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The Common Core Guide that Reignited Conservative Fury Over How Students Learn About Gun Rights

Who decides how kids are taught the Second Amendment?

In the wake of the 2013 Newtown shootings, two English teachers — one from Sacramento, California, the other from Salt Lake City, Utah — co-published a five-page curriculum on how to teach gun issues to children. Called “The Battle Over Gun Control,” the document supplies statistics about gun violence in the United States, and asks students to argue for and against stricter gun laws in a variety of exercises.

The two-year-old curriculum didn’t draw national attention until last month, after it was reposted following the shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. Conservative pundits were quick to bash the handout over its treatment of gun ownership in the U.S. “Common Core-aligned writing lesson on gun debate fuels claims of political agenda,” declared a headline on the Fox News website. “Pro-gunners outraged over Common Core gun policy lesson,” wrote Jennifer Cruz for Guns.com. MegynKelly.org’s take was “Common Core’s brainwashing study plan on gun violence has patriots seeing red.”

The media firestorm over the curriculum — which is available online for free, making it difficult to discern how many teachers have incorporated it into their lesson plans — reflects a wider debate over how Second Amendment issues should be taught in schools, a dispute that has spread beyond classrooms to include at least one state legislature.

Conservatives have taken issue with the 2013 educational guide at least in part because it seeks to fulfill Common Core standards, the federal education parameters set by the Obama administration in 2010, which have been heavily criticized by both the left and the right. The guidelines tend to focus on the development of students’ reasoning abilities, rather than mastery of specific math or language arts concepts.

But the larger sticking point is the perceived anti-gun bias of a guide that was developed in conjunction with two publicly supported organizations: the National Writing Project, an education nonprofit, and KQED Education, a northern California NPR affiliate.

For instance, the lesson plan suggests that students debate concealed-carry issues in groups. Those tasked with defending concealed-carry laws make an argument based largely on the pro-gun talking points that “criminals will be less likely to attack if they think someone is armed. And carrying a firearm allows people to directly protect themselves without having to rely on the help of others.” The rebutting students, by contrast, are given hard data: “Numerous studies show that more guns lead to more crimes as well as more unintended gun injuries.”

The Guns.com article covering criticism of the curriculum cites a passage that attributes Congress’s failure to pass “moderate” gun control after Newtown “to the powerful political influence of gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association.” Guns.com argues that “referring to gun-control measures as ‘moderate’ rather than using a more neutral term, such as simply ‘proposed legislation’” is an indication of the authors’ slant. An article at the conservative Biz Pac Review goes even further, saying it is “pretty apparent” that students are meant to conclude that reducing gun ownership and tightening gun laws will make the world “a better place.”

Alice Linahan, founder of Voices Empower, an organization that opposes Common Core, told Fox News that the curriculum represents “a shift from teaching fact to teaching attitudes, belief and behavior.”

“Does a child get a job because they can read well, write well and have competent math skills, or do they get a job for supporting gay marriage and gun control?” she asked.

The educator guide is part of KQED and NWP’s joint “Newsroom to Classroom” initiative. KQED Education, which has previously published lesson plans on polarizing issues such as prison overcrowding and, yes, gay marriage, did not respond to a request for comment. NWP Executive Director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the curriculum, saying only in a written statement that “both NWP and KQED believe it is important for students to have an opportunity to have fact-based conversations about issues that matter to them, their families, and their communities.”

It’s not surprising that education initiatives on gun issues strike a nerve, given that they’re often viewed as a battle for the hearts and minds of younger generations. In April 2013, the father of an eighth-grade student in Bristol, Connecticut, complained that his son’s teacher had given students an “indoctrinating” worksheet on the Second Amendment. The materials incorrectly asserted that “the courts have consistently determined that the Second Amendment does not ensure each individual the right to bear arms,” and that it “only provides the right of a state to keep an armed National Guard.” (The Supreme Court’s 2008 D.C. vs. Heller decision held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to gun ownership.) The district subsequently pulled the worksheet from the school’s lesson plans.

Later that same year, similar concerns over interpretations of the Second Amendment led a Texas school district to pull an AP U.S. history textbook. (The book is widely used; it is listed as one of textbook company Amsco’s best sellers.) A parent had complained that its definition of the Second Amendment was unfairly summarized as “the right to keep and bear arms in a state militia.” (This edition of the book was written prior to the Heller decision.)

Last year, South Carolina State Representative Alan Clemmons sought to legislate how students learn about gun issues. He submitted a bill mandating that schools provide at least three consecutive weeks each year of “instruction in the Second Amendment,” taught from a curriculum “developed or recommended” by the National Rifle Association. It would also designate December 15, the day after the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, to be “Second Amendment Awareness Day.” The bill has lagged in committee, and the last action taken on it was in January.

While local school boards, state lawmakers, and even the Supreme Court can inform how Second Amendment curriculum gets drafted, how those lesson plans get taught is ultimately up to the teachers themselves. “I try to stay as objective as possible, because I don’t want any of those emails or phone calls” from parents, says Pat Morris, an eighth-grade history teacher in San Carlos, California. Though he doesn’t use the KQED teacher guide, his lesson plan mirrors it slightly: After going over the text of the Second Amendment, Morris has his students argue both sides of the issue.

He says his job is “just to get them to think,” not to shape their politics. “I’m sure you could find some teacher, probably, who’s really opinionated on gun control and trying to brainwash — for lack of a better word — their kids to their side,” says Morris. “But in the honest majority of classrooms that’s not happening.”

[Photo: Martin Haas, Shutterstock]