U.S. needs real gun reform to curb mass shootings at school

Many years ago, when I was teaching ninth grade physical science, I heard running and yelling in the hall. My empty classroom filled with students—some of my own, some I didn’t know—as the assistant principal ordered students into classrooms.

The loudspeakers alerted us that we were in “lockdown,” which required us to hide against cupboards, turn off the lights and put a sign over the window.

We heard pounding on doors and saw a colleague letting students in who were trapped outside. I watched as she debated whether she could let them in.

I don’t recall why we were locked down, but I will never forget what it felt like to huddle in my classroom with scared students, thinking through every horrific scenario. Worrying about the students in my room, who in some cases I had never taught. Worrying, but trying to stay calm and reassuring to those now suddenly in my care.

I share this to offer one perspective of a former educator as we go through the aftermath of yet another mass school shooting. I share this because we didn’t do the right thing after Columbine, Sandy Hook or Parkland. Will we after Robb?

In the aftermath of tragedies like the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, many suggest arming teachers, adding police or other policies to harden our schools. But policies that do not address the proliferation of firearms don’t solve the root cause and only create more problems. I want to address some of the most common proposals specifically.

Arming teachers: This is a no-win situation no matter how you slice it. This “solution” envisions, in a best-case scenario, that if an armed student or stranger comes into the school, a teacher would shoot them. Schools are crowded, and even law enforcement officers struggle to want to pull weapons in crowded situations. This would require teachers to train frequently on top of existing responsibilities. And, most importantly, armed civilians are almost never successful at stopping shootings. They can interfere with law enforcement’s ability to respond to an active shooter situation.

One point of entry: Turning our public schools into jails will not solve the problem. At my former school, we had a couple of entrances and the doors were locked during the school day. Over 800 students moved in and out of the same doors at the same time every passing period. Schools are designed to move people through the spaces quickly and safely. Funneling every person through one door means lost teaching time, increased congestion, increased frustration and anxiety.

More police in our schools: There is very little evidence that shows armed police officers in schools reduces shootings. It could be a deterrent. It could be why an elementary school is picked over a high school. But the reality is, one police officer with a pistol is going to be challenged to handle someone with several semi-automatic weapons with extended clips.

More mental health support in schools: Our schools absolutely deserve stronger investments in mental health services. When school staff see signs, they can play an important role in preventing tragedy. But blaming mass shootings on mental health is stigmatizing and ignores the fact that people who struggle with mental health challenges are far more likely to be the victims of gun violence than the perpetrators.

The good news is there are many steps we can take that we know work to prevent gun violence. And in the years since Sandy Hook, Washington state has come from that. Since then, our state has expanded background checks to private gun sales, created an Extreme Risk Protection Order law (also known as a “red flag” law), raised the purchase age for semi-automatic assault rifles to 21 to match the requirement for handguns, prohibited high-capacity magazines and much more.

It is past time for the other Washington to follow our lead and enact these lifesaving policies. And in this Washington, we should continue leading the way by banning assault weapons, requiring a license to have a gun just like we do for cars, and more.

While we are finally seeing the first steps around gun reform at the national level, there is far more work to be done. Washington has shown that sensible regulations save lives.

I am part of a responsible, gun-owning family and I respect Second Amendment rights. But before our founders included a right to bear arms, they declared, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is hard to be happy or free when you are dead.

Jani Hitchen represents District 6 on the Pierce County Council. Prior to being elected Hitchen spent 23 years as a professional educator teaching middle and high school students in the Bethel and Clover Park school districts.

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