Teachers Training to Kill review – the fight to arm elementary schools

In the first of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books, Red Dragon, the protagonist, Will, fears that Lecter has sent another killer to hunt him and his family down. So Will takes his wife to a shooting range to learn how to use a gun. She does well, and her trainer looks over at Will expecting to see a look of pride on his face. Instead, “he looked like a man who had witnessed an irrevocable loss”.

The documentary Teachers Training to Kill (Channel 4) opened with scenes of lockdown drills in elementary schools in Hamilton County, Ohio, and a staged shooting in another’s hallways, to practise procedures and test response times. Their superintendent, Larry Knapp, looked like Will.

So, too, later on, did 17-year-old Cooper Caffrey and his father, Marty. Cooper – and three others, who also survived – were shot three years ago at Madison high school by a classmate and friend. Despite Cooper’s experience – and despite the fact that he relives the shooting in nightmares whenever he sleeps (and suffers various other after-effects) – the Caffreys and Knapp are fighting to keep Hamilton schools unarmed.

Against them is the county sheriff, Richard K Jones. A Trump devotee elected with 80% of the vote, he wields enormous power and influence, and believes it is time to get teachers to carry weapons in school. He can’t demand it, but when you are at the confluence of so many avenues of power – a county sheriff is part policeman, part lawyer, part politician, and accountable only to his constituents and the constitution – you often don’t have to.

The documentary follows the eight weeks of the school holidays during which the matter has to be hammered out. Madison school has already made preliminary concessions to the idea, but Hamilton is refusing outright. What follows is an admirably restrained and fair-minded portrait of a town, county and nation under psychological siege in an ideological war. What – what, what – do you do when faced with a reality in which your children are not safe from other children? In which the worst does happen?

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the film was to find two women at a weapons training camp run by a National Rifle Association (NRA)-funded charity, Faster, and let them be the sympathetic faces of those who do want teachers armed. They both teach young special needs children, and often buy their struggling students clothes and food, too. They see gun training as an extension of the extra care they are already willing to give. The daughter of one has had a shooting at her school. They are tearful, not gung ho, and their feeling of helplessness is almost palpable. “I want to take care of who I’m responsible for,” says one. “They’re babies!” says the other, desperately. “That’s why we’re here.”

The camp involves all the kinds of tuition you’d expect – shooting practice, role play, full-scale enactments of various situations. Much of it looks enough like boys rushing round with toys to make you wonder about the purity of everyone’s motives. But then a whole other field of WTF opens up when the Vietnam veteran in charge of “mindset training” plays a video to show his adult students what they “could be” dealing with. It purports to be of the “Cubs of Allah”, and shows children training to be, you presume, jihadists. “How many people are coming into this country, and you don’t know how they’ve been trained?” he asks. His Faster colleagues hit the remaining NRA markers quicker than you can say “libtard”. Those who argue against arming teachers want more dead kids! A “No guns allowed” sign just tells a shooter you have made it safe for them to come in! How can you force a kid to go into a building every day you know isn’t secure! There was also something about how kids get cancer and that’s not fair either, but I didn’t quite follow the internal logic there.

Against that, there is the preternaturally mature, compassionate and rational Cooper and his father. Cooper spoke up for the perpetrator of the shootings at his trial, and he speaks against arming teachers in front of his school’s panel. Teachers can have bad days too, he says. They, too, can be mentally unhinged. Accidents happen even to the best-trained gun owners. He will feel threatened. He will be in danger from the people supposed to be protecting him.

His school prefers to follow the sheriff’s lead – in the final scenes, even the pretence of civility drops, and he turns into an unsettling figure, who all but threatens the film-makers as he revels in his power – and confirms it will continue down the path of arming its teachers. Hamilton still stands firm. But we have all witnessed a country’s growing, irrevocable loss.

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