In grizzly country, comments by President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary that schools should have guns on campus to protect against the bears aren’t a punch line.
Betsy DeVos’ remark Tuesday to a Senate committee that state and local officials should decide whether guns might have a place at schools caused a big stir in some parts of the country after mass shootings have claimed scores of innocent young lives.
But in places such as Wyoming, the issue is more about safety than politics. Grizzlies attack hunters, tourists and others while they are deep in the backcountry and sometimes even on a quick hike near home. The bears have killed six people in the Yellowstone National Park area since 2010.
Grizzlies in growing numbers roam a wide area around a tiny elementary school in Wapiti, Wyoming, 30 miles east of the park, which has a tall fence to keep the carnivores off the playground.
“I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” DeVos, a native of Michigan who has spent decades advocating for charter schools, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Actually, there isn’t a gun on the campus, because having one would violate federal law, said Ray Schulte, superintendent of the district west of Yellowstone National Park that includes the Wapiti K-5 school.
However, he is open to letting local school boards decide what’s best for their students.
“It may not be the right decision for certain school districts,” Schulte said Wednesday. “But when you’re in rural areas and you’re maybe 15 or 20 or 30 minutes away from anybody who could respond to an event, it does make sense that you might have somebody on staff who is armed and able to respond to an emergency.”
That’s hardly an unusual opinion in Wyoming, where elected officials at all levels are sympathetic to gun ownership. A bill introduced in the Legislature last week would allow guns on campus at Wyoming’s community colleges and four-year public university.
The proposal and one to allow guns at government meetings have caused little commotion.
Nobody is clamoring for guns in K-12 schools — yet. In the meantime, the tall fences put up at Wapiti Elementary and another Yellowstone-area school, Valley Elementary, seem to be working.
“It makes sense, because there are bear in the neighborhood,” Schulte said. “It’s kind of a wild place.”
Wild or not, shooting a grizzly is not an act to take lightly.
The bears remain a federally protected threatened species. Killing one except in a clear-cut case of self-defense — a scenario difficult to imagine at a school surrounded by a tall fence — is punishable by up to six months in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Also, only a well-placed shot from a powerful rifle or handgun would be likely to stop a grizzly, which in the Rocky Mountain region can reach 700 pounds and sprint up to 45 mph. Even in Wyoming, the average assistant principal or art teacher would need a good deal of practice to pull that off.
Still, some advocates are appalled that DeVos could suggest guns are OK on certain campuses.
“It’s clear that Betsy DeVos barely understands the very real issue of school violence, or the risks of guns to our youngest and most vulnerable citizens, and American students deserve better,” Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a press release.