Some of the loudest voices opposing President Donald Trump’s proposal to arm “highly trained” teachers to protect students belong to the group that knows best what it’s like to confront someone with a gun: military combat veterans.
In the week since 17 people were killed by a shooter at a Florida high school, combat veterans already had become increasingly vocal in opposition to the availability of assault weapons to civilians, writing op-eds, viral blog posts, and Twitter threads.
But the proposal to train and arm teachers, which was first floated by conservative commentators on Fox News and pushed on Thursday by the president and officials of the National Rifle Association, put many of them over the edge.
“There is a gulf between being taught how to handle a weapon, and learning to fight. Those are two distinct things,” Brandon Friedman, a former Army captain who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and later served in the Obama administration, told BuzzFeed News. “And learning how to fight, how to stand your ground when an aggressor is trying to kill you, that’s not something that comes naturally to people.”
Learning how to fight takes training — military training.
“So in order to teach, now you have to be a soldier? That’s insane,” he said.
Many veterans are chafing at hearing such proposals from people like NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre who have never served in combat, he said.
“They have this Hollywood view of what a gunfight is like,” Friedman said. “Veterans know first hand (that) until you’ve been shot at, and seen how people react in these situations, you can’t wrap your mind around it.”
Underscoring that point was the news that a trained and armed Broward County sheriff's deputy stood by outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School made no effort to confront the gunman as most of the killing unfolded.
While arming teachers may sound like a good idea, “it increases the chance of kids dying in crossfire, adds to confusion with SWAT teams trying to identify an armed assailant, and greatly increases odds of an accidental shooting” tweeted VoteVets, a progressive veterans group.
When Anastasia Bernoulli, a US Army veteran, shared a hastily-written blog post – provocatively titled “Fuck you, I like guns” – from the perspective of someone who was trained to use assault rifles, her posts had never been read by more than 10 people, she told BuzzFeed News.
It went viral, shared thousands of times and receiving more than 4,000 comments, some from “veterans as far back as Vietnam writing in support of my views,” she said.
Bernoulli says that as the most trained population when it comes to weapons, military veterans have a responsibility to speak out when something like arming teachers is proposed.
“The bottom line is that it's a tactical disaster,” she told BuzzFeed News, pointing out that it has nothing to do with a teacher's ability — her mother is a teacher.
“Learning to engage an enemy combatant is not the same as being able to hit a paper target at the end of a range," she said. "Vets know these weapons. We don't mess up on their specs. We can call BS when the gun lobby says that they're no more dangerous than someone's deer rifle. We are the people who need to be doing that.”
Similarly, US Army veteran Ashley Nicolas used her double experience in the military and as a high school teacher to speak out against these proposals in a New York Times op-ed on Thursday. Such a proposal, she said, would turn classrooms into “a combat zone, with desks.”
“Members of the military, much like members of law enforcement, have a unique perspective in that they have experience with these weapons within the context of the purpose for which they are designed to kill,” she told BuzzFeed News.
“From the very first time you handle a weapon in the military, you are taught to handle it with a deep respect and appreciation for what it is capable of doing,” she said. “That is a sobering reality and so I think that, for many of us, the thought of these weapons being accessible to the general public is very troubling.”
A growing number of veterans have been speaking out on social media using the hashtag #VetsForGunReform, many of them sharing photos from their deployments.
“I am a combat infantry man. Spent 14 years as a grunt. The most scared I have been is on a range with non infantry soldiers doing live fire exercises clearing rooms,” tweeted another. “They suck at being grunts. It’s not their job. Teachers would not be good grunts either.”
“I’m pro 2A. Hell, I’m pro gun ownership, but I’ve also seen first-hand what a rifle round does to a body while serving as a medic in Afghanistan,” wrote Dennis Magnasco, an Army veteran who now works as the veterans liaison for Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. “It makes me sick to know American students have seen it in their schools. Don’t tell me this is the best we can do.”
“I used to be one of those guys who thought we should be able to own any weapon made. Today I think differently,” wrote Joe Plenzler, a retired 20-year Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Military grade weapons only belong on the battlefield, on military ranges, or secured in military armories.”
Some military veterans posted screenshots of them canceling their NRA memberships.
“I’m a combat Marine and my feelings have changed on this issue. It makes zero sense for civilians to have the same war rifles we used on the battlefield,” tweeted Tyson Manker, a former infantry Marine. “I left @NRA this year. Time for change. Time for sanity.”
When it comes to the contentious gun debate, veterans groups hope they can serve as valuable connectors.
“These vets span the political spectrum — and the vets' community can serve as a bridge for America to a path forward,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “They understand guns (and loss) as well as anyone.”
In the most recent IAVA survey of post-9/11 veterans, 58% said they owned personal firearms. More than two-thirds support or strongly support open carry laws, and 84% support or strongly support universal background checks. More than half of the veterans surveyed had voted for Trump.
The survey did not ask how the veterans felt about banning assault weapons, but leaders of veterans groups say they are hearing more and more support for the idea.
“When it comes to guns, gun violence and the effects weapons of war have on human tissue, we are uniquely qualified to offer expert testimony,” three Marine Corps veterans wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post on Thursday. “Two of us are former NRA members. We resigned in disgust. We have seen the effect guns have on human flesh. We’ve lost friends and brothers and sisters in uniform, seen the torn bodies, the wounds, and carry the scars ourselves.”