The teacher’s hand hovers over the gun in her holster. Coiled like a spring, she waits for the command.
“This is your school, you just heard gunshots in a class down that corridor,” says the instructor. “Go, go, go!” he screams at primary school teacher Laura, guiding her towards a maze of rooms constructed out of plywood.
Wearing ear defenders and ballistic goggles, Laura makes her way round a blind corner, leading with her subcompact Sig pistol just as she’d been taught. I’m shadowing a few feet behind, praying she can steady her nerves.
The 45-year-old is one of a dozen taking part this week in the FASTER Saves Lives (FSL) course in southern Ohio, training teachers in what to do in the event of an active shooter on campus.
“When Violence Strikes at School, You CAN Be Prepared!” reads the FSL website. Attendees are told to bring along their own 9mm autoloader, a gun belt and at least 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
Clocking a girl holding a coke can and a young boy on his phone, Laura holds fire before aiming straight at the bad guy with the gun. No hesitation. Bang-bang. Two shots through the heart. I feel the percussive thuds in my own chest.
“You could wait for law enforcement, but the fastest person is always going to be someone who is already there,” she says, explaining what compelled her to sign up. Statistically, nearly 60 per cent of shootings end before the police arrive. And in thinly patrolled rural areas like Ohio’s West Union, the rate can be even higher. “No one will protect these kids like we will,” Laura says. “I’d take a bullet for them.”
Many are here because of last month’s massacre in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 students and teachers were killed by a teenage gunman, in the second most deadly school shooting in US history. In the wake of the attack, Ohio’s governor signed an emergency measure allowing teachers to carry firearms in classrooms after 24 hours of training – down from the 700 hours that was previously required.
In lieu of any longer-term solutions on how to combat spiralling gun violence in the US, school districts are rushing to enrol in courses like this one. It’s estimated thousands of teachers now carry guns in classrooms across the some 28 states that allow it, with more expected to join after recent events.
The rationale for arming teachers was borne out of an utterance made by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”.
In this hypothetical situation, the good guy is the teacher standing in front of a class full of kids with a semi-automatic pistol strapped to their belt. The lengthy police response to the shooting at Uvalde, and the death of an armed security guard as part of an attack on a Buffalo supermarket last month, have drawn fresh scrutiny to the recurring (and uniquely American) debate: what role should teachers and bystanders play in active shooter attacks?
Does adding more guns into the mix of everyday life in the US – where firearms already outnumber people – offer a recipe for disaster, or success?
I’ve spent the two years since moving to the US trying to understand how America could get here – a place where teachers are being trained not just on how to educate, but on how to kill.
In other developed Western countries – the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – mass shootings have sparked immediate restrictions on gun ownership: restrictions that have all had the intended purpose of limiting firearms deaths.
After gunman Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996, the UK adopted some of the strictest gun controls in the world, introducing laws effectively banning the private ownership of handguns. The UK’s rate of gun homicides is now 0.04 per 100,000 people, compared to a rate of 4.12 in the US – more than 100 times higher.
America has for some time been heading towards what can only be described as a public health disaster. Today, on average, a child is shot every hour in the US. Last year, for the first time, firearms overtook car crashes as the most common cause of death among under-10s. Meanwhile, some 20,000 Americans die each year from gun-related homicides, suicides and accidents.
The public is jolted every few years by a particularly horrifying attack on a nightclub, place of worship, or school, like Robb Elementary in Uvalde. But rather than prompting a rethink of its love of guns, mass shootings, police killings, and general breakdowns of societal order, have proved to be a boon for the gun industry.
The three months for the highest number of background checks for guns were March 2020, when the coronavirus outbreak was declared; December 2012, after the Sandy Hook shooting; and in December 2015, following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. A huge spike was also recorded in June 2020 after George Floyd’s murder by a Minnesotan police officer.
