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Wisdom from Dr. Seuss on guns and school

Each year since 1998, the National Education Association has sponsored the Read Across America program to promote and celebrate the gift of literacy. In honor of the birthday of beloved children’s author, Dr. Seuss, and throughout the month of March, parents, teachers, and all who love to share the gift of reading with a child are encouraged to “Grab your Hat and Read with the Cat.”

In New Hampshire we have a strong tradition of celebrating Read Across America in our public schools and libraries; and up until two years ago we also had the long standing tradition of New Hampshire legislators reading to selected 4th graders at the State House. That tradition changed in 2011 when the event was canceled by the New Hampshire chapter of the NEA due to the gun legislation passed by the newly elected New Hampshire Republican House majority. This new gun legislation overturned the 2009 ban on guns within the State House and as a result it was no longer a gun-free zone. At the time, New Hampshire Senate President Peter Bragdon accused the NEA of using our state’s fourth-graders as “political pawns” in the larger debate on gun legislation in New Hampshire.

William O’Brien, who was then Speaker of the House, agreed with Bragdon, and stated that this reversal of the 2009 ban on guns in the State House was absolutely justified because “government buildings are often places that are at greater risk for violence by disturbed individuals.” Should one choose to follow this line of reasoning, then it also follows that under the circumstances, the NEA-NH decision of 2011 to cancel the Read Across America program at the State House was, and still is, entirely appropriate and valid.

Luckily, our courtrooms, schools, universities, and other public buildings continue to be gun-free zones, as well they should be. But had O’Brien and his stalwarts retained their power in the House last November, these gun-free zones may also have gone by the wayside because of his belief that the tragedies which occurred at both Columbine and Virginia Tech were exacerbated by “the lack of personal protection.”

In the months following last December’s Newtown, Conn. shootings, I have read nothing from either Bragdon or O’Brien in regard to their opinions on the gun legislation being proposed by Rep. Daniel Itse (R-Fremont). Might it be that this horrific incident has made both rethink their positions? Or is it that we now have a new voice in the legislature who has picked up the torch to introduce guns in our schools as a means of “personal protection” for staff and students?

Itse’s bill proposes legislation which would provide local decision making and control as to whether or not school district employees with a pistol permit could carry their weapons in our public schools. Should this bill pass, and if the local towns and cities vote ‘Yes,’ then their individual school boards would be required to come up with a policy to comply.

Itse believes that his bill is “not an off-the-wall proposal, but that ultimately in this political climate it is going to fail anyway.” If this is indeed the case, one wonders why he would propose it in the first place- especially given the multiple issues our state is already dealing with. But, according to Itse, the reason for this proposal is because there is much public support for his bill. And, as a result, he believes that even if it’s doomed for failure, this bill is a way to start the discussion of how best to keep our schools safe when our current economy does not lend itself to having an SRO in every school throughout the state.

As for a sound and reasonable discussion about how best to keep our students and staff safe, I can think of several areas to explore other than arming any and all personnel in a school who hold a valid gun license and who are comfortable with the notion of being armed and ready to use their weapons in case a scenario similar to Newtown should occur. If Itse was a civics teacher teaching a lesson entitled, “How a Bill Becomes a Law”; had assigned his students a theoretical exercise in which they would need to choose and defend a position in this debate; and then had them take it through the process of turning a bill into law, I would applaud him. But as an elected official in a state with some of the weakest gun legislation in the country, my resounding response to his proposed legislation is, “Are you kidding me?”

It appears that Itse has no understanding of the consequences of his actions should this ludicrous bill pass. Therefore, my question to Mr. Itse is this: Is a pistol permit and the level of comfort a staff member has with carrying a gun in our school buildings and on our school grounds the only criteria required if this bill is passed? Because if it is, I honestly don’t know of one teacher or SRO with whom I have worked or spoken to, and who I know to be responsible gun owners, who would even consider this as an option, let alone a solution, for keeping our students safe from harm. And maybe even more to the point, each of us can only think of situations where it could go completely and so horribly wrong.

