Op-Ed: The issue of gun violence often invaded my 5th-grade classroom. Here's how I handled it

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Supporters of gun control reform protest against the National Rifle Association at the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia on Wednesday. There has been a renewed call for gun control reform legislation in the United States following the mass shooting that killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas; and the mass shooting the following day in Dayon, Ohio, that resulted in ten deaths.
Supporters of control reform protest Aug. 1, 2019, against the National Rifle Assn. at NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Va. (Michael Reynolds/EPA/Shutterstock)

Gun violence isn’t something I expected to face as an elementary school teacher in Central California. But far too often, it showed up in my fifth-grade classroom.

A shooting would occur over the weekend, and my students would have to attend funerals. Two students lost their moms to gun violence. Over the years, various former students were imprisoned for their roles in shootings. One wonderfully optimistic, eternally smiling ex-student came back from Iraq and attempted to rob a local bank with an AK-47. He was shot dead by police.

I knew James E. Holmes as a fifth-grader, not as the shooter at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. And I know his murderous stats by heart — 12 killed, 70 injured, punished with life in prison with no chance of parole.

As a fifth-grader, I did what kids do when I had to babysit my siblings. I went in my parents’ bedroom and combed through every drawer. I found two tiny, double-barreled .22-caliber Derringer pistols. At school, I put out feelers for a bullet, got one and later fired the weapon.

So, each year after sharing that story with my students I had them put their heads down on their desks and asked:

“How many of you know of guns in your home?”

One student asked, “Shotguns too?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Shotguns.” And I thought, damn they know too much.

Second question. “How many of you got your hands on the guns somehow?”

The raised hands varied from year to year, but out of 32 kids in a class, it ranged from five to 11.

“Third and last question. How many of you have fired them when no one was around?”

Same earnest student, hand waving in the air. Another question from him, “What if we shot the gun with other kids?”

I sucked in my breath, stifled a desire to cry and said, “Yeah, yeah, that counts.”

Every year, one to five kids fired guns.

What to do? Guns need to be better regulated. The 2nd Amendment doesn’t need to be overturned. States and municipalities are already given great leeway in deciding gun matters. I just think the right to bear arms needs to be treated the same way nuclear weapons are.

Nuclear weapons are scary — they are regulated. Not everyone should have them. Why is that? Because the more countries that possess them the greater the likelihood they will be used. Just like gun usage among my students.

President Biden’s recent proposals include limiting ghost guns, strengthening “red flag” laws and directing funding to violence prevention. The gun laws in New Zealand, a place I visit regularly, set a good example.

To obtain a rifle license, a person has to apply with the local police. The goal is to weed out those who shouldn’t own guns (those who are mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts, felons, gang members). A three-hour safety course must be completed that ends with a written exam.

Once a passing grade is received, the applicant is interviewed at home, and significant others and family members are questioned separately. Is the applicant inclined toward anger or outbursts or do they have socialization issues? Is there a lockable place for the weapon? Separate lockable storage for ammunition?

Handgun ownership requires the applicant to be a member of a registered shooting club. Then there is a six-month probationary term. Violation of any gun laws, including those that apply to storage, transportation or purchasing can easily end up with loss of the right to possess a weapon and possible arrest.

New Zealand is serious about gun laws. The result is minimal gun abuse. In 2019, nine gun-related homicides were reported in a country with a population of 4.7 million.

Of course, the difficulty in reforming gun laws in the U.S. is exacerbated by the National Rifle Assn. It is regarded as a de facto trade organization masquerading as a sports group. A hefty portion of its financing comes from gun companies whose only goal is profit, predicated on the sales of more guns. The 150-year-old NRA has long stood in the way of restrictions of gun ownership.

But with dozens of mass shootings over the last five years — and 45 in the last month alone — the mind-set in the U.S. seems to be changing, at least in fits and starts. While a solid majority of Americans favor stricter gun laws, a Gallup poll carried out late last year showed support for such laws had significantly declined from 2018.

However, an interaction in my classroom still gives me a glimmer of hope. One time one of my fifth-graders glanced around nervously and hung back in class. He waited until all the other kids had left.

“You said we are supposed to tell you. So here,” he said.

He opened his hand, and out rolled an unfired 9-millimeter bullet.

“What’s the story?” I asked.

“My brother’s. But you can’t tell. They’ll hurt me.”

I made a personal decision, an illegal one. I didn’t report the bullet handover. I couldn’t. “They” was the local gang chapter. It was a start. One kid knew kids shouldn’t have bullets, and he acted.

Adults need to do the same.

Paul Karrer is a writer in Monterey. He taught fifth grade in Castroville for 27 years.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.