Minnesota U.S. Rep. Phillips calls for armed guards in schools after Nashville shooting

A man sits in a U.S. Congress meeting room, listening.
Rep. Dean Phillips recognized he is an outlier among Democrats in calling for armed security at schools ”to provide a modicum of safety to our children” after a school shooting in Nashville on Monday. But he said he is skeptical that much else can be done in the Republican-led House without significant public pressure.
Kevin Dietsch-Pool | Getty Images

Skeptical that much else could be done in the Republican-led House to curb school shootings, Minnesota U.S. Representative Dean Phillips is calling for armed security guards at all schools.

“I might be an outlier on this as a Democrat, but in the near term, I'm becoming of the opinion that we must ensure that there is an armed security officer at every school possible in America right now,” he told All Things Considered host Tom Crann, two days after a shooter killed three 9-year-olds and three adults at a school in Nashville. “It is one of the few actionable, bipartisan – I'd like to think – measures we can take in the near term to at least provide a modicum of safety to our children.” 

Phillips also called on Americans to mobilize and demand action.

“There's a very small Republican majority in the House that, as of this moment, does not seem inclined to do anything. That's why my call is to America's better angels – on both sides of the aisle, but particularly conservatives,” he said. “There is a solution that does not mean taking everybody's gun. That is not the point. It is to take guns of mass destruction off the street,” referring to AR-15-style rifles.

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President Joe Biden again called for a ban on assault weapons this week. Phillips said he doesn’t believe his Republican colleagues in the House have an appetite for the ban. He said there is bipartisan support for a universal background check bill, but he doesn’t expect House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would bring it to the floor.

Minnesota U.S. Representative Tom Emmer this week told KNSI in St. Cloud that the president shouldn’t be using the tragedy to “jump on his broken soapbox.” He added that “all of us should send our prayers and our hearts to these families.” 

Emmer did not respond to an interview request from MPR News.

On the steps of the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, Minnesota U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar joined other Democrats in the House to call on Republicans to act.

“Why is it that when it comes to guns, Republicans throw their hands up and say, ‘We can’t do anything. Let’s continue to pray?’” she said. “As a person of faith, I believe in prayer. But we are also asked by God to take action.”

Hear the full interview with Rep. Phillips using the audio player above, or read a transcript of it below. Both have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Do you see a path forward here for any kind of gun legislation, or are both sides just as entrenched as the soundbites suggest?

Well, Tom, I'm an eternal optimist, as you know, but I'm dismayed. And I want to just express how incredulous I am about what our nation is enduring – the fact that we send men to the moon and back, we spend $900 billion a year on national security and yet, since Columbine in 1999, we have seen an epidemic of gun violence that kills children in schools. And for those who are dismayed by their state legislatures and their Congress about the inactivity, let me tell you, I understand and I empathize. 

And to answer your question directly: Yes, there's a path forward but that path requires voters, constituents, Americans to put pressure on their members of Congress, myself included, to get something done. 

And I have to say, in this case, there are a number of willing Democrats who are willing to pass background checks, which 90 percent of our country favors. We need pressure on my colleagues across the aisle, who have been clinging to the Second Amendment as a hall pass to kill children in schools. I just ask the people listening – thoughtful, decent people, gun owners, amongst whom I'm one – start putting pressure on those in decision-making positions to do something. 

And Tom, I should tell you also, I just had a meeting with principals from Minnesota schools in my office here in Washington. I asked them the specific question: What do you want to see us do? They said there's a significant and growing emotional health crisis in our country, specifically amongst young people. We need to make investments on a bipartisan basis to provide better mental health, emotional health services to our children. 

And I might be an outlier on this as a Democrat, but in the near term, I'm becoming of the opinion that we must ensure that there is an armed security officer at every school possible in America right now. It is one of the few actionable, bipartisan – I'd like to think – measures we can take in the near term to at least provide a modicum of safety to our children, and particularly relieve some of the horrifying burdens that parents are feeling every single morning when they send their kids to school. 

And lastly, let me say this: To those who argue that the real problem in America is that we don't have enough guns, let me tell you that if guns were an indicator of safety, America would be the very safest nation in the world. And the sad truth is, we've become one of the most dangerous countries in the developed world. And it's time to do something. I'm sick of thoughts and prayers, it's time to act. 

The President is again calling for a ban on assault-style weapons, and he says mass shootings went down during a previous ban. So would you support that? 

I do. And I'm a gun owner. I don't endeavor to take Americans guns away. 

What's your argument to Republicans who say that that's what's going on when it comes to an assault weapon ban? 

Not true. It's mischaracterizing it and it's, frankly, dangerous and completely misleading. That is not what Democrats endeavor to do. A growing number of Americans recognize that we are one of the few developed nations in the world that allow weapons of war on our streets. And if we wish for America to become those very countries that we look around the globe in dismay about relative to violence, then we're walking down that path very fast right now. And if we don't at least consider that, shame on us.

We banned automatic weapons in the 1930s after a rash of violence. We banned certain handguns and made much more stringent regulations relative to them after political violence in the 1960s. Our constitution, to me, it's quite clear: It does afford the right to Americans to own firearms, however, we can regulate that. 

Can you imagine any of your Republican colleagues getting behind that today?

There's a very small Republican majority in the House that, as of this moment, does not seem inclined to do anything. That's why my call is to America's better angels – on both sides of the aisle, but particularly conservatives. There is a solution that does not mean taking everybody's gun. That is not the point. It is to take guns of mass destruction off the street, especially in the hands of adolescents and [young adults]. 

I just don't see how we can endure and tolerate such a misguided policy that is claiming so many lives in this country. 

Others have said that it's not the weapon, it's mental health issues. The shooter in Nashville was suffering from what has been termed “an emotional disorder.” And the first gun safety law in some 30 years that was passed last year did address that with some money. But I wonder is it time for for more money or different research?

Mental health and emotional health are challenges in every country in the entire world. What is unique about ours Is that we're the only one that is tolerating these mass shootings almost every week – every single week. So when you match these two challenges — emotional health challenges with easy access to literal weapons of war — who in their right minds would think we're going to have any other outcome than what we're seeing every single day right now? 

So two things can be true at once. We need much better mental health access and emotional health support, I do believe we need to ensure better security at schools, and we must consider taking these weapons of war off of our streets. Americans have to act. Conversations are great. Criticisms are sometimes even helpful. But mobilization is required. We're seeing it around the world right now, in Israel, in Germany and France. People are rising up in the streets to demonstrate to their elected leaders how they feel about policy. I think it's high time that we unify in this country and get our act together. 

As a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, what are you and your colleagues going to be doing in the coming weeks to attempt to solve some aspects of what some feel is an insoluble problem? 

Let me start with the lowest-hanging fruit. That is universal background checks. Ninety percent of Americans want them — Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians, Independents and unaffiliated Americans. The lead of the universal background check bill is none other than Brian Fitzpatrick, who is a Republican co-chair of the Problem Solvers caucus, along with Mike Thompson, the Democratic lead on that bill.

We have support, I believe, but we have a speaker of the House right now who I do not anticipate will bring that bill to the floor, which means we need to mobilize in other ways and encourage thoughtful leaders both here in Washington and around the country to at least identify solutions, rather than simply offering prayers that clearly are not working.