Currently here in New Hampshire anyone who has a clear criminal record, no documented history of mental illness, and $10 can get a permit to carry a concealed weapon. But, as we all know, and have heard all too often, the criterion used to obtain a permit doesn’t always screen out those who are “disturbed” until after these atrocities occur. Nowhere in the RSA does it require training or a test for marksmanship; nor does it require testing to ensure the person who holds a permit to carry a concealed weapon can handle him or herself in a volatile and life-threatening situation. If one adds to the mix that these weapons would need to be loaded and accessible at a moment’s notice should the worse case scenario occur in one of our New Hampshire schools, there is a much greater risk and a very real chance that potentially dangerous and quite possibly deadly mishaps would occur instead.

And I wonder, how does this proposed legislation impact the law enforcement officials whose job it is to respond to these situations as they inevitably arise? Will they be able to distinguish between those who are perpetrating the violence and those who are protecting themselves from a deranged individual? And isn’t it just as likely as not, that innocent people might be caught in the crossfire and harmed unintentionally by those who are armed but untrained, even though their sole intention was to protect themselves and others from harm?

Each and every time a tragedy occurs as a result of a deranged individual gaining access to a gun, people are outraged and we mourn the loss of innocent lives. Columbine touched me personally as my daughter lived in Littleton, Colo., at the time of this school shooting while attending the police academy. We flew out for her graduation shortly after this incident occurred and it was one filled with both pride and sadness. Pride because our daughter graduated at the top of her class; and sadness because as we passed Columbine High School on the way to the graduation ceremony and then listened to some of the first responders speak, the full impact of this tragedy truly hit home. My husband and I knew from this moment on, not a day would go by when we would not worry about our child because of her chosen profession.

When the theater massacre occurred in Aurora, once again we felt it more than many in the Monadnock region because of the proximity to both our daughter’s home and the metropolitan Denver parole and probation office she manages. Both times we were lucky; but as we all know, others were not. And yet, no matter how distraught I was about both incidents, at no time did I feel that I should begin arming myself. Why, you might ask? First and foremost, because unlike my daughter I’m not trained to respond appropriately and professionally with a firearm. Secondly, I am a teacher ­— and as a result, I know there are far too many scenarios that occur in our schools on any given day where an untrained school employee carrying a firearm would cause more harm than good.

I, like many parents, educators and the community at large, have worked long and hard to make our schools drug, smoke, and gun-free zones. Therefore why would any of us knowingly place our kids in an environment which is not? Students in our schools are there to be educated — not to be trained in paranoia by thoughtless legislation.

And those students who visit the State House? They are there to learn firsthand how the legislative process works: by introducing and verbally defending their position as to why the Chinook should become our state dog, the red spotted newt our state amphibian, or apple cider our state beverage; to listen to our legislators civilly debate the issues which impact our state; or to meet and be read to by those very same legislators who want to help promote reading as a life long pursuit. They are not there to be taught that their safety can only be provided by a loaded gun; or to be knowingly placed in a potentially dangerous situation inherent in a public building which is not a gun-free zone; and therefore I applaud the NEA-NH position.

So Mr. Itse, I will once again suggest that The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss be required reading for you and any other legislators who propose ill conceived legislation allowing guns in our public schools. Hopefully it will help you to reflect on your current position; get back to the business of growing our economy, reducing unemployment and the deficit; find ways to fund public school education so all students in our state receive an excellent and equitable education; start resolving the issues for which you were elected; and leave the issue of public safety in our schools to those law enforcement officials in our community who are trained to handle these terrible and heart breaking tragedies. To do anything less is to make a mockery of what happened most recently in Newtown, Conn., and is a much more worthwhile pursuit than legislating an arms race with those who commit acts of senseless violence.

“With my Triple-Sling Jigger

I sure felt much bigger.

I marched to the Wall with great vim and great vigor,

Right up to VanItch with my hand on the trigger.”

“I’ll have no more nonsense,” I said with a frown,

“from Zooks who eat bread with the butter side down!”

“I’m unhappy to say

He came back the next day

In a spiffy new suit with a big new machine,

And he snarled as he said, looking frightfully mean,

‘You may fling those hard rocks with your Triple-Sling Jigger.

But I, also, now have my hand on the trigger!

My wonderful weapon, the Jigger-Rock Snatchem,

Will fling ‘em right back just as quick as we catch ‘em.

We’ll have no more nonsense.

We’ll take no more gupp

From you Yooks who eat bread with the butter side up!’”

An excerpt from
“The Butter Battle Book” by Dr. Seuss

Deb McGrath lives in Francestown.

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