President Donald Trump on Wednesday endorsed arming teachers to respond to school shootings — but Montana’s congressional delegation isn’t there yet, at least not on a federal level.
Neither of the state’s senators nor its congressman said training and arming teachers as a deterrent or response to school shootings was necessary, but none said that the issue is off the table.
Trump discussed the possibility of putting more guns in the hands of school employees at a forum with survivors of school shootings Wednesday night and repeated the idea Thursday, emphasizing the importance of training.
“If you had a teacher with — who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly,” he said Wednesday.
A national poll showed a wide partisan divide on the topic. Only 26 percent of Democrats support arming teachers, while 69 percent of Republicans approve. It's a significantly wider gap than differences over banning assault-style weapons.
A spokesman for Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said Tester, a former teacher, opposes legislation that would “force teachers to carry guns in school,” but an emailed statement didn’t exclude the possibility of voluntary carry.
“Instead of turning our teachers into armed guards, let’s make schools more secure, invest more resources into mental health care and counseling and let’s empower our teachers with the tools they need to improve learning and prepare our students to earn good-paying jobs,” the statement said.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines emphasized his support for gun rights, but said he didn’t see a federal role for expanding carry in schools.
“I don’t think that’s an issue that should come from the federal government. I think that should be handled at the state level,” Daines said. “I think that is something that we should allow the local school boards and school districts to decide.”
That’s Montana’s law: school boards can give permission for someone to carry a weapon in schools, with no additional requirements. It’s a little used policy. Only Lima, Belfry and Custer schools — about one percent of districts in the state — currently have an armed staffer, according to public records requests of every school district in Montana last school year. Philipsburg and Saco had active authorizations, but in spring 2017 those designated staffers said they chose not to carry a gun.
Both Daines and Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte focused on existing laws they said could have prevented Florida’s shooting that killed 17 people.
“We must focus on enforcing existing laws to reduce violence, including measures already on the books that prevent dangerous individuals from owning a firearm, prohibit straw purchases, and make it illegal to lie on a background check form,” Gianforte said in an emailed statement.
He cited the recent arrest of a student in Darby accused of making violent threats as an example of “handling threats before they can grow.”
Daines cited threatening social media posts made by the Florida shooter.
“Nikolas Cruz should never have had a gun,” he said. “These are acts of terror that he committed on social media. That is a crime. He should have been prosecuted, convicted. And he never should have been able to buy a gun.”
Nationally, several education and public safety organizations blasted the idea of arming teachers.
“To be effective, schools must be perceived as safe havens where students want to be,” said a joint statement from two national principals groups. "The presence of armed school officials on campus conveys the opposite message to students and to the local community."
The National Association of School Resource Officers “strongly recommends that no firearms be on a school campus except those carried by carefully selected, specially trained school resource officers, who are career law enforcement officers with sworn authority, deployed by employing police departments or agencies in community-oriented policing assignments to work in collaboration with schools,” said a release from the group.
In Montana, a spokesman for Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said that she supports the state’s existing law.
School Administrators of Montana, which represents superintendents and principals, doesn’t have a specific resolution on the idea of arming school staffers. But the group has testified against proposals to allow more guns into Montana schools at past legislative sessions.
School safety is a high priority, the group’s executive director Kirk Miller said.
“Every conversation I’ve had in the last week and a half somehow has the essence of what happened in Florida, and that something needs to be done,” he said.
Daines and Tester said that schools need better access to mental health resources, as did Eric Feaver, president of the state’s largest teachers union, MEA-MFT.
“I don’t think you’ll find any public school advocate that tells you we have enough mental health specialists and counselors in schools,” he said.
MEA-MFT has also opposed legislative proposals to arm educators in the past.
“If there are folks that need to carry guns in schools, they should be folks trained to do so that work for police departments as SROs and that sort of thing,” Feaver said.
He also warned against turning schools into “armed camps.”
Some research has indicated that security measures like metal detectors can negatively affect students’ perception of a school.
He also cited concerns about marksmanship in a crisis.
“People don’t shoot straight under stress,” he said. “You can train folks and train folks and train 'em, and they don’t necessarily shoot straight and hit their target.”
A 2008 study showed that New York City Police had hit their target 18 percent of the time in shootouts.
Feaver said gun control proposals can be controversial even within union membership.
“It is Montana, and we have to recognize that part of our culture is that many people do hunt, and we can’t just turn every long gun into something that we would ban,” he said.
“I think the issue we have to face is, 'How do we make folks safe without scaring the hell out of our kids?'”