Four days after a gunman killed 17 of his former classmates and teachers at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a county sheriff in another part of the state went on Fox & Friends to denounce gun control measures and tout a program he said would prevent future shootings. “Do you know there is gun control on every campus in Florida — and I would submit, across the United States — that you can’t bring a gun on campus?” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd asked the show’s hosts on Saturday. “And no one does, except for the crazed person, the active shooter. There has to be a line of defense.”
Judd’s solution to America’s school shooting epidemic? Arming teachers. Gun advocates tend to promote this idea after deadly school shootings, and Stoneman Douglas is no exception. In 2016, Judd spearheaded Polk County’s Sentinel Program, which essentially circumvents the state law banning anyone from carrying firearms on school campuses — excluding police — by training certain school faculty as deputies. The program was first implemented through a partnership with Southeastern University, a private Christian college in Lakeland. Those who participate in the program are given the title of Special Deputy.
Notably, Polk County teachers who want to become Special Deputies must first pass a mental health screening and a criminal background check, and complete 132 hours of firearm training — measures that aren’t required for those who want to purchase semi-automatic weapons like AR-15s, the kind of gun used by Nickolas Cruz, the Stoneman Douglas shooter. In other words, teachers who want to participate in the Sentinel Program have to meet more stringent requirements to obtain a weapon than a Floridian who wants to purchase an AR-15.
At a press conference on Monday, Judd once again promoted the Sentinel Program, calling it one of many solutions to school shootings. “There’s no one answer to this issue,” he said. “Certainly there needs to be more teacher training, more hardening of the targets, the schools. There needs to be stronger teeth in the Baker Act,” also known as the Florida Mental Health Act, which allows the involuntary institutionalization of people for up to 72 hours if they are deemed mentally ill and appear to be a danger to themselves or others. Judd, like Republican politicians including President Trump, used mental health as a scapegoat for gun violence, even though there doesn’t appear to be a link between mental illness and gun violence. He proposed policies that would turn schools into mini-prisons teeming with armed guards and metal detectors — measures that have long been in place in low-income communities of color — and expansions to a statewide mental health law that temporarily institutionalizes people against their will but doesn’t provide substantive care.
Judd didn’t seem interested in listening to victims of actual school shooters. During his weekend appearance on Fox & Friends, he claimed there were legislators in South Florida “who say, ‘we’d rather have your children be at risk than save their lives.’” At the Monday press conference, Judd once again mocked his critics. “Oh I hear some people go, ‘Oh, we don’t want to do that,’” he said, referring to the Sentinel Program. “Okay, Einstein, you got a better idea? Do you have a better idea of how to stop a crazed, mad person armed with a gun, charging to campus, with the plan in place to kill children? Well, no. They got an opinion. They run their mouth. Talk is cheap; I got a plan.”
The state’s anti-gun advocates weren’t impressed by Judd’s posturing. “Even [police] don’t hit their target 100 percent of the time,” Patti Brigham, a member of the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, told The Outline. “This whole idea that we can train civilians to carry concealed weapons is absurd. This comes down to this: Expanding guns. Continuing the expansions of gun rights. Putting guns on the campuses, putting guns everywhere.”
“The topic here is making schools safer — it’s not about gun control,” Carrie Hortsman, a public information officer with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, told The Outline on Wednesday. Horstman said the Sentinel Program’s requirements are a more rigorous version of the process for obtaining a concealed weapons permit. “To obtain a concealed weapons permit in Florida, you do have to attend a class and you do have to have proof of certification and completion of the class. Obviously you can’t have been convicted of a crime,” she said. “But you can’t even compare that to the hundreds of hours of training involved in the Sentinel Program.”
You have to be 21 to legally purchase a handgun in Florida, and the state has a mandatory three-day waiting period for handgun purchases — but it’s much easier to buy an AR-15 or another semi-automatic rifle. Anyone can buy an AR-15 in Florida, provided they’re 18 or older, pass a background check, and don’t have a history of felony or domestic abuse convictions. And at gun shows, anyone can buy a gun without a background check or proof of ID. The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2013 that seven of the state’s 67 counties had laws outlawing firearm sales at gun shows without a background check, which were largely ignored.
According to Judd, the Sentinel Program is “the last, best solution when the shooter shows up, when everything else has failed.” But it’s clear that he doesn’t support any measures that would stop a school shooter from obtaining a semi-automatic weapon in the first place. “We have gun control on the campuses of the state of Florida,” Judd said. “How did that work in Broward County? It didn’t, because only the good people didn’t have a gun on campus that day.” Instead, he accepted school shootings as a given, a natural phenomenon like hurricanes and earthquakes that can’t be prevented, only mitigated.
There’s no proof that the Sentinel Program or any similar call to arm teachers will prevent another school shooting from happening. The Stoneman Douglas shooter was familiar with his school’s anti-shooting measures; he reportedly never came into contact with the school’s armed resource officer. Fifty-one percent of U.S. schools had at least one uniformed officer working on campus in 2014, and gun violence on campuses has continued apace regardless. As Brigham mentioned, even trained police officers miss their target most of the time — last year, NYPD officers only accurately hit their target 44 percent of the time, a rate that was better than that of many major police departments — so it’s unlikely that teachers, even those who are trained, will do much better when trying to protect themselves and students from a shooter carrying a semi-automatic rifle.
Former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student @ShanaMRosenthal responds to Trump's call to arm teachers: "I don't believe we should be arming our teachers… it's sad that it would even have to come to that point, and we should really focus on the main issues" #DNlivepic.twitter.com/f0LepSVmWK— Democracy Now! (@democracynow) February 22, 2018
Judd isn’t alone in his ideology. On Tuesday, the Florida House refused to even debate a ban on AR-15s and other semi-automatic rifles that was proposed by Democrats and supported by survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, many of whom were in attendance. Meanwhile, the State Senate’s incoming majority leader is considering expanding Judd’s Sentinel Program to other parts of the state. On Wednesday, Trump met with victims of gun violence, during which he, too suggested that arming teachers could prevent future shootings. “If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, they could end the attack very quickly,” he said. Judd, Trump, and others are perfectly comfortable telling victims of school shootings they know what’s best for them — but they aren’t interested in listening to what they actually want.