The bullet-riddled bodies had only just been removed from an American schoolhouse when Tennessee legislators started calling for teachers to add pistols alongside pencils on their list of school supplies. The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, they argued. And if the good guy is a gym teacher, then so be it.
That was a little more than five years ago, after a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. It was one of the deadliest school shootings in United States history, second only to a massacre at Virginia Tech University a little more than five years before that.
The third-deadliest massacre at an American school came last month, when a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and killed 14 students and three staff members. At least 14 more were wounded. Once again the calls to arm teachers came quickly, this time from President Donald Trump — a man so glib and vacuous that he can, on occasion, make Tennessee’s lawmakers look like philosophers. On occasion.
Ours is the state that legalized guns in bars and has often been a national leader when it comes to making guns easier to acquire and easier to carry in an ever-growing list of places. New laws that went into effect last year allow Tennesseans to carry guns on recreational vehicles and boats, equipping them to neutralize the ATV-riding terrorists, lake-dwelling pirates or whatever potential enemy populates gun enthusiasts’ fantasies of heroic self-defense. A new policy even allows citizens to carry guns into the new offices of the state legislature. And despite objections from law enforcement and Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, lawmakers are currently pressing forward with a bill that would reduce penalties for people who carry guns without a permit.
At an event in Washington, D.C., last week Haslam said he supports banning bump stocks and raising the age at which a person can buy guns like the AR-15, along with improving the background-check process.
In general, right-wing Republicans run this state so completely that there is little Democrats in the state legislature can do to stop them from welcoming guns into every corner of life in Tennessee. But for the most part, even Democrats running for higher office have offered weak, vague responses to the massacre in Parkland.
Running for governor and U.S. Senate respectively, Karl Dean and Phil Bredesen — both former Nashville mayors and wealthy mealy-mouthed moderates — had little to say about guns for days after the shooting. When they did chime in, their responses were flimsy. Dean suggested moving on from areas of disagreement to common ground, like keeping guns out of the hands of people with criminal records or mental illness. Bredesen said “thoughts and prayers” aren’t enough and called for more rigorous background checks.
Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, Dean’s challenger in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, has been more forceful. Referencing his daughter, who is a teacher, he called the idea of arming educators “stupid.”
There are plenty of reasons to believe he’s right. For one, it turns out that armed and trained officers who were on the high school campus during the Parkland shooting did nothing to try to stop it. Surely many teachers and school staff are more courageous than that — Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School football coach Aaron Feis died while shielding students from the barrage of bullets — but why should they have to be? If teachers wanted to be cops or commandos, they likely would have chosen the police force or the military instead of the classroom. Beyond that, there has been relatively little discussion about another rather obvious concern. Black and brown students already often face unfair scrutiny and discipline in schools, and they are hassled, arrested and shot at disproportionate rates by police. How long until an antsy teacher shoots a student who reaches into his or her backpack after an argument? How long until a teacher shoots another teacher? And is it so hard to imagine a scenario in which a troubled student overpowers an armed teacher?
Still, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the ideas on offer seem so feeble compared to the might of the problem — that being the mounting gun deaths in our schools, our housing projects and our country music festivals. The nation is awash in firearms. Even if the sale of guns were banned today, there would still be more than one gun in this country for every American. We long ago decided as a nation that owning firearms is an American’s birthright. Any attempt to significantly restrict ownership of those guns — or confiscate them, as other countries have done — is likely to be met with hostility or even violence. After all, that is why so many gun rights advocates say they need guns in the first place.
Those of us who imagine a world free from a double bind — in which the solution to gun violence is still more guns — are hostages to this reality. If progress can be made at the margins, we should welcome it. And if that progress does come, it will likely be thanks to the bold, savvy survivors of the Parkland shooting and young people in Nashville who may join them.
But at this point, we should probably pray, too.