the number of homicides at schools of children, ages 5-18, have been lower year-by-year in the 2000s than they were in the mid- to late-1990s, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report on school crime released in 2012. At 32 deaths, the 2006-2007 school year was the only one that reached the levels from the 1990s. The manner of death was not listed.
Utah is among a few states that let people carry licensed concealed weapons into public schools without exception, the National Conference of State Legislatures says in a 2012 compendium of state gun laws.
Utah educators say they would ban guns if they could, but legislators left them with no choice. State law forbids schools, districts or college campuses from imposing their own gun restrictions.
Educators say they have no way of knowing how many teachers are armed. Gun-rights advocates estimate 1 percent of Utah teachers, or 240, are licensed to carry concealed weapons. It’s not known how many do so at school.
“I never felt threatened in 14 years of teaching, but I don’t think you can be too prepared,” said Tiffany Parry, a dance teacher in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy who applied for Thursday for a license to carry a concealed gun. “I think it could come in handy.”