POLITICS
03/18/2013 08:20 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2013

PTA On Gun Control: President Betsy Landers Becomes Unlikely Advocate For Assault Weapons Ban

WASHINGTON -- Betsy Landers, the Arkansas-born Republican president of the National Parent Teacher Association, wears a fire-engine red suit with a chipped Sandy Hook memorial lapel pin as she takes the stage at a town hall meeting on school safety in Alexandria, Va. With a strong Southern drawl, she tells nearly 300 PTA leaders from around the country about three school safety policies they will ask their representatives in Congress to support on Capitol Hill the following day: a ban on assault weapons, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and comprehensive gun-purchase background checks.

The PTA, a nonpartisan, largely nonpolitical child advocacy association with a diverse constituency, does not usually wade into debates over divisive political issues outside of education policy. But Landers, who has a closet full of hunting guns in her Memphis, Tenn., home, has emerged as an ally in the Obama administration's gun control agenda, which may come in handy in certain pro-gun states.

"I'm more effective in the South, let's be real," Landers told The Huffington Post outside the PTA conference last week. "Although the Southern accent can really charm people no matter where I am. Part of advocacy is meeting people where they are and knowing their concerns, and of course I understand [the gun debate] from a different perspective. I grew up around guns and am comfortable with having a shotgun or a .22 in the house for hunting purposes. It's that connection piece, followed by the education piece, that makes a good advocate."

Landers and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plan to speak at town hall meetings across the country to talk to parents about school safety, including guns and mental health policy. Landers and PTA lobbyists also sat in on closed-door meetings with Vice President Joe Biden and members of Congress to give input on gun control legislation. The PTA recently endorsed Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) proposed ban on semi-automatic weapons and is working with Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), the head of the House task force on gun violence prevention, to move similar legislation in the House.

"She is very effective, and the PTA is very effective," Thompson said of Landers in a phone interview. "There are some Democrats in tough areas that may experience initial pushback on gun violence prevention issues, and the PTA will be particularly helpful there. It's a function of the communities and the home districts demanding that their member of Congress do something."

Part of Landers' effectiveness is understanding how to craft a message about guns that doesn't alienate people in gun states. For instance, she carefully avoids the term "gun control."

"It's not a message about gun control," Landers said. "It's about protecting our children. In working with the administration, the message is about gun safety and violence prevention, with the violence prevention being, for me, the part we need to concentrate on. It's about educating families and communities about how can we prevent a tragedy like Newtown from happening in our schools."

While the PTA's views on guns are nothing new -- it has held the same position since 1999 -- the Newtown massacre has brought the organization's advocacy efforts to national attention. Landers speaks quietly and with difficulty when she discusses Sandy Hook Elementary, where she has been closely involved with the local PTA and parents since the shooting.

"Did it strengthen my resolve? The resolve's always been there, but it crystalized it even more," Landers said. "I've watched those parents go through those things. Nobody should have to kiss their child goodbye and send them off to school never to see them again. And if banning assault weapons, making sure that everybody who buys a gun has a background check, if banning all those will keep even one child safe, then it's worth doing all we can do to make sure that happens. And that's not saying that my brother can't go duck hunting next fall. Entirely different."

Landers said she knows that the PTA's support for an assault weapons ban and opposition to armed guards in schools won't be popular among all PTA constituents and that those policies face tough opposition in Congress. But she also understands from her 23 years of being active in the PTA that a gun safety overhaul isn't going to come from Congress. It's going to come from communities demanding it.

She knows firsthand the power of grassroots advocacy. After working as a secretary in Arkansas for then-Gov. Bill Clinton's administration, Landers moved her young children to a new school in Memphis in the early 1990s. She noticed that they had to cross a dangerous intersection to get to school with neither a traffic light nor a crossing guard.

"I went to a PTA advocacy class about basic advocacy, and they gave us a CD and some material about how to build an advocacy plan," she said. "We worked this plan, we visited with school board members, talked to county commissioners, talked to the realtors who had a financial interest in the safety of our schools. We ended up getting not only a crossing guard, we got the lights. So it worked. And I was hooked ever after."

Now, Landers and the PTA have become power players in the national debate over gun violence prevention. Just one phone call from Landers on the weekend of the Sandy Hook shooting inspired people from around the world to send more than 1 million homemade snowflakes and more than $750,000 in donations to the victims' families. Landers said she plans to use the same local networks to inspire the PTA's 5 million members to call their congressional representatives.

"I don't think you can ever move the needle inside the Beltway," she said. "It has to come from a local community. Our PTA leaders will go home after this conference and they'll spread the word, and it doesn't take long. We hit the network, we send out an alert, and we can instantaneously send 2,200 phone calls to Congress in a matter of a day. Our network is incredible."

A transcript of the rest of Landers' interview with The Huffington Post is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I know you grew up in a small town in the South. Are you from a big gun family, and how does that inform your gun safety advocacy?

I grew up in Arkansas on a farm. My dad's a farmer, and my family has always been hunters, whether it be deer hunting or duck hunting, but everybody, including my sons. That's what I'm very familiar with. As someone who is very supportive of the Second Amendment, very supportive of a hunter being able to hunt, I have an issue with assault weapons. I don't get it, particularly when you're talking about the sport of hunting. I have a hard time understanding why a hunter needs the same type of weaponry you would on a battlefield.

I think that's a message I can deliver not just as an individual, as a mom, but also from the perspective of the PTA. We very much support the Second Amendment, but like the other rights given to us in the Constitution, it needs guidelines. It needs some definition. Our right to bear arms in this country, and I know there's a lot of argument about how it was originally envisioned by the writers of the Constitution and how it is today, but as an organization and an individual, I don't see the difficulty in having both the Second Amendment and gun safety laws.

