Dear Senator Ernst,
School is starting all across Iowa next week. Parents, teachers, and most importantly students are busy getting ready for classes to start. It is a time of anxiety for all of us. Parents are leaving their most important possession at the doorway of the schoolhouse. Teachers are anxious about increasing class sizes, new initiatives, and just plain keeping up with all of the things that good teachers do. Students also have a variety of fears, not the least of which is the threat of violence in their schools, which has risen significantly in recent years (https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/news/20190124/study-confirms-steady-rise-in-school-shootings#1).
You were actually in my neck of the woods on Saturday doing a town hall. First of all, thank you for coming out to talk to Iowans. It is an important way for you to hear what is on the minds of your constituents. One of your constituents at that town hall was a teacher from my school district. Ellie Holland described active shooter training that she underwent last week. She then asked you a great question, ““My question to you today, Senator, is when can I plan to get back to trainings that simply teach children to read and write?” (https://iowastartingline.com/2019/08/17/after-active-shooting-training-teacher-pleads-with-joni-ernst-on-guns/)
Your answer to her was sort of meandering, but you ultimately shared that “This is a very, very difficult time, and we have gone through many of these. I remember going through all types of drills as a child growing up.” That is where you lost me. You are three years younger than I am, so we are roughly the same age. We never had active shooter drills when we were in school. You and I had fire and tornado drills that, if we are being honest, we didn’t take that seriously. Teachers and students today practice drills in which we act out what we would do if a gunman were to invade our school. The response includes seeking out the safest locations, trying to escape if possible, and if necessary confronting the shooter by throwing classroom items at him. It’s pretty grim stuff that we did not have to deal with as students of the 70’s and 80’s.
The rest of your response seemed to be that laws already on the books need to be enforced more stringently and that we have a mental health crisis in this country. None of your answers suggested that we might have a gun problem in our country. As a person whose job it is to look at data, I have spent a lot of time looking at the chart below.
This chart, which shows the number of guns per 100 people in several countries around the world and the number of gun related deaths clearly shows the United States as an outlier as it relates to guns and deaths related to guns. I have looked at this chart over and over again trying to determine what can be observed by this data. I believe there are only two possible conclusions to be drawn by this graph. One, that easy access to so many guns is part of the problem as it relates to this violence, or two, that Americans are simply more prone to violence than the rest of the world.
Yet, shockingly, you won’t admit that guns are part of our national gun violence problem. Well, maybe it isn’t so shocking when we discover that you have taken over $3.1 Million in contributions from the National Rifle Association (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/04/opinion/thoughts-prayers-nra-funding-senators.html), an organization that exists to insure that the United States undertakes no actions to limit the threats that guns present to our country. That $3.1 million (7th most in in congress) is a pretty good assurance that you are going to do their bidding. Iowa’s teachers and school children don’t have $3.1 million to put in your pocket to “lobby” you on what we see as some common sense solutions to America’s culture of gun violence. So, on guns, you’re going to do what the NRA tells you to do.
That leaves us with your other response to all of this gun violence; mental health. This is an area where you will probably find agreement with those of us who work in public schools. Student mental health is a huge concern to teachers. Since we all agree that this is an important issue, what can be done? Well, frankly schools need more resources. It begins with class sizes. Class sizes are growing across Iowa because Iowa’s Republican legislators have underfunded Iowa’s schools for several years. Money that could go to reducing class sizes (which would help teachers provide more differentiated support for the mental health needs of their students) instead goes to corporate tax credits which go to Iowa’s biggest businesses. Adequate school funding could also go to more counselors dedicated to student mental health issues. But instead Iowa’s Republican legislators have made sure that dollars that once might have gone to Iowa’s public schools now land safely in the pockets of corporate CEO’s.
Here is what I know; there will be more gun violence leading to more mass death totals in the coming weeks and months. The NRA will insure that those congresspeople, whom they have so generously compensated, will not do anything to address the problems of guns in America. Lawmakers will blame video games and mental illness for these shootings and schools will be asked to solve the problem. We will be asked to solve the problem with no new resources and no increased support from our government because it is more important to provide tax credits to the wealthiest folks in Iowa.
As a senator who voted to confirm a billionaire Amway salesperson who had never been in a public school as Secretary of Education, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out why those of us who work in public schools are a little dubious about your commitment to public education. At the end of the day history and common sense tells us that you won’t do anything about guns or gun violence. Your memories of fire drills and tornado drills inform you that active shooter drills for our kindergartners is a small price to pay in order for you to collect your $3.1 million from the NRA. Teachers and schools are serious about doing something about making our students more safe, can you say the same? The ball is in your court.
Patrick J. Kearney