WEST VALLEY CITY — Donalyn Shock learned of the Newtown, Conn., shooting while taking her lunch break at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School.
When Shock, a teacher's assistant, returned to class and saw her students, she wondered what could drive a person to commit such a horrendous act of violence and cruelty.
She also wondered if an educator with a gun could have made a difference.
"I think it's important to have gun protection," Shock said. "If you don't have it, we're sitting ducks."
When the subject of teachers carrying concealed weapons came up with her co-workers, Shock said many of her colleagues worried about the potential for even greater violence:
What if a teacher's gun were used to harm even more victims?
What if students became trapped in crossfire?
The questions are part of a national debate on guns and school safety, further fueled by the call of the National Rifle Association Dec. 21 to put armed guards in every school. That position was tempered by NRA President David Keene in an interview Thursday with CNN, when he said the decision should be left up to officials at each school.
“We’re not urging that teachers be armed, but in some schools, school districts and teachers are armed today, and if the school district and the teachers want to do it that way, it’s really up to them, it seems to me," he told CNN.
Thursday, 200 Utah education employees accepted an offer for free weapons training that will qualify them for a concealed weapons permit. The motivation for Shock was the answer to her own question: What could have been done to stop the gunman in Connecticut?
"To me the 'what if' is maybe I could stop it," she said. "I'd rather have a fighting chance than no chance."
Shock and her fellow educators took advantage of free training at the Maverik Center. The training was provided by the Utah Shooting Sports Council and OPSGEAR, a weapons and tactical gear company based in North Salt Lake. The typical $50 course fee was waived for teachers, bus drivers, janitors or anyone who works in a school.
"We felt the training that included locking your door and hiding behind a desk isn't sufficient," said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council. "People are frustrated. People are tired of being victims."
OPSGEAR spokeswoman Brandy Vega said organizers set a cap on the number of participants for the training, which was filled two days after being made available. She estimated that at least 100 people called about the course after it was full.
Participants in the six-hour course left with all the documentation and training necessary to submit their applications to the state for a concealed weapons permit.
Utah and Kansas are the only states that allow permit holders to carry a concealed weapon on school property, according to the Associated Press.
"We want to educate our teachers and protect our children," Vega said.
Third-grade teacher Stephen Pratt said he hadn't considered obtaining a concealed weapons permit prior to the Connecticut school shooting. Pratt said his main reason for participating in the training was a desire to protect his students.
"We have policies in effect, but how would you protect yourself?" he said.
Utah County junior high teacher Gary Peaslee said he already held a concealed weapon permit but had never carried his weapon in school. He said he was interested in the teacher training because the school setting is unique and not always discussed at length in weapons training.
Peaslee said the instructors presented useful information on what teachers can do to protect students in the event of an attack, as well as ideas for items that can be used against an attacker, such as a classroom fire extinguisher or a bottle of hornet spray.
There have been bomb and gun threats during his teaching career, Peaslee said, but he noticed a particular shift in the school atmosphere after the Connecticut shooting.
"The stress level just went up tremendously," he said.
Groups opposed to guns in schools criticized the NRA's statements and dismissed proposals for loosening gun laws and arming teachers. In New York, for example, New York City Chancellor Dennis Walcott told the New York Daily News, “The NRA is wrong. Putting an armed guard in every school building is not the answer."
Thursday Utah State Board of Education Chairwoman Debra Roberts issued a measured response in a prepared statement on gun training for Utah educators, urging caution and thoughtful consideration as schools review their safety policies.
"Schools in Utah have developed emergency plans to handle such situations," Roberts said. "The board encourages all Utah schools to review their emergency plans, working with local law enforcement agencies, with the safety of students in all situations the primary concern."
OPSGEAR CEO David Burnell said more people carrying guns isn't necessarily the answer to gun violence, but that when used safely, a gun can be a powerful tool. During Thursday's course, Burnell emphasized that it was up to the participants to decide for themselves if they felt comfortable owning a gun and carrying it in a school.
"We want to save lives," he said.
Aposhian said schools are supposed to be sanctuaries, and the tragedy in Connecticut crossed a line that requires a change of thinking about guns and violence. He said a teacher who is properly trained and certified for gun ownership could function as a first responder in the event of a shooting.
"There's two different kinds of guns: guns in the good guys' hands and guns in the bad guys' hands," Aposhian said. "Let's get one more option besides hiding behind a desk."
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