PTA's opposition to armed guards in schools recently softened to allow local communities to decide for themselves. What is the reasoning behind that?

The optimum education environment is a gun-free school, for sure. But knowing the challenges on the local level, we defer to the community that knows their environment the best to decide for themselves about having armed resource officers. Where we really truly advocate is that they be professional, that they be trained law enforcement. It's an expansion, it's our membership realizing in many of our states they're bound by state law to have armed school resource officers in their schools. When you represent 5 million members around the world, you have to be representative of everyone, whether you live in Washington state or Arkansas or Florida. It's really important that the local community play a part in this decision making. In Sandy Hook, their desire for no guns is absolutely understandable, but each school knows their community better. It's really taking our belief that a gun-free zone is the best possible choice for a school environment for our kids, but supporting the fact that our parents have to decide for themselves.

I think from the applause [at the convention] today, our membership has real concerns with arming our school personnel. We're always listening; we're not your mother's PTA anymore. We're willing to move forward with the backing of our membership to be their voice.

PTA has a very diverse constituency. Have you received any pushback from your members over your support for these gun restrictions?

I think our membership will bring their concerns, and we definitely listen to that, but this is a position we've had since 1999. School safety is something that we have done almost our entire existence. We are constantly listening to our membership, and they have expressed where they are as states and where they are as a constituency. But were they angry and upset? No, they weren't. Were they seeking support and greater information? Absolutely, but that's what we train and encourage them to do.

In what capacity are you working with the Obama administration to advocate for gun control?

It's not a message about gun control. It's about protecting our children. In working with the administration, the message is about gun safety and violence prevention, with the violence prevention being, for me, the part we need to concentrate on. It's about educating families and communities about how can we prevent a tragedy like Newtown from happening in our schools. It's having the professionals in the building, helping to support our teachers to know the signs and symptoms of a child in trouble, and having the support there to get that child help. It's educating parents that every school in this country has a crisis management plan, but do you know where it is and do you know what it is? In the wake of Sandy Hook, even knowing what the procedure is after. Where would you meet your children? How do you find that information? This is not just one focus.

How are you working with members of Congress to get these bills passed?

We commented favorably on Senator Feinstein's bill. We're aware of the bills, and we will commend them, and we are very bipartisan in our approach. It's not about who does it, it's about what it is. Our staff are incredibly well connected, they work it very well. We're on top of what's coming out and coming down. Oftentimes we are contacted and asked for our input. That happens more often than people probably realize.

Does the assault weapons ban have a chance of passing? Do you think the PTA's endorsement makes a difference?

I think PTA's endorsement is very critical. We are the voice of the voters. We're 5 million strong, we're the people on the ground and in the communities, and the message we're trying to deliver about a comprehensive approach is extremely important. I don't think you can ever move the needle inside the Beltway, it has to come from a local community. Our PTA leaders will go home after this conference and they'll spread the word, and it doesn't take long. We hit the network, we send out an alert, and we can instantaneously send 2,200 phone calls to Congress in a matter of a day. Our network is incredible.

You're a registered Republican living in a red state. At home in Memphis, do you get into arguments with your family and friends on the gun issue?

I've had numerous discussions on a personal level with my son -- my oldest is 33, the hunter. It has come up with schools when I've visited. But I'm really truly about educating people and trying to blow the myths apart, the myth that the Second Amendment-- we support the Second Amendment as an association. Guns for hunting are entirely different than assault weapons. Do they both still kill? Absolutely. But there's a huge difference between hunting with a rifle and an assault weapons. For a hunter to go hunting with an assault rifle, I'm sorry, I don't get it. My personal beliefs parallel that. I try not to get into arguments over things like that. Everybody has closely held views, and people say, "Don't take my guns." As an advocate, my intent is not to take your guns. My intent is to protect children. No child in this country should have to go through what happened at Sandy Hook.

How did you go from advocating for a crosswalk to becoming president of the PTA?

The first time I was asked to step up and secretary [of a local chapter], I signed up, because I had been a secretary professionally, an administrative assistant. I can do shorthand and I can type. When they came and said, 'We want you to be president,' I said never. I could never stand at a podium and speak in front of people, no. I could never do that. And it just proves you should never say never. Because here I sit.

Has it gotten easier? I still get nervous. I think the day I quit being nervous is the day I quit doing it. But I'll always be an advocate. This association makes such a difference. They're so committed, every one of our members. They work quietly, they work behind the scenes. They sit in budget meetings every year when the school system's trying to decide what to do, they make phone calls, they visit district offices when their congressional delegation is at home, they work constantly. They're not great about saying, 'This is what we've done.' But trust me when I tell you they've changed the face of this country.

Has Sandy Hook changed the way you view your job and your advocacy?

Every loss of a child does. But it did, because the country became quickly focused on it, as they should. And then within a couple months, we had other shootings. No part of this country has been unscathed, no demographic has been avoided. The fact that we lose a child under the age of 18 every day in the city of Chicago -- this shouldn't happen in this country. Sandy Hook brought this into focus for a lot of people. To have it happen in school the way it happened -- I was at home when the news hit that there had been a shooting. They weren't sure if anyone had been killed, it was still evolving. I picked up the phone and called Jim, the state president, and said, 'Jim, whatever you need, all you have to do is call me.' And there have been so many phone calls since then. I told him I need a new pin, my pin is chipped, I wear it every day.

So did it strengthen my resolve? the resolve's always been there, but it crystalized it even more.

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