‘Bridges begin with common ground’: Why two Valley filmmakers went to Ohio to film ‘G is for Gun’

  • Signs on school door, from the documentary “G is for Gun.” Kate Way

  • An armed officer outside Sidney High School in Ohio, from the documentary “G is for Gun.” Kate Way

  • Firearms training, from the documentary “G is for Gun.” Kate Way

  • Firearms training, from the documentary, “G is for Gun.” Kate Way

  • Firearms training, from the documentary, “G is for Gun.” Photo by Kate Way

  • Kate Way and Julie Akeret on location on Ohio. Photo courtesy Kate Way

  • First-grade teacher Amy Baldauf and student in Sidney Ohio, from the documentary “G is for Gun.” Photo by Kate Way

  • First-grade teacher Amy Baldauf and student in Sidney Ohio, from the documentary “G is for Gun.” Kate Way

Staff Writer
Published: 5/30/2018 3:37:23 PM

On May 18, 10 people were killed at Santa Fe High School in southeast Texas. A male student was brought into custody, and images of high school students crying and hugging once again filled the news cycle.

Would arming teachers have changed the outcome or prevented the shooting spree altogether? A good portion of our country backs that idea, along with the National Rifle Association and President Donald Trump. Local filmmakers Julie Akeret and Kate Way traveled to Sidney, Ohio to investigate both sides of this issue for their new 30-minute documentary, “G is for Gun: The Arming of Teachers in America,” which will air on WGBY-57 tonight at 10 p.m., and will be available for educational distribution through Bullfrog Films starting in June. We recently caught up with Akeret about the film, her hopes for the future of gun control (and why “gun safety” is a better term), and her heroes in the current youth movement. 

Q: Why did you choose to film in Ohio?

A: About three years ago, Kate Way, co-director and co-producer of “G is for Gun,” came up with the idea to make a film about arming teachers. After Sandy Hook, schools were looking for ways to increase safety, and she read an article about how certain states were starting to arm teachers as an option. “I was completely shocked,” she told me later. With a background of over twenty years in education, Kate never saw this coming.

We chose Ohio because Ohio chose us. It was one of the few states that opened its doors to two women from a blue state who wanted to make a film about the controversial topic of arming teachers, which was happening primarily in red states. As the bellwether state, Ohio seemed like a good place to get the pulse of the nation on this issue. In this most American of places, we were curious about why this particular response was chosen.

And, as we predicted, it was mix of opinions. The school system we focused on was in Sidney, a city of around 20,000 west of Columbus. And while arming teachers had been voted in by the local school board in 2013, many others in the school system, as well as the local police and some city officials, were not on board.

Q: How does Massachusetts compare to Ohio in terms of gun culture?

A: Massachusetts is an interesting state when it comes to its relationship with firearms. The “shot heard around the world,” generally seen as the beginning of the American Revolution, was in Lexington, Massachusetts. And Springfield is often referred to as the capital of the “Gun Valley” that runs from Smith and Wesson (now called American Outdoor Brands Corp.) to Colt in Connecticut. Yet despite this history, only a month ago a U.S. judge upheld a Massachusetts assault weapons ban, citing that large capacity magazines are not protected by the Second Amendment. And while President Trump has suggested awarding bonuses to teachers who volunteer to be armed responders, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts recently voted to approve a resolution opposing arming teachers.

I personally do not know anyone in Massachusetts who owns a gun. Not that this means a lot because I know only five people in three other states that do.

In Ohio, on the other hand, one mother we interviewed about arming teachers told us, “We grew up with guns. We use them for hunting, and farmers have always had rifles to protect livestock.” In some districts, schools allow students to take time off from school in November to go deer hunting, and riflery teams are still popular in some Ohio high schools. She went on to explain that in a state that has a strong gun culture, the decision to include guns in schools “is no big deal.”

Another family we met had built a special safety room in their home with a two-inch steel door in case of a home invasion. This family also has a secret password that changes weekly to help ward off potential kidnapping. When the topic of assault rifles came up, the father said, “It’s really easy for folks who have ill intentions to get a hold of those things. In order to defend ourselves from those threats, we definitely should be allowed to have them in our homes.”

And gun culture is way bigger than the Second Amendment. On the topic of differences in worldviews between liberals and conservatives, J.C. Watts, former congressman from Oklahoma, said that Democrats in general believe people are born good, and when someone does something bad, something in society is to blame — in this case, guns. Republicans more often think when something bad happens, the fault is with the person — often because the person lacks morality, faith or is unstable. This explains why when there is a shooting, liberals blame guns and lack of regulation, and conservatives blame people. In the case of school shootings, we need to look at both.

Q: Did you find any of your own ideas or assumptions challenged?

