MILTON-FREEWATER — Sarah Kelnhofer was working hard on holding steady during a recent Sunday afternoon. Per instruction, her feet were spaced slightly apart, her arms held straight out in front of her, and her two-handed grip was firm.
Her quick smile was, for the moment, set into a steely line of determination as she squeezed the trigger of a .22-caliber Ruger pistol.
Kelnhofer and her mother-in-law were at East End Rod & Gun Club, a few miles outside of Milton-Freewater, to meet with Stacy Alexander for a first shooting lesson. Neither Kelnhofer nor her mother-in-law had ever handled a firearm, and both said they thought it was time to change that.
Familiarizing people with guns is what Alexander does, she said, and on this coming Saturday she will do so for any area educator who wants to participate.
It’s called “Train a Teacher Day,” and Alexander will be one of 150 firearms instructors and coaches in about 40 states offering their experience and knowledge for free on that day.
Locally, teachers and others from around the region who want to sign up can receive classroom and gun-range instruction, using laser simulators and real firearms, Alexander said.
A National Rifle Association-certified instructor and range-safety officer, Alexander has been demystifying guns and the art of marksmanship since launching an organization of women shooters in 2013.
The interest among women in learning appropriate gun protocol is robust in the Walla Walla Valley, Alexander said.
“Based on feedback, gun safety is an ever-evolving subject ... This is not a political statement, it’s just getting the training out there. It’s not about making anyone carry a gun.”
The need for firearm education has never been more in the forefront, said Klint Macro, who co-founded the grass roots movement he calls “Train a Teacher Day.”
In the wake of an unprecedented number of school shootings, the question has been asked far and wide — should teachers be armed?
Macro, a training counselor and more for the NRA and the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, said that’s not his question to answer.
Macro founded Trigger Pressers Union firearms and self-defense training organization in Pittsburgh. For nearly four decades, he’s been teaching others what do with a gun, when to do it and when not to.
The upcoming training day is not affiliated with the NRA, although many of the instructors around the nation are certified by the gun-rights advocacy organization, Macro said.
The Parkland, Fla., shooting in February prompted Macro and another firearms trainer, Grant Gallagher, to take action. Their aim was not to step into the armed-teacher policy arena with school districts but to help people interested in personal protection have the information needed to make a wise choice about whether to carry a concealed weapon.
“It’s about empowering our teachers, including situational training,” Macro said. “We are not ‘for’ an armed teacher program, but, that being said, those who can carry should be able to do so in their school.”
Carrying a concealed weapon, usually a handgun, on one’s body or under a person’s control is not for everyone, he emphasized.
Macro said that while he thinks a gun in trained and willing hands is the best answer to a deadly situation, his wife works in education and keeps a Hello Kitty-themed baseball bat in her office. In another case, he’s heard about a school superintendent issuing buckets of rocks to classrooms.
“Even that was controversial, but that superintendent empowered those students and gave them some tools to fight back,” Macro said.
Teaching educators distraction and evasion tactics is also important, he added.
“The firearms-training community has been training teachers for a long time,” Macro pointed out, saying the time has come for a cohesive curriculum with a shared language under a single banner.
So far, classes are filling at a rapid clip.
“In Virginia and Ohio, they are doing double classes,” he said. “Some teachers just want to learn how a gun works.”
He continued: “You can look at a firearm as a stapler or a chain saw — if you use it incorrectly, people can be hurt. A lot of people are taking a basic course to have a little more knowledge. Then, if a group of teachers has more knowledge, they can be advocates for policy change.”
Train a Teacher Day is not about guns, Macro said. “It’s about what we can do to help protect our children and our teachers.”
Washington state does not prohibit educators from being armed on campus if they complete training, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“We have heard that Toppenish and Kiona-Benton allow educators to carry weapons in some circumstances,” said spokesman Nathan Olson, noting that because there are no laws requiring districts to report on armed educators, OSPI keeps no data on it.
In Oregon, local school boards make the decision on whether to allow educators to carry guns, said Peter Rudy with the Oregon Department of Education.
His office also has no information on which districts, if any, in the state allow that.
Schools are public buildings, and laws in both states allow people with a concealed handgun license to carry a weapon on school grounds unless school-district policy expressly prohibits firearms.
In the Walla Walla Valley, nearly every district, private school and college responded to an email from the Union-Bulletin requesting information on district policies regarding whether trained teachers could carry concealed weapons.
Many district officials who answered said the topic is not being discussed at the school-board level, nor have their teachers requested to carry a gun at school. Most administrators said they are unaware of staff planning to attend Saturday’s training.
Rob Clark, superintendent of the Milton-Freewater Unified School District, said a school principal did ask about carrying a gun a couple of years ago. The answer then, as now, was no, Clark said.
The conversation about teachers carrying guns has been ongoing for several years at Pendleton-based Blue Mountain Community College, but not recently discussed, said spokeswoman Casey White-Zollman.
At Liberty Christian School, the topic is being pondered by the governing board, officials there said.
Dayton and College Place school districts have armed their staff with T-ball bats after training sessions through Force Dynamics. Washington state Superintendent Chris Reykdal has said bats are better than guns in the classroom, but security decisions are left to local school systems.
As president of the Walla Walla Valley Education Association, Keith Swanson said he knows of no educators in the local union interested in bringing guns on school campuses.
“As a general practice, we do not believe that arming teachers will keep our students safer, and there is certainly some anecdotal and a lot of empirical evidence that it might actually make schools less safe,” Swanson said.
The education association recently amended a resolution on the matter, he added.
“The strongly held belief among most WEA educators is that having more guns on campus is not the answer, nor is it a responsibility we want to add to all of the other things we do,” he said. “For starters, what we need is common-sense gun reform that will limit access to the kinds of weapons we see used in so many of these mass shootings.”
Educators like to see remedies supported by science, Swanson pointed out.
“The consensus of the studies on this issue contradicts the myth that more guns make us safer. It just isn’t true,” he said. “We haven’t taken an anti-Second Amendment stance or anything of that nature … If folks around the country are really looking for ways to help schools to reach all students, then they might consider providing us with more Chromebooks, newer textbooks, lower class sizes, and enough counselors and school psychologists to be there for all of our students.”
Stacy Alexander understands guns at schools is a hot topic. That’s as it should be; the choice to be armed is a deeply personal decision that should be made only after research and training — and never taken lightly, she said.
No matter what, every educator today should know gun basics. If a firearm shows up in a student’s backpack, for example, it’s better to know how to check if it’s loaded — and empty it if it is, Alexander said.
“My goal is for people to know about guns and get the training they need,” she said. “If they are on the fence, come take a day and see what we’re about.”