RICHMOND — Virginians are divided on whether they would support legislation to train school teachers and administrators to be armed on school grounds, according to a poll conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It was almost split right down the middle,” said Robyn McDougle, director for the Center for Public Policy in VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, which conducted the study.
The 2018-19 Winter Public Policy Poll asked a random sample of 805 adult Virginians: “Would you favor or oppose a state law allowing localities to train teachers and administrators to be armed in schools?”
About 47 percent of Virginians are strongly or somewhat in favor of such training while 49 percent are strongly or somewhat opposed, the poll found. The survey’s margin of error was 3.45 percentage points.
Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to favor the legislation. A little more than half of white people responded that they would support training teachers and administrators to carry weapons, compared with 34 percent of minorities. Residents of western Virginia supported arming teachers more than any other region in the state, with 63 percent strongly or somewhat favoring the proposed legislation.
McDougle said the results show that “the commonwealth is still very much a split state around the importance of Second Amendment rights.” She said Virginia is “not a state where we’re one side or the other — it’s still a hotly debated topic.”
The idea of arming teachers most recently circulated after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The shooting killed 17 and injured 17 others. In 2018 alone, there were at least 24 school shootings resulting in 113 deaths, according to research conducted by Education Week.
Arming teachers and administrative staff at schools is not an idea unknown to Virginia. In August, Lee County, in southwestern Virginia, approved a plan to arm teachers in an effort to increase security. Attorney General Mark Herring denounced Lee County’s plan as illegal.
“But when Parkland happened … the coach was shot while he was trying to protect his students,” Brian Austin, superintendent of Lee County Public Schools, told NPR. “We had the incident in Indiana, where the young teacher was trying to defend his students and got shot. And some school boards started issuing buckets of rocks and bats. And we thought we could do better than that.”
In addition to arming teachers, the poll also asked Virginians if they supported people carrying firearms at large public assemblies — such as concerts, protests or festivals. Sixty-two percent said they would favor maintaining public safety, even if it meant restricting people from carrying guns.
“It’s two very separate conversations,” McDougle said. “Many citizens look at arming teachers and school personnel as protection. I think that they look at individuals being armed at large, public events as potentially doing harm to others.”