A: I have spent my entire life living in blue states. I moved from one large blue city (New York City) to a smaller blue city (Northampton). Before working on this film, I could never understand why anyone besides a policeman or a hunter would want or need a gun. I will probably get kicked out of Northampton for saying this, but I did meet one principal in Ohio who I thought should have a gun. This principal was beyond distraught after Sandy Hook and could barely do her job. Her district was not arming its staff and is 30 minutes from the nearest police station. In an emotional interview, she told us how after Sandy Hook, she contacted officials in her state pleading, “Don’t leave me with nothing but a telephone to protect my students.”

This principal was a smart and dedicated administrator and had possessed a gun license for many years, and her district was not coming up with options. Kate would probably disagree with me on this, but I remember thinking after that interview, Just give the principal a gun. That woman needs to get on with her work being principal.

Q: Did any blue state/red state gaps get bridged?

A: People in Ohio were genuinely surprised that two women from Massachusetts wanted to make a film that looked at both sides of the issue. It would have been easier to make a film that either condemned or endorsed guns in our culture. We wanted to honestly document something very few people knew was happening. That meant listening and giving voice to the wide range of perspectives we found in Ohio.

I think bridges begin with common ground, and that wasn’t as hard to find as I thought. For instance, teachers on both sides of the issue agree that with the increase in standardized testing, there is barely any time to spend getting to know students beyond their test scores. This is important because teachers are often the ones to spot trouble before it spirals. Sidney marketing teacher Linda Carpenter, who is against the plan in her school, said, “We are data collectors basically. I don’t have time in the day to say, ‘How you doing? What’s going on with you?’ ” Wade New, middle school social studies teacher and armed responder, said, “With all of the new legislation and paperwork we’ve got to do, they’ve made the kids test takers. They’ve taken the things that we found important and shoved it to one side.”

Both sides also agree that there needs to be more mental health services in schools. School shootings aside — and schools are still considered the safest place your children can be — the bullying students experience on a daily basis, especially cyber-bullying, is getting worse.

In 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services, reported that more than 3 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, but the present ratio of students to counselors in many schools is a shocking 500 to 1, almost twice the national recommendation. A senior in a focus group of high school students told us she had no idea if their school even had a school psychologist.

Q: Would you talk about your Kickstarter campaign and local support for the film?

A: This was my third time running a Kickstarter campaign to fund a film. And while the last few days of the campaign were hugely stressful — you have to reach your stated goal by a certain date or else you don’t get a penny — friends and family from as near as our neighborhood to as far away as Australia pitched in, and we hit our goal of $20,000. We also received support from both the Massachusetts and Ohio Foundations for the Humanities, the Beveridge Family Foundation, and several local individuals.

Q: What’s next?

A: It took more time to find both broadcast and non-broadcast distribution for this film than any other film I have made in 30 years. Documentaries often take a strong stand on an issue, and while we could have gone in this direction, we didn’t. Some distributors balked at taking on a film that gives voice to both sides of this contentious issue. In the end, Bullfrog Films in Pennsylvania signed on to distribute nationally to the non-broadcast educational markets, and PBS WORLD Channel acquired “G is for Gun” to be in a national series called Local, USA.

Q: What led you to this project in the first place?

A: I started working in film in New York City in the ’80s working for MTV, various cable shows, and independent documentary producers. The first film I directed was about Mierle Ukeles, the official artist in residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation. Another early film I made was about Australian philosopher Peter Singer, often called the Martin Luther King of the animal rights movement. I used to say that my films generally fit into two categories: social issues and education. But the more I explore education (my last three films before “G is for Gun”), the more I see that education is one of our most pressing social issues.

Q: What are your hopes for the future of gun control? What are some steps people can take to be active in changing gun laws?

A: In terms of “gun control,” it has been suggested that we are more likely to move in the direction of common sense regulations if we begin by changing the words “gun control” to “gun safety.” Seventy-five percent of Americans are in favor of gun safety measures. Increasing the age limit for buying firearms, [doing] background checks, and banning bump stocks and assault rifles are steps most Americans would agree to.

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are my heroes. As teenagers, they did what no adult could do. They marched because they saw how ineffective politicians are when it comes to gun regulations, and they marched because, when you experience that level of trauma, it changes you forever. They carried signs like “I’ve Seen Smarter Cabinets at Ikea” and “Too Old to Create Change? Move Aside, We’ll Do It,” because they know that the key to change is the vote. 

And their voices were heard by businesses like Delta Air Lines, Walmart, and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Florida voted to ban bump stocks, have a three-day waiting period for all gun buyers, and raise the age limit for buying a gun to 21. Delta withdrew its discounts to NRA members. And Walmart and Dick’s announced they would discontinue selling assault-style rifles. If you had told me that Walmart would take a stand on something that could impact their sales, I would have said that will never happen. And it did. The kids did that.


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