Flowers, plush toys and wooden crosses are placed at a memorial dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 3, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
As another school year defined by mass shootings ends in America, Republican-led state legislatures passed measures this session to fortify schools, create guidelines for active shooter drills and safety officer responses, and allow teachers to be armed.
Firearm restrictions, however, were a nonstarter in red states trying to curb school shootings.
The legislation pushed by GOP lawmakers in states such as Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Utah this year often ran contrary to the advice of gun safety advocates and national education experts, who remain concerned that having more guns in schools only further endangers children and educators.
But the Republican lawmakers interviewed by Stateline say the solution to preventing school shootings is not banning certain weapons or taking away guns from potentially dangerous people, but rather empowering schools to more quickly respond to an active shooter.
A little over a week after three children and three adults were killed in a Nashville elementary school in late March, the Republican-controlled Tennessee legislature passed a wide-reaching school safety bill that did not include firearm restrictions.
The measure requires schools to keep exterior doors locked when students are present, mandates newly built public schools to install classroom door locks and requires private schools also to conduct active shooter drills, among other elements. (The Nashville shooter, who attacked a private school, shattered a pair of locked glass doors to get inside.)
The bill passed with bipartisan support in April, with only a handful of Democrats voting against it. Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed the measure. In May, he signed a budget bill that includes $230 million for all schools to have a school resource officer and allows schools to make security upgrades.
With armed personnel and properly secured school buildings, children in Tennessee will be safer, said Republican state Rep. Mark White, one of the bill’s sponsors and a former elementary school principal.
“I take it very seriously,” he said. “When you’re in the building with kids all day long, you fall in love with them, and you want to protect them.”
Hoping for a deterrent
Ensuring schools have armed personnel has been a common thread in the Republican-backed school safety laws this year.
Last month, a little over a year after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Republicans there passed a bill that requires an armed security guard at every school and compels school districts to adopt active shooter plans.
In Mississippi, teachers can now, with extensive training, carry guns in schools after the legislature passed a measure in March.
Republican state Sen. Jeff Tate, the legislation’s sponsor, argued that assailants target schools because there often is not armed security. He hopes his bill makes potential school shooters think twice.
“We need to make these people realize that, hey, look, there’s going to be a weapon if you go to the school,” Tate said. “That would deter these school shootings.”
Democratic state Sen. Rod Hickman, who voted against the measure because he thought it would make schools less safe, nonetheless wants to now focus on ensuring the state enforces robust training, not only for handling firearms but also to account for “implicit biases” that might prompt armed school personnel to view people of color as a greater threat.
“I hope that the proper steps are taken to create this program,” Hickman said, “but I ultimately don’t think this is the answer to protecting our students.”
Schools in the vast rural areas of Missouri wouldn’t have time to wait for law enforcement to respond to an active shooter, said Republican state Rep. Christina Dinkins. School officials need to react immediately to save lives, she said.
While teachers and administrators already are allowed to carry firearms if they are a school’s designated school protection officer — a position earned through a permit and state-mandated training — Dinkins, after being approached by a school district administrator, offered legislation to expand that role to any school personnel. That could include janitors, she said, who have keys to all the doors and know the ins and outs of the buildings.
“We’re just providing them with other avenues to make sure our children are safe, which is the ultimate goal,” Dinkins said. “You want the person who is most trained, most confident, most comfortable in that type of situation.”
The state House passed her bill in March; the legislative session has since ended.
More firearms in schools
Julie Hutchinson, a social worker for the Clark County, Nevada, school district, responded to the October 2017 mass shooting on the Las Vegas strip, helping people who were looking for loved ones and information after a gunman opened fire. Sixty people died and 413 others were wounded.
Hutchinson has continued to deal with gun issues, whether it’s helping the school district confront students who bring weapons to school or talking with her own children concerning the increased violence.
Having more guns in schools won’t help, she said.
“It would give a false sense of security,” Hutchinson said. “Is it really going to matter when it comes down to the actual moment?”
Many experts agree with her.
Two decades of academic literature shows a minimal association between having school resource officers or security professionals in the building and the prevention of school violence, said Justin Heinze, co-director of the National Center for School Safety, a training and technical assistance hub for implementing evidence-based safety programs in schools.
“There is very, very little to next to no data that supports having firearms within schools are going to make those buildings safer,” said Heinze, who also is an associate professor of public health at the University of Michigan.
He continued, “I do have concerns about introducing even more firearms in the building because there is almost certainly going to be an increase in firearm-related injury.”
As more students are exposed to school shootings and the overall number of shootings grows, there’s been a more urgent need for research regarding guns in schools, Heinze added.
Despite the high-profile nature of school shootings, schools are generally safe havens from gun violence, said Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy for the Giffords Law Center, a nonpartisan gun safety organization. This is largely because guns are mostly prohibited at schools, she said.
Arming teachers does not work, Anderman said.
“The idea that someone who’s protecting students and trying to keep them safe and calm is going to go and rush out and shoot an active shooter is just, it’s so absurd,” she said. “It’s very difficult to stop a homicidal person with an AR-15 and several high-capacity magazines.”
There are policies that can prevent school shootings, she said, including banning high-capacity magazines, implementing waiting periods of firearm purchases and expanding so-called red flag laws that take away firearms from people who may be a harm to themselves or others.
But that is a tough sell in some states.
Teachers need to be able to defend themselves and others in an active shooter situation, said Utah Republican state Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, who sponsored successful legislation this session that will waive the permitting fee for school employees to carry a concealed weapon in schools.
“It’s really important that we maintain the availability for individuals who are the good guys who are trying to protect and defend their lives and the lives of others to be able to carry,” she said. “I don’t think it’s helpful to take guns away from everybody or to try to implement extreme gun control measures.”
She also sponsored legislation this session that empowered school resource officers to refer students to judges for violence and weapons offenses on campus. She supported another bill that created a state position in charge of setting standards for school resource officers. Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed all three measures into law in March.
In Tennessee, the legislature is not done with addressing gun violence.
Lee, the GOP governor, called for a special session in August in hopes of implementing a red flag law. Gun safety experts argued the Nashville shooting may have been prevented if the state had a law that allowed a court to seize firearms from people who may harm themselves or others.
White and other Republican legislators will meet with the governor over the coming months to draft a bill that would prevent “innocent people” from having their firearms confiscated under a red flag law, he said.
Gun rights advocates often argue red flag laws violate gun owners’ due process privileges, since judges in some states can temporarily sign off on an extreme risk protection order without hearing from the targeted individual in emergency situations. Gun safety advocates counter that those individuals can eventually present evidence in their defense.
“We can do what’s right for all people,” White said. “Not only protect our children and law-abiding gun owners, but also address those who have mental issues, or those who are just outright criminals. That’s the needle we have to thread right now.”
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