SALT LAKE CITY -- “Stop. Drop your weapon. Don’t shoot.”
Kasey Hansen yelled as she pointed the barrel of her loaded handgun at a target’s chest at a shooting range outside Salt Lake City.
Hansen, a special needs teacher in Utah, is prepared to take down any armed gunman that barges through the doors of one of her classrooms. Hansen carries her pink handgun “Lucy” with her every day in each of the 14 schools at which she teaches. The 27-year-old teacher works with elementary, middle and high school students with hearing impairments in the Granite School District.
“I want to protect my students,” Hansen said. “I’m going to stand in front of a bullet for any student that is in my protection and so I want another option to defend us.”
Hansen is one of an unknown number of armed teachers across the country. Legally gun-owning adults are now allowed to carry guns in public schools in more than two dozen states, from kindergarten classrooms to high school hallways. Seven of those states specifically allow teachers and other school staff to carry guns in their schools.
A News21 examination of open records laws in those states found that those who do choose to carry their firearm into their classrooms are not required to divulge the information to principals, other teachers, students or parents. Only five of those states have completely open access to concealed carry permit information through public records requests. Some state’s laws completely seal off those records and others are silent on the issue.
That means there is no way of telling how many teachers are taking advantage of the option to be armed. School administrations can decide to gather the information, but it’s more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. There is no record of who has a gun in any school in any state.
After the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the threat of an attack by an armed gunman in elementary and high schools prompted five states to give school administrators the authority to arm their teachers. In 2013 more than 80 bills were introduced in at least 33 states related to arming teachers or school staff, but only Alabama, Kansas, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas enacted laws affecting public schools, according to a report by the Council of State Governments.
Connecticut law, which previously let school officials allow people other than police to carry in schools, was revised after Newtown, so that only officers can carry guns on school grounds. Georgia passed a guns-in-schools bill in 2014. The other states allowing guns in schools already had versions of such laws in place.
In some cases school districts and local school boards can designate school faculty to get specific training in order to carry; and there are a few states, including Hawaii and New Hampshire, that don’t set policy in state law. In Utah and Rhode Island anyone with a concealed carry weapons permit is allowed to bring a firearm onto public school grounds. Schools in some states, including Colorado and Arkansas, use administrators and other staff members as security officers so that they can be armed in the school. And most states allow guns in schools for approved programs and events sanctioned by the school.
In Utah, guns are commonplace in public. The state has issued more than a half million firearm carry permits. Residents with a permit can legally carry almost anywhere, from elementary schools to local restaurants and bars to municipal parks.
“I never really thought about it before Sandy Hook. It just killed me. It’s something personal when you mess with students or children. …It’s as if you were messing with one of our own.”
The Utah law that allows anyone with a concealed carry permit, including teachers, to carry on school property has been in place for more than a decade. A provision that would have restricted possession on school property was taken out of the bill.
Hansen got her concealed carry permit a week or two after Sandy Hook and participated in a free training course offered to teachers. She then bought her pink-plated Cobra 380 handgun, and started carrying it in her classroomsabout seven months ago.
“I never really thought about it before Sandy Hook,” said Hansen, who was teaching when she heard about the attack. “It just killed me. It’s something personal when you mess with students or children. …It’s as if you were messing with one of our own.”
Teaching at multiple schools a day, Hansen drives around the school district in her white Mazda glamorized with eyelashes on the headlights. All of Hansen’s students have hearing aids or a cochlear implant, which could make an emergency situation particularly chaotic.
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“I think every teacher should carry,” Hansen said. “We are the first line of defense. Someone is going to call the cops and they are going to be informed, but how long is it going to take for them to get to the school? And in that time how many students are going to be affected by the gunman roaming the halls?”
In the 10 years since teachers have been allowed to carry guns in Utah, no fatal K-12 school shootings have occurred. Some argue that schools aren’t falling victim to attacks because of their unique, additional security measures. Others think guns in classrooms present more risk than potential for reward.
“I don’t deny the fact that a gun could be used to protect students,” said Steven H. Gunn, a member of the board of directors of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah and a Holladay city councilman, “but a gun in school is far more likely to lead to the harm of an innocent individual than to the protection of innocent people.”
“A teacher could begin returning fire to a person who is attacking the school and in the process, kill children,” said Gunn. “It’s just a very unhealthy, unsafe situation and teachers, unless they receive special training, simply wouldn’t know how to handle a crisis situation.”
