At stake in the debate are basic questions about the future of gun control in the United States. Do guns in schools assuage fears or fuel them? Do they keep students safe or put them at risk?
Here in Butler, a shale-mining town in the woodsy hills north of Pittsburgh, Strutt and the school board decided their reaction to Newtown could allow for neither hesitation nor ambiguity. No local school had ever experienced a gun-related threat, but neither had Sandy Hook Elementary. The district was running on a $7 million deficit, but some priorities demanded spending.
The school board worked out details with a solicitor, who submitted a proposal to a judge, who came into work on a Sunday to sign an emergency order. Before the first funeral began in Newtown, Butler’s head of school security began calling retired state troopers to ask two questions with major implications for the future of public education:
Did they own a personal firearm?
Would they be willing to carry it into an elementary school?
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Frank Cichra owned a gun that he was willing to carry, so he arrived early last week at a shooting range in the mountains outside Butler, hoping to qualify as an armed school policeman. He wore snow boots, a heavy jacket and earmuffs that doubled as ear protection from the cracking sound of gunfire. He slipped on gloves and cut the black fabric away from his right index finger.
“Won’t hit the target unless I can feel the trigger,” he said.
He loaded the magazine of his .40-caliber Beretta as a half-dozen other men arrived at the range. Like Cichra, they all were retired Pennsylvania state troopers who had been recruited as guards.
Butler County had cut 75 teaching and administrative positions in the last five years because of a shrinking budget, but now the district of 7,500 students couldn’t hire armed guards fast enough. It had added a new insurance policy and $230,000 to the annual security budget in order to arm and employ at least 22 former state troopers — enough to station at least one guard at each school and every after-school event. In a town where hunting guns hung on the wall of the prosecutor’s office and the rifle team won championships, the decision to arm guards had elicited a single protest. One family boycotted school for a day before returning the next.