Gun purchases rose to record numbers that year, with nearly 20 million firearms sold in the US. More than five million adults became first-time gun owners between January 2020 and April 2021 compared to 2.4 million in 2019. Of those, approximately half were female and nearly half were from minority groups.
In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, parents of students who survived told me they wanted to see teachers armed. “If my daughter’s teacher had a gun, some of the kids might have been saved,” said a tearful Marisela Roque, whose daughter Katarina lost 12 classmates.
High-profile shootings, according to social behavioural experts, feed into the top reason gun owners say they purchase firearms: worry over personal safety.
At the NRA convention in Houston last month, Kristen Franke, owner of Florida-based company Packin’ Neat, which sells handbags designed specifically for the concealed carry of guns, said customers are looking to defend themselves from the seemingly ever-growing and evolving threats Americans are facing.
“Women call me all the time now and tell me, ‘My husband has always carried but now I want to know my options’,” Mrs Franke said. “We’re in a different world.”
At the Remington Arms stand, a woman in her 60s browsing for her first gun was directed to a FN Compact Tactical pistol. “I just want something with a lighter trigger, something small,” she told the representative, as her son looked on. For gun advocates, the Second Amendment – a clause in the 1789 Bill of Rights that enshrines the legal right of the American people to bear arms – the self-defence argument has become crucial to their cause.
In recent years, the right to self defence movement found itself a posterboy in Kyle Rittenhouse, who was just 17 when he shot dead two people and wounded another at a Black Lives Matter protest in Wisconsin in 2020 – but was sensationally acquitted after arguing he had used his hunting rifle weapon to protect himself against the unarmed protesters.
It won a further, even more stunning victory on Thursday after the US Supreme Court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, ruled that Americans have a constitutional right to carry a gun outside the home.
The idea that the amendment protects people’s right to own guns for self-defence is a relatively recent reading of the Constitution, which developed during the Ronald Reagan era, when conservatives began advocating for the appointment of judges and funding of scholars who would interpret the amendment more broadly.
Nevertheless, “Rarely has the Second Amendment been more necessary to secure the rights of our fellow citizens,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz proclaimed to NRA members in Houston, hours after attending a vigil with the families of Uvalde victims some 270 miles away. The NRA went ahead with its annual convention, scheduled to take place in Texas three days after the Robb Elementary attack.
It was a different matter in 1999, when, days after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, senior leaders of the lobby group huddled on a conference call to consider cancelling its Denver meeting out of respect.
There was no such concern about the optics this time around, and little public pressure to get them to postpone. The NRA issued only a brief statement saying convention attendees would “reflect” on the shooting and “redouble our commitment to making our schools secure”. The steady drumbeat of shootings appears to have enabled a culture that has accepted gun violence as a normal part of life.
“One of the broader barriers is hopelessness, which is the NRA’s chief political product,” Peter Ambler, political director at the gun control advocacy group Giffords, says. “They use hopelessness to stymie progress. Hopelessness sort of paralyses the response.” The NRA and pro-gun Republicans have since the 1980s used the Second Amendment to block checks on firearms sales and stifle debate.
The gun lobby, as well as gun manufacturers, retain a vice-like grip over American political life. In the 2020 presidential race, the NRA spent more than $16 million (£13 million) backing former Donald Trump. More recently, Georgia governor Brian Kemp took $25,000 from Daniel Defense, the manufacturer of the AR-15 used by the Uvalde gunman, just before he signed a law weakening the state’s gun laws.
But gun control advocates say the ease of access to the high-capacity assault rifle highlights the problem with the modern-day interpretation of the Second Amendment. While handguns account for more deaths per year in the US, AR-15s are frequently used in headline-grabbing mass shootings, including Uvalde, Wisconsin and last month’s Buffalo, New York supermarket shooting that killed 10.
