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Amid Calls For Gun Control, Some Push For Weapons At School

David Thweatt, the school superintendent in Harrold, Texas, is seen in 2008. Troubled by school shootings around the country, Thweatt decided to arm school staff.
Tony Gutierrez
David Thweatt, the school superintendent in Harrold, Texas, is seen in 2008. Troubled by school shootings around the country, Thweatt decided to arm school staff.

A growing number of lawmakers are indicating they are open to considering new gun control measures in the wake of Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Conn. But while much of the national debate has focused on limiting access to guns, others are suggesting that schools should arm themselves to defend against attacks.

David Thweatt, school superintendent for the small Texas town of Harrold, northwest of Fort Worth, decided in 2006 that it was time to arm his staff. There's only one school in Harrold, a K-12 with 103 students.

Before 2006, there had already been enough carnage at U.S. schools that Thweatt had cameras installed, as well as magnetic locks that could be thrown at the first sign of trouble. But then came the Amish school shooting in October 2006, when 10 girls, ages 6 through 13, were shot.

"And that concerned us, because that was the milk delivery man. We would have let a milk delivery man into our school," Thweatt says. "We would have allowed him to come in. Then we would have had an active shooter."

Just months later, a gunman at Virginia Tech shot 49 people, killing 32.

"Basically, our plan was [the same as] Virginia Tech," Thweatt says of his school's policy at the time. "You lock the doors, secure it. And then get the kids under the desk or get them out of the way of possible stray bullets. But that's exactly what everyone at Virginia Tech did."

We need to give our kids in our schools a fighting chance. And the only way ... to do that until the police arrive on the scene, is to have a police officer assigned to that school or armed security.

For School Staff, Extensive Weapons Training

The tiny town of Harrold is 20 minutes away from the nearest law enforcement responders, which made everyone feel even more vulnerable. In Newtown, about four minutes passed between the first 911 call made from inside Sandy Hook Elementary and the panicked call reporting that the gunfire had stopped.

Thweatt won't say how many school staff are armed, so a potential shooter won't know. Staff members have received extensive weapons training, and their guns are loaded with special polymer bullets that fracture into hundreds of relatively harmless pieces if the bullet misses its target.

So now, when there's a nightmarish massacre of children at some distant school, Thweatt says parents in Harrold don't dread that their children could be next.

"On Friday, there was an outpouring of grief from my parents," Thweatt says. "And an outpouring of gratefulness that we had [this] policy in place to protect our children."

Giving Kids 'A Fighting Chance,' Advocates Say

Advocates of armed school security say there's another reason to arm the schools. St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch in Missouri says mass shooters target schools because they are unprotected. Cafeterias, waiting rooms, playgrounds, church sanctuaries, movie theaters and classrooms — Fitch says they're treasure to cowards who want to murder as many as possible, as quickly as possible, without facing armed resistance.

"What I'm saying is, we need to give our kids in our schools a fighting chance. And the only way I think to do that until the police arrive on the scene is to have either a police officer assigned to that school, or armed security," Fitch says. "If you can't afford that, you should consider allowing school personnel with proper training to be able to have a firearm at the school."

But Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says the discussion about arming schools is a distraction.

"Most Americans reject the idea that the answer to gun violence is to shoot our way out of every situation," Lowy says. "What we need to do is make it harder for dangerous people to get guns."

In this country, Lowy says, 40 percent of gun sales have no background check done whatsoever.

"I really believe the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary has the potential to be a seminal galvanizing moment in America's history of dealing with gun violence; 100,000 Americans are shot every year — 30,000 of them fatally," Lowy says. "What can we do to save the most lives?"

In answer to the advocates of armed security in schools, Lowy points to the Brady Center's namesake, James Brady. Brady was standing in one of the most protected places on the planet when he was shot in the head and nearly killed: next to President Ronald Reagan, both of them surrounded by the U.S. Secret Service — the best security money can't buy.

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Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.
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