In the days since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, gun advocates have been all over the media, screaming for more guns in public spaces. UT graduate student John Woods has a quieter voice than those shrill talking heads, but he may be using it more effectively – by talking, face to face, with Congressional leaders about reasonable gun control.
Over the last two Texas legislative sessions, Woods has become a recognizable face at the Capitol, helping to found Students for Gun-Free Schools in Texas and leading the charge against the "guns on campus" laws (see "Campus Gun Bill in Crosshairs," April 24, 2009). It's a personal mission: His girlfriend, Maxine Turner, was one of the 32 people killed by Seung-Hui Cho in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. He has seen gun advocates use what happened there to argue for looser restrictions on firearms, especially on college campuses. Now the far right and gun lobbyists are using the Sandy Hook shooting to argue for guns on every public school campus, from pre-K through post-grad.
Rather than sitting on the sidelines, Woods rescheduled a Christmas trip home to Alexandria, Va., to join a delegation visiting Congress from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. After meeting with the Virginia delegation, half the group went to the White House to meet with Presidential Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett; the rest, including Woods, visited Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Woods called the time with her "hands down the best meeting with any elected official any of us had ever had." He said, "My typical impression of members of Congress is that they come in, they shake your hand, they send in a staffer, and they leave. But she spent an hour and 15 minutes in the room for almost the entire time, taking notes by herself, not having someone else do it for her, asking us really detailed questions, not just about our stories, but also about what we would see changed, and specific policy issues." Woods has also met with the Travis County delegation, including Republicans Lamar Smith and Michael McCaul. "They both seem very moved by what happened, and I hope that they will consider some of the proposals that are going to be put forward."
Not everyone on the right has been so thoughtful or willing to listen. National Rifle Association Executive Director Wayne LaPierre has been widely castigated for his Dec. 21 speech on Sandy Hook; rather than take time for sober reflection about gun ownership, he blamed Hollywood and the mental health system for allowing shooter Adam Lanza to walk the streets. Then he railed against gun-free school zones; instead of protecting students, he told reporters, they "tell every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk." His solution, in a stunning moment of political chutzpah, was to demand that Congress do "whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school" and maintain "an active national database of the mentally ill." Woods accused LaPierre of "scapegoating" mental health and argued that the NRA's call "contrasts with their utter unwillingness to allow any system that in any way resembles a firearms owner registration system."
Even before LaPierre's tirade, Republicans in five states filed bills that would allow school staff to carry guns on their campuses and, of course, Texas had to follow suit. Representative-elect Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, announced last week that he will push the Protection of Texas Children Act, creating what he call "school marshals." If it passes as proposed, the bill would allow school districts to appoint and train one armed staff member for every 400 students and allow them to use deadly force. In a statement painting a simplistic picture of "good guys" vs. "bad guys," Villalba said the measure would give ISDs "the ability to protect our children and faculty against those who would seek to destroy human life."
Villalba may have the support of Gov. Rick Perry. At a Dec. 17 Northeast Tarrant Tea Party event, Perry warned against congressional action and argued that school districts should be able to determine their own policies on classroom guns. Texas State Teachers Association spokesman Clay Robison challenged Perry's proposal and pointedly asked, "Do we want our schools to become free-fire zones?"
As the battle over armed kindergartens heats up, gun advocates seem likely to reopen their assault on gun-free college campuses. In 2011 Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair John Whitmire, D-Houston, backed a failed attempt to put a concealed carry measure into a higher education finance bill. Now the lawmaker, who holds high ratings with both the NRA Political Victory Fund and the Texas State Rifle Association, said he expects a similar measure to return this session. In an echo of NRA rhetoric, Whitmire said it was "nuts" to suggest that having concealed firearms on campus would lead to more violence.
Woods replied, "Frankly, Senator Whitmire should be ashamed of himself." Calling the plan to turn schools into armed enclosures "tragically absurd, almost like some black comedy," he said it ignores why incidents like Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech happen: "These people are not picking schools because they're gun-free zones. They're picking schools because they're places where people feel safe." Moreover, armed guards on campus would do nothing about the more than 30,000 gun deaths – accidental, suicidal, and homicidal – in the U.S. last year. "There are a lot of better options that we can look at before arming people in elementary schools," Woods said, "like universal background checks, a ban on semiautomatic weapons with some exceptions – all the things that the NRA didn't mention."
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