The AR-15 – a semi-automatic that was originally designed as a weapon of war – has been popularised by video games and glorified in films. “Be a man among men” is how one Florida gun seller markets it. Convention attendants in Houston were encouraged to pose with a lifesize cardboard cutout of Trump in “Rambo mode” toting a stars and stripes bandanna and an assault rifle. The AR-15 was one of the top-selling guns at the convention. Today, 13 years after the assault weapons ban was allowed to expire, there are more than 20 million of them in America – compared to about 400,000 in 1994, when the ban first came into effect.
There are small signs that things are changing.
President Joe Biden is trying to make gun control a key campaign issue as the country heads for the congressional midterms – elections which will determine whether Democrats keep control of the House.
“This has to become an election issue,” an exasperated Biden said. “The way people listen is when people say this is going to affect my vote. Too many people are dying needlessly and what’s even being proposed – it’s marginal.”
A recent YouGov poll suggests that Republicans may actually be out of step with increasingly mass shooting-weary Americans. A significant number – 69 per cent– now say they would support minor changes to gun laws to decrease the risk of high-casualty incidents. Somewhere between the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students and teachers dead, and Uvalde, the public mood shifted.
In the still-reeling red state of Texas, more than 250 prominent conservatives who identify as gun enthusiasts recently wrote an open letter to Republican senator John Cornyn in support of restrictions, including “red flag laws” – which allow for the temporary removal of guns from those deemed to pose a significant risk to themselves or others.
“We believe in the Second Amendment. Like many, we are struggling for good answers to our current problem of gun violence in America,” they wrote in a letter published as a full page ad in the Dallas Morning News.
“In the first days since Uvalde, our group has organised and our numbers are growing. Republican voters from Texas and beyond are willing to try new ways to combat gun violence. The issues are complicated and demand non-political solutions.”
“This time is different,” says 22-year-old David Hogg, who survived the Parkland school shooting and has gone on to become an influential gun control advocate. “Fox News published my op-ed… conservatives are marching with us.
“Since we first marched in 2018, we passed over 150 gun safety laws at state level,” he tells me. “Momentum is slowly building.”
Florida provides a model for how a Republican-controlled state can pass gun reform without huge political fallout.
In the wake of the Parkland attack, legislators raised the age for buying long guns, such as shotguns and rifles, from 18 to 21, introduced a three-day waiting period between paying for a gun and taking ownership, and created a red flag law, to little objection.
The law has been invoked more than 8,000 times in Florida since.
This was in no small part down to Mr Hogg and his student-led movement, March for Our Lives. The so-called school shooting generation, born after Columbine, has in recent years taken up the mantle of pushing for legislative change.
The group sees the sort of training FSL offers as a distraction from the real issues. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, after all.
Back in Ohio, they see things a little differently.
“We founded our group right after Sandy Hook, and in many ways we’re on the same side,” says programme director Joe Eaton. “But we’re not magically going to get rid of all the guns in America, so what we’re offering is a practical solution.”
FSL believes that arming educators is simply pragmatic. Detractors say it becomes morally and legally fraught when you put an expectation on teachers to be heroes.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have long opposed the idea, arguing that there is too great a potential for disaster.
They point to a study which recorded 30 incidents in the US between 2014 and 2018 resulting in injuries or death involving a firearm brought to a school by a law enforcement officer, or involving a teacher improperly discharging or losing control of a weapon. This compares with around 20 active-shooter attacks at schools over a comparable period.
During the exercise at the “shoot house”, Laura neutralised the gunman, but she also shot a colleague.
On the breast pocket of the target’s shirt was a small makeshift red badge reading “armed staff”, but under pressure all she could make out was a man with a gun. “You hit the help,” the instructor informs her. “I’m afraid that’s an automatic fail.” Laura looks crestfallen.
But by the time the teachers graduate from FSL’s two-level course, split over five days, they will have spent more hours training with a handgun than most qualifying police officers.
“We don’t want to have to use our guns," says Laura. "We just want to be as prepared as we can be if – God forbid – the day comes.”