Ten miles north of Holladay, volunteer P.E. teacher Ted Hallisey stepped out of his forest green Ford pickup truck at the south end of the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. For Hallisey it was important to address the school gun rights issue at the place where rights are supposed to be honored and discussed.
“Everybody is focused on individual rights, ‘it’s my right to carry a firearm,’ but what about everybody else’s right to be in a safe gun-free environment, especially in schools?” Hallisey said. “How does that work where they say now your rights don’t matter anymore?”
As a teacher and kid’s health advocate, Hallisey believes there is too much risk in arming a teacher or staff member.
“The likelihood of having to pull that weapon in an attack is pretty slim,” Hallisey said. “The opportunity for them to have an accident carrying the weapon is a lot more pronounced and a lot more likely.”
(On Sept. 11, a teacher with a concealed carry permit accidentally shot herself in the leg at an elementary school in a Salt Lake City suburb. No one else was injured.)
Just down the street from the Capitol, stay-at home mom April Jolley reloads Nerf guns for her sons in their eighth-floor apartment that overlooks the Mormon Temple in the heart of the city. Jolley, who has three young boys that will attend Ensign Elementary School in Salt Lake City, would feel safe knowing her kid’s teacher had a gun.
“I think as teachers you need to realize that your role is not only to teach them, but you really are like a parent to them,” Jolley said, “You’re protecting them from what could be there.”
For Jolley, a teacher having a gun in a classroom makes her feel safer as long as that teacher has training and knows how to properly use a gun.
“I think it’s better that they gave teachers one as long as it’s secured in a place that the kids can’t get to it,” Jolley said. “I don’t think it would be a danger. If anything it’d keep them more protected. They could take it out and protect their own students in the class.”
Schools are making efforts to put more stringent security measures in place, including trained law enforcement officers, strict hall access rules with automatic locks on closed doors throughout the school day, and additional emergency drills.
The National Parent Teacher Association has been active in the conversation about guns in schools and gun violence prevention. Although the PTA supports citizens’ rights to bear arms, its position statement on gun safety and violence prevention, which was adopted in 1999, states that the most effective day-to-day school climate is one that is gun-free.
It amended that statement In 2013, after the tragedy in Newtown and the introduction of legislation across the country, “to add that the association defers to local collaborative decision-making to allow for the presence of armed law enforcement only,” Heidi May, a spokeswoman for National PTA, said in an email. “The preference of the association, however, is for schools to be gun-free.”
Groups of teachers from around the country have also weighed in. The National Education Association teacher union is composed of 3 million educators and considers itself the voice of professionals across the country. According to an NEA poll of 800 members conducted in January 2013, educators are opposed to arming school employees. Only 22 percent of NEA members polled favor allowing teachers and other school employees to receive firearms training and allowing them to carry firearms in schools; 61 percent strongly opposed the proposal.
However, members of the Association of American Educators, the largest national, non-union professional teacher association in the United States, expressed mixed feelings on safety and gun issues. The results of a poll conducted in February 2014 found 61 percent of those responding supported a proposed policy in Arkansas that would allow educators access to a locked concealed firearm after a training course.
Despite the majority of AAE members supporting firearms in schools under those circumstances, only 26 percent of surveyed teachers would consider bringing a firearm to school if permitted to do so.
Laws are being passed in an attempt to reduce the recurrence and magnitude of deadly shootings in K-12 schools. Only three and a half years into this decade more people have already died in K-12 school shootings than the total number in any other decade over the last 50 years. Since 2010, 60 children and school faculty members have been shot and killed in elementary, middle and high schools. There have already been more school shootings — 24 since 2010 -- than there were in the previous decade.
Hansen keeps her handgun concealed at all times while in school whether in the small of her back or in the zippered compartment of her rhinestone-embellished pink purse she bought at a gun show. The purse matches her gun, which she named Lucy as soon as she got it.
“I based it on ‘Despicable Me 2,’ on the spy who Gru falls in love with,” Hansen said. “She’s a secret agent spy and she likes to carry her lipstick Taser or her weapons with her and uses them on the bad guys so I named my gun Lucy after her.”
Hansen says she sees herself as Lucy in a way. She protects herself and her students against any “bad guy” who might try to harm them. But her handgun has become more than just a device to use against an attacker.
“My gun has become a part of me,” Hansen said. “I named it, I take it shooting at the shooting range and I always carry with me. It’s just another accessory.”
Contributions from Jackie DelPilar, Amy Slanchik and Justine McDaniel
Kate Murphy, News21
This report is part of the project titled “Gun Wars: The Struggle Over Rights and Regulation in America,” produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.