SALT LAKE CITY — The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut nearly two years ago sent a wave of Utah teachers to gun training classes.
A free concealed weapons permit course over Christmas break in 2012 drew 200 teachers, bus drivers and janitors. Dozens more had to be turned away from the six-hour session sponsored by the Utah Shooting Sports Council. Hundreds of others signed up for classes around the state.
"We felt the training that included locking your door and hiding behind a desk isn't sufficient," council chairman Clark Aposhian said at the time. "People are frustrated. People are tired of being victims."
On Thursday, a Westbrook Elementary School teacher with a concealed carry permit became an accidental victim of her own handgun, rekindling the debate over guns in schools.
While the teacher, who was in the faculty restroom of the Taylorsville school when the gun went off, recovers from a wound to the leg, community members weighed in on the merits of armed educators.
"I think that's just a recipe for disaster," said Murray High School health teacher Isaac Beh. "It's one thing when the teacher shoots herself, but what happens when the teacher's sitting down in class and it goes off and hits a kid?"
Beh said a four- or eight-hour training class isn't enough for a teacher to know how to react in an active shooter situation. He said military personnel or police officers are the only ones he could imagine handling a crisis with a gun, and even they can make mistakes.
Thursday's incident didn't change Rep. Paul Ray's mind about teachers packing guns at school.
"I have no problem with it. I'm a supporter, obviously, of the Second Amendment. I actually think it makes our schools safer," the Clearfield Republican said.
Aposhian said Thursday that Utah's concealed carry system with regard to schools shouldn't be impugned because of a rare, isolated incident.
Utah is unique among states in that school districts and charter schools must allow employees, including teachers, to carry guns under the state's concealed weapons permit law. The firearms must remain hidden and in their possession.
A Dan Jones & Associates poll for the Exoro Group in January 2013 found 59 percent of Utahns favor allowing full-time school employees to carry guns.
Jacob Paulsen, a National Rifle Association-certified firearms instructor, said he still gets inquiries from teachers about free training courses nearly two years removed from Sandy Hook. The demand increases when a school shooting occurs, he said.
Reasons for taking a class are usually twofold: a sense of obligation to protect students and to defend themselves if necessary.
"Teachers definitely feel like targets," he said.
Although hundreds of teachers have taken concealed carry classes, Paulsen said he thinks very few take guns to school. He estimated that only 2 percent of his students carry regularly.
The Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah has long been concerned about accidental shootings and lack of training among concealed weapons permit holders, who aren't required to show proficiency with a gun to get the license.
"I think you have to balance the danger to the school and individuals against the likelihood that the guns might be used to protect innocent people. I think when you apply that balancing act, you conclude that bringing guns into schools is simply not justifiable," said Steve Gunn, who serves on the center's board of directors.
Gunn said if teachers are going to arm themselves, the state ought to insist on stringent training requirements. Paulsen said the state should make available Peace Officer Standards and Training instruction to teachers who want advanced and tactical training.
But Beh said it seems way too complicated to achieve skills on par with soldiers or cops.
"I just don't think we'd be able to invest that kind of time," he said. "I don't think a weekend is going to be able to do it."41 comments on this story
The 2013 Jones poll showed 82 percent of Utahns believed parents have a right to know if the child's teacher is carrying a concealed weapon. But state law prohibits that. A bill in the Utah Legislature last year to allow parents to get that information didn't go anywhere.
"Why shouldn't a parent be allowed to know if a teacher is carrying a gun or not?" Gunn asked.
Ray said there would be adverse effects if that knowledge were public. There could be attempts to steal the gun or teachers could be a potential target for anti-gun protesters or even a shooter who knows the school, he said.
"You kind of lose the whole surprise of being a concealed weapons holder," he said.