Teachers With Guns

Angela Johnson is a teacher at Portsmouth Elementary School in Portsmouth, Ohio. (Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini)
Angela Johnson is a teacher at Portsmouth Elementary School in Portsmouth, Ohio. (Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini)

December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut jarred parents and teachers around Ohio.

Thinking more had to be done to protect their children, a number of teachers and school staff members around Ohio have been signing up for a variety of gun training courses offered at a discount or for free.

Italian photographer Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini documented a concealed weapons course for school personnel in South Point school district in southern Ohio, where it borders Kentucky and West Virginia. He followed them throughout the two-day course in the classroom and outside practicing their marksmanship.

About 30 or 40 school personnel participated in the class. Everyone Piccolomini photographed shared their names and where they taught.

“They were very open to be photographed,” he said. “I think because they believed in what they were doing and that it was their right to study and earn the right to carry a gun.”

Mark Christian, an assistant superintendent for the South Point district, has had his concealed carry license for eight years. He comes to the shooting portions of the local courses for teachers to socialize and to practice. Though he’s never used firearms in self-defense, he always has one with him when he’s not working.

“I tell people if I don’t have on a tie, I have on a gun,” Christian said.

Piccolomini’s images of the teachers participating in the course were boring and static, he said, but he saw something different when they went into the woods to practice. With the woods in the background, he said, it was perfect for portraits with guns.

“You don’t always get natural settings,” he said.

The photographer said the course was well-organized and emphasized safety.

This was the fifth free class that Alan Wheeler, a firearms instructor, had offered to teachers in the South Point district. He’s trained 250 teachers so far. He had a few sporadically take his firearms classes before the Sandy Hook shooting, but interest went way up afterward.

Ohio law stipulates school boards may allow teachers and administrators to carry a concealed weapon into schools. It was largely ignored until Sandy Hook. In December, state Attorney General Mike DeWine recommended that school boards seriously consider having a trained person with access to a gun on school grounds. He also pointed out that the law already allows for teachers and school personnel be permitted to be armed on campus.

Those who pass the concealed weapons course that Wheeler teaches receive basic training in how a gun works and marksmanship. When they pass this course, they can then take a more in-depth training course.

Christian and Wheeler think training teachers in firearms is a necessary step.

“If you’d asked me 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought so, but after Columbine and Virginia Tech, it made me think we’ve got to do it,” Wheeler said. “They’re the first line of defense for the kids.”

His mother is a first-grade teacher, and he has many other family members who are teachers. His mother isn’t authorized to carry a gun to school, nor does she want to. Wheeler still thinks it’s important to have at least basic gun training.

“What if they find one on the playground?” he said. “They need to know how to safely handle it.”

Having grown up in Italy, Piccolomini says the gun culture in the U.S. is entirely different from Europe.

“It’s really unheard of for people to have a handgun in their house,” he said.

He’s a conflict photographer who just returned from Afghanistan. He said he’s fascinated by guns, but “no way” he’d carry a gun while working.

“It’s not what I’m there for,” he said, and it would be even more dangerous for him to have a gun because he could be viewed as a threat. He’s not trained and he said it wouldn’t make a difference if he were cornered by a fighter.

Tom Hall is a tax collector, and Mindy Church is a stay-at-home mom and teacher’s assistant in Ohio. (Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini)
Tom Hall is a tax collector, and Mindy Church is a stay-at-home mom and teacher’s assistant in Ohio. (Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini)

– Lauren Russell